I sometimes wonder why the atmosphere in Kerala is so charged with hostility. Is there something wrong with us Keralites? Or am I being overcritical about our own state and people? You know a case of grass being greener on the other side?
Do we need to change?
This hostility – I see this everywhere. But a sector where it is tangible, palpable is that of the autorichshaw service in Cochin and Mid-Travancore districts.
As a working woman who does not use her own vehicle, I used to depend a lot on autorickshaws. I once engaged an auto from the railway station in a small town in Mid-Travancore. As we approached the destination, the ride became bumpy – in more sense than one. The road was full of gutters and the driver became more and more angry with every inch of the distance we covered. And abusive too. At one point he turned around and snarled at me, demanding to know why I hadn’t warned him about the road. I told him meekly that I hadn’t been aware of the condition of the road. Just then I spotted my colleague to whom I was to hand over a parcel. She was standing at her gate. I gave her the parcel without alighting from the auto. Seeing the autowallah’s ferocious expression, she looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“Get down, have a cup of coffee.”
“No”, I said. “Have a lecture now”
“OK”, she said, looking uneasy.
And the return journey started. He continued his offensive. Nasty, foul, insulting tirade against me continued till we reached the gate of the college where I worked. I got down and asked him,
”How much?” I knew how much that distance would cost but thought I’d pay him for the damage to the vehicle he had been harping on in the course of his ranting. He switched off the motor, leaned back in the seat, looked at me venomously and retorted
“How much do you think?”
“This distance would usually cost me twenty rupees. But I’ll give you what you want because of the road condition”
He stepped out of his auto, his body language like that of the Undertaker in WWW, and sneered
“You people. What do you care about us? After the petrol and maintenance, we get nothing out of this business”.
I could feel my temper rising. I wanted to tell him the road was not my fault, his business was none of my concern. He should learn to talk more politely and that he was behaving like a barbarian. But I said nothing of the sort, ‘cos we were outside the college gate and I didn’t want my students to see me getting into an argument that was bound to be devoid of dignity. I took out thirty rupees, but he wouldn’t accept the money till he had had his say.
My iron control snapped. To date, I am happy I did what I did instead of indulging in a shouting match. I got back into the auto, and told him to take the auto to the Police Control room. That brought him to his senses for I could see a startled expression cross his face fleetingly. Then he changed his tactics. He turned to a passer-by and started a sob sob tale about the woes of an auto driver and how people like me added to his miseries. I was astounded. What on earth is he trying to do, I wondered.
Fortunately for me, the passer-by happened to be a casual employee in my college. His name was Martin. I asked him to get into the auto to go to the Police station. “You can be a witness”, I said, “Not that I need a witness in this case”. Martin instantly obliged. Our man stood there for a moment looking at us. Then,
“Get down”, he said gruffly. He looked at me and asked, “You admit we too have to live, eh?”
Was he trying to offer an explanation for his behaviour? Anyway, if he was, it made no sense to me. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t understand how I stood in the way of him and his livelihood.
I stared at him, trying to keep my face as expressionless as possible. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
By then, there was a small audience which embarrassed me. Mine was a familiar face in those parts.
And then Rev. Sr. M, my colleague, appeared from somewhere and asked me what the confusion was all about.
“This gentleman has been insulting me from the moment the auto turned into the road leading to Mina’s house. He hasn’t yet stopped. If this is not harassment, what is?”
“But Ammey (That’s how the nuns are addressed), that road was terrible”, butted in that auto driver.
“But why do you insult this teacher for it?”
“I wasn’t insulting”, he lied. “I told her, most courteously, that the road was bad and it was she who started yelling at me!!!!!???” And then very triumphantly
“It’s her word against mine!”
I was furious. “Are you going to take the auto to the Police station. We’ll settle the matter there”, I told him. He didn’t move. I asked Martin to go into the College office and phone for the Police (This happened before the cell phone became common).
Rev. Sr. M intervened. “Leave it, Molly”, she said.
“No. I’ll see that he never drives an auto again – at least not in the near future.”
Apparently, the auto driver had no nexus with the Police,’cos he turned to Sister M and said “What does she want to harm a poor helpless auto driver like me for?”
By then, I realized that I had become the villain of the piece with a section of the small audience. A few autos that were passing by had stopped and the drivers joined the crowd to watch the drama.
My resolve crumbled for some reason. All I wanted was to get away from there and get to work. And Rev Sister M was so persuasive. “File a complaint, and it’ll be a big pulivalu (meaning it’ll be like holding the tiger by the tail). It’ll drag on. You’ll have to keep going to the court. Do you have the time for it? And then that clinching question. “Is it worth it?”
I asked Martin to settle the fare with him, got out of the auto and walked into the college without a backward glance.
But the episode spoilt my day. Left such a dirty taste in my mouth.
I haven’t been able to figure out why the man behaved like that. This incident is but one of the many many unpleasant brushes I have had with the autowallahs in Kerala. Being left with no choice, I have learnt to take it in my stride. I have learnt to deal with it. If I am charged four times the actual fare, I pay it, knowing fully well I am being cheated. If they refuse to be engaged because the distance is too short for the kill, I move on and look for the next auto, and the next and the next - - . That’s much easier than hauling him over the coals; it's much easier than belligerently asking him why the government has issued license to him. or reminding him that I can bring him to justice, if I so wished. This way, I can keep my BP normal.
But I don’t stop wondering - Why do they treat the passengers so shabbily? Why do they look upon them with such hatred and enmity?
I sometimes get the feeling that they take an instant dislike to anyone who earns a livelihood doing anything other that driving autos. And if the passenger happens to be a woman – and a working one at that- they throw all pretence of civility to the winds.
God’s Own Country.