I was an avid autorickshaw user when I used to live in Delhi. As market segmentation goes, autorickshaws sit somewhere between taxis and personal vehicles on one side and buses on the other side.  I couldn’t afford to have my own car and I was too posh to travel in buses.  So either I walked it or took the autorickshaw. I have had some of my  best experiences in autorickshaws and it is a way of discovering a city, and through it a country, like no other. Using an autorickshaw is a complex affair and it starts from the moment you decide that you want to hail one and it only ends when you reach your destination and paid your money. Between these two, anything can happen really.It is also your daily dose of negotiation, emotional blackmailing and threatening.

Autorickshaws in Delhi are notorious for not using fare meters and so for every trip fares are set  arbitrarily. They have a million reasons for not using the meter – it is raining so it is not working, it is too hot or too cold, the meter fare does not pay for my living expenses etc etc. It is not uncommon to get a breakdown of their income vs expenses and an analysis of how by using the meter they are sinking towards the poverty line. Once, the traffic police setup a helpline to report autorickshaw drivers who weren’t using their meter. I remember one day going through two autorickshaw stands and reporting about twenty cases to the helpline. I don’t know if they ever got fined, but I certainly got boycotted by them and they refused to even talk to me for the next two weeks.

Autorickshaws are also a good barometer of the state of urban infrastructure in the city and the differences across different neighbourhoods. Because they run on these tiny wheels and have no suspension to speak of, every little pothole feels like a ditch. So it is easy for me compare the state of the roads across different parts of the city. From what I remember, the state of roads in Lutyens Delhi all the way to Connaught Place were the best. The interior of autorickshaws sometimes makes for interesting reading. Usually the more interesting and done up ones are self-owned and the bare ones are on rent. The interiors usually have pictures of Gods and Goddesses, actors and actresses, family pictures, lots of mirrors and in some cases a full music system.

Autorickshaw drivers are some of the finest conversationalists I have come across. There is a lot of talk in Delhi but very little conversation. Once the rate is set and the journey is decided then it is time for the real conversation.  The drivers usually don’t start a conversation and it is usually me who starts to ask questions. If the auto has interesting pictures I ask them about that and one thing leads to another. Or I ask about where they are from, where do they live, about their family and how much do they manage to save etc. This time when I was in Delhi I used the auto twice and it was more out of the need for the conversation rather than needing a mode of transport.

First time I used the auto was at 3 am in the morning in front of a popular night club on a Monday night/Tuesday morning. It was biting cold and the night club was getting very boring. My most interesting conversations so far had been with the security guards and the bouncers. So when I finally decided to leave the nightclub I had to take an autorickshaw home. We first agreed on a rate and this time I only did some obligatory bargaining so he doesn’t feel that he could have asked for more. Then we talked about the night club scene in Delhi and which ones are the better ones and why. He asked if I drink and then he offered me some foul smelling thing which I declined. He then asked me why was I single and why didn’t I pick someone up from the nightclub, which prompted my question is that what people usually do here ? Then we talked about metro constructions and if that will affect his business.

Second time, was for a short duration and it was to go to a school reunion. This time the conversation was more interesting. The driver was from Purnea, Bihar and he was talking about how he is going to leave Delhi soon and go back to his land and business back there. He talked about how he makes 200Rs a day (after paying for rent and petrol) and from that he feeds his family and over the years has also managed to buy some land in his village. He said that he didn’t like Delhi, what with the pollution and all the hassles. We also spoke about the Purnea literary scene and he told me about a famous detective novels writer whose name I have now forgotten.  We spoke about Nitish and the difference he is making to governance in Bihar.