BANGALORE: It is a fact well known to the average South Indian that the only thing worse than being at the receiving end of an abbeyaaar in public, is negotiating with an auto driver in Tamil Nadu, and specifically the subset in Chennai.
The one true love-hate relationship of my life has been with the city of Chennai, or Madras as sane people know it. During the couple of years I stayed there, I found the people to be generous and kind, and despite an unfortunate proclivity towards curd rice, excellent company as well. At this point, I want you to know that this feeling did not extend to those khaki-wearing guys I found roaming around the city on three wheels.
About a month after I moved there, I took up a place, just off Mount Road, not too far from office. Having settled in comfortably, I woke up in the best of spirits the next morning and hailed an auto. An auto with a youngish driver stopped in front of me. I must mention here that at this point in time my Tamil was very infantile, only slightly better than my Bantu or Arabic. Words I knew included kaadhalan, and roja and Thevar Magan.
Now, this enterprising young man had figured out that I had not done a thesis in Sangam poetry, and probably was new to the place. So naturally he had no qualms about trying to rip me off. I clarified as best as I could that I did not want to go till Coimbatore, and merely wanted a drop to a place that was about six kilometres away. He nodded sympathetically and said:
Seeing that there was nothing more to be done, I told him to buzz off. He became more understanding and reduced his price to 200.
“Saar, final!” he warned me. I did not relent.
He buzzed off.
I quietly patted myself on the back and called another auto.
“250”, said the bearded driver. I negotiated till 215 and gave up. There’s more than one fish in the pond, I reminded myself. I decided to wait.
Now, the other thing I can’t stand about the city is its ability to turn itself into an oven from 9am to 7pm.
(After seven, I believe it goes back to simmer. Except in April-May, when it turns into a giant ball of fire and consumes everyone). My watch showed the time to be 9.15 am, and slowly, I felt my not inconsiderable fat layer start burning under my skin. I needed refuge fast. Naturally, there was not a tree in sight. By the time it was 9:30, I was panicking quite a lot and sweating even more profusely. I decided to swallow my pride and take the next auto no matter what the price.
The next chap took one look at me and said “230”. I opened my mouth in protest, and a vision flashed before me. It was Malayala Manorama reporting that a young Malayali engineer’s skeleton was found on Mount Road. I shut my mouth, smiled understandingly, and got into the auto. The next day I took a bus to work. The day after that I missed the bus and negotiated a trip of 180 bucks. In a month, I was travelling at `120.
A few months ago, I read that autos in Chennai have this new-fangled contraption called a “meter” fixed on them, and apparently in working order. With the resigned air of a Vietnam veteran, I refused to believe in such nonsense. One day I intend to do that trip again, and hopefully on meter. If that miracle ever happens, I shall be sure to report it to you.
(Hrishikesh Varma blogs at hvrhome.blogspot.com)