For this Diwali, I have decided that one gift and only that one will do. There are things that I desire. The kundan set from Anmol Jewellers with giant uncut diamonds will look great with my Kanjivarams. Christian Louboutin’s Love shoes will almost make me forget my ankle ache. Clive Christian’s No. 1 perfume with ylang-ylang, sandalwood and bergamot fits all my olfactory requirements, but at $2,150 (around Rs1 lakh) an ounce, I cannot afford it. I’ve been swooning over Arne Jacobsen’s Swan Chair for a decade but it won’t match my brass urli (large pot). I am quite prepared to plonk down Rs15,000 for Hundred Acres’ single-estate Cabernet Sauvignon but the waiting list is five years. A pink macaroon from Ladurée would be divine, but who wants to go to Paris for this? As for the Tesla Roadster that has my name written on it, I’ve come to accept the bitter fact that it is—and will always remain—a fantasy.
Three-wheel inspiration: (clockwise from top left) Autorickshaw pillow case from Play Clan, New Delhi; a customized Bollywood poster featuring tourists Dave and Jenny; and artist Jitish Kallat’s sculpture Autosaurus Tripous.
So this Diwali, I want something that is quintessentially Indian, completely stylish and extremely functional. I want an autorickshaw. I am not being facetious. I’ve always wanted an auto. It is unusual and fits my personality: slightly wobbly, erratic, excitable and has a high tolerance for a large number of schoolchildren. That’s me. I think I look like an auto too, but that may just be hero-worship.
My hero in this matter is Raj Kumar Kaushal, an autorickshaw driver in Indore, who has customized his rickshaw to include a telephone, television, a DVD player, chilled drinks and daily newspapers. I saw a Reuters clip on him and have been trying to get his mobile number since.
So I went on all the forums where I lurk and posted a query about how to buy a second-hand rickshaw. “Will you pimp it?” asked someone in reply. It took me a while to figure out what he meant but I said, No. Most definitely not. I would not hire out my personal rickshaw to make money. I would colour it blue and ride it down the Grand Trunk Road like the three Western brothers did. If you go to Eagarbros.com, you will see three American brothers who bought an auto and rode it through India.
Here is why I like ricks. They are not an aspirational vehicle. Most people who own them or ride them want to get the hell out of them; which, if you are one of those contrarian, weird people like me, is a true compliment. You want what others don’t want. Worse, you revel in the things people hate. Art students are this way. You tell them that they are the “dregs of society”, and they will drop some more acid and nod approvingly. I used to be this way. Except that I, like Clinton, didn’t inhale.
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An auto, for all those considering buying it, costs around Rs1.5 lakh for the base model. Contrary to popular belief, it can be bought and privately owned, albeit after a torturous amount of red tape. First, you have to explain to the government johnnies why you are buying a commercial vehicle. It helps if you have some sort of handicap that makes driving a rick necessary. A squint, for instance, makes the curved windshield an advantage. Or so you can argue.
The simplest thing is to bribe an auto driver and borrow his rick for a few hours. My brother and I did that once—a long and complicated process where we cultivated a relationship with a driver named Ethiraj. Finally, on an auspicious day, my brother spoke in Kannada and offered Rs1,000 for the pleasure of his vehicle’s company for exactly 3 hours. We promised solemnly that we would only drive his vehicle up and down our road and not on main roads where the vehicle’s true owner, a seth, could spot us. Then, we ceremoniously brought our auto down into our building’s basement garage. You should have seen the amount of flak we got. My neighbours, who had, until then, been models of egalitarianism and kindness, roundly ticked us off and told us that we were bringing the building’s value down by parking piddling vehicles in a garage that was meant for better ones. That stung. That really stung. Tell me, I felt like telling them, which vehicle is better suited to Indian roads than an auto. I knew the answer: a bullock cart, but that doesn’t mean we all drive them.
Driving an auto in Bangalore offers many pleasures. You can weave in and out of traffic with insouciance. Expensive cars give you a wide berth. People stare agog at you but that may have just been me—a woman driving a rick. There is only one slight disadvantage to driving an auto: For some reason, people keep flagging you down. You are racing down the street and all of a sudden a body will materialize from behind a car and try to stop you. During my auto escapade, there were three ladies and I was so worried I would hit them that I screeched to a halt in front of them.
“Bannerghatta bartheera (Will you go to Bannerghatta)?” they asked without blinking. This is the beauty about autos. I mean, there I was, a full-blown woman, sitting in the driver’s seat of an auto, with no uniform, wearing a candy-pink salwar-kameez for crying out loud. And the ladies didn’t see anything incongruous in the situation. They were just so relieved at having an auto stop that they simply blurted out their destination.
So I did what auto drivers always do to me in such a situation. I looked away, shook my head without explanation and took off.
Shoba Narayan is in the market for a blue rickshaw. She will call it Atlas Shrugged. Write to her at email@example.com