“Bye Amma (Mom)”
“Bye da kanna (dear), take care and call me when you reach”
“Sure. Now you please go back inside.”
“Poren poren (Yaa, I’m going!). Remember to eat regularly!”
“Auto”, I call out to the 2 auto rickshaws idling on the opposite side of the road.
“Enge saar ponum? (Where to, sir?)”
“Central” I say, indicating the railway station’s my destination. There are 2 railway stations for inter-city trains in Chennai – Central, for north-bound trains and Egmore, for south-bounds.
“Polaam vaanga (Let’s go)”
“Evlo (How much)?”
“200 saar (200 Rupees, sir)”
I start walking.
“evlo saar tharuveenga (how much will you give)?”
“150”, I say and stop for the briefest moment.
“150 laam velaikkaavaathu… 180 kudunga polaam (150 is too less, give me at least 180)”
I start walking faster, keeping my eardrums open just in case I hear a 165-ish number. Instead, loud and irritated sonic waves come crashing down.
“Petrol vela ellaam epdi irukkunnu theriyumla. 180 than fix rate. Athuku keezha evanum vara maataan (You know the petrol price, right? Nobody will take you for less than 180)”.
This is followed by some low-amplitude profanities muttered under the breath, confirming this deal’s off and I need to look for a fresh one now.
One auto passes by, and then another, but they’re all occupied. I keep walking while my mind goes about picturing a stupid me going back to the 180 guy with a sheepish grin. The very thought of seeing the “I told you so!” look on the driver’s face makes me wince. I see an empty auto and put out my hand to stop him, praying to be 3rd time lucky. He doesn’t notice and crosses me.
“Shit”, I think and “AUTO”, I shout.
The 3-wheeler screeches to a halt, catching the biker behind him by surprise who, in a display of awesome reaction-time does a hard-braking skid. I watch first in horror and then in relief as the biker manages to bring his machine to a grinding stop within an inch of what could’ve been a dirty kiss between the mud-guards of the 2 vehicles.
Biker: “Yow! Enna ya otra? (What the hell are you doing)?”
Auto driver: “Side-la vandi. Athaan oram katta mudila. Onnum aavaliye? (Vehicle parked nearby, couldn’t help it. Are you ok?)
The biker, relieved he didn’t have to end up in the garage or worse, the hospital, mumbles some harmless obscenities and moves on.
The auto takes a U-turn, comes and stops beside me. The driver has a ? written on his face, which I interpret as “Enge? (Where to?)”
“150”, pat comes the response.
For a second I become immobile, unable to believe what I heard. The next instant I throw my bag in and climb on, determined to latch on to the lottery before lady luck chooses another passenger to smile on.
To double-confirm the fee, lest the guy asks more money at the destination, I ask “150 thane? Noothi ambadhu”, stressing the number in the native language to ensure I’d heard him right.
“Aamaa saar (Yes sir)”, he says.
” Naa ennikkum correct rate than saar keppen”, he continues. “Athaan neenga kooda ketta udane ukkaanthuteenga.” (I always ask the correct rate. That’s why you sat in immediately.)
The sheepish grin now becomes a reality, as I admonish myself silently for rushing into the Auto. I glance at the rear view mirror and take in the driver’s appearance – thin body; long hair tied into a smallish bun; unkempt, 6-inch long beard that looks like a poor man’s Osama; lump in left cheek where tobacco leaves are getting churned. The most disturbing sight however is the combination of a coin-sized pottu (forehead decoration) and a Saffron-colored dhoti that reminds me of Hindu extremist groups.
Incidentally, we pass my favorite Ganesh temple right then, and I find myself turning automatically to bow before the lord. The driver doesn’t seem to have noticed the temple even though it’s hard to miss, thanks to a big gopuram (tower). “Hmm… maybe he’s not a Hindu fanatic after all”, I weakly try to calm my hyperactive nervous system.
Meanwhile the auto moves on normally, with a sharp swerve to the left to avoid that latest rain-created pothole and then an equally sharp right swerve that helps barely miss a pedestrian who’s busy whispering sweet nothings into his mobile while crossing the road. What would normally have resulted in a “Ootla soltu vantiya? (Have you told your folks you won’t come back home today?)” shout followed by the choicest of abuses that’d bring down the guy’s whole family to the street only elicits a smile and a hand gesture indicating “What the hell?” from the saffron guy. I’m disappointed – my hindu fanatic theory is going nowhere.
The traffic light at the end of the road turns red and the auto comes to a halt right near a gap in the median, so we can shoot ahead on the wrong-side the moment red turns green. Thankfully, no screeches this time.
“Enaku 56 vayasu, nambuveengalaa? (I’m 56 years old, would you believe?)”, the automan snaps me back to reality, attempting small talk.
“Apdiyaa? Theriyave illa (Is it? Doesn’t look like it)”, I respond with as much incredulity in my voice as I can muster. He glances at me through the rear-view mirror just in time to catch the look on my face.
Seemingly satisfied with the (faked) sincerity on display, he goes on…
“Naa oru muslim saar, aana iyer ponna kalyaanam pannikiten. Kalyaanathukapram urdu padikavo pesavo koodaathunnu maamanaar sathyam vaangikitaaru. Athaan intha pottu, veshti ellaam – iyeraave maariten (I’m a muslim, but I married a Hindu brahmin girl. My father-in-law asked me to give up reading and speaking Urdu. That’s why the forehead decoration and the dhoti – I’m a Hindu brahmin now)”
“Naa yezhaam class varaikum thaan padichuruken (I’ve studied upto the 7th grade only)”. A smile appears on his pockmarked face and he briefly looks back at me.
“Is that pride I saw on his face?”, I silently wonder, trying to reason out how a 7th grade could quite possibly be a badge of honor in his ghetto.
“Enaku rendu pasanga. Neenga kooda yen payyan vayasu than irupeenga.” (I have 2 sons. You would be of their age.)
“Apdiya (Is it?)”, I find myself smiling.
“Enna panraanga pasanga? (What are your sons doing?)”, I ask.
“Oruthan engineering mudika poraan, innoruthan medical (One’s about to finish his engineering course and the other one’s studying medicine)”
“Kalakareenga ponga! (Wow!)”, I say in true admiration, the reason for the pride in his eyes hitting home.
“Ithu unga sontha auto-va illa vaadagayaa? (Is this your own vehicle or have you rented it?)”, I ask, trying to figure out how he’s able to afford the exhorbitant fees of his childrens’ education.
“Aamaa, 30 varushamaa auto otren naanu (Yes. I’ve been driving for the past 30 years)”, he confirms.
“Enna TV-la paathurupeenga, naa stunt ellaam pannuven (You might’ve seen me on TV, I’m a stuntman)”
“Naa yoga pannuven. Assaaltaa kaala thooki mudhugu mela poduven. Intha vayasula kooda naalu pera easy-a adchuduven” (I do yoga. I can easily put my leg around my back. Even at this age, I can beat up 4 guys at the same time).”
Again I find myself smiling as my mind goes about its job of visualizing his frail body doing multiple somersaults in mid-air, sending 4 bulky rogues flying in different directions.
“Semippu than ellaam, enna puriyudhaa? Enna thozhil pannaalum, athula varratha semichaa vaazhkai-la oru prachanaiyum varaathu (It’s all about saving money, get it? Whatever work you do, if you save, you won’t face a problem in life)”.