My mode of transportation in Kolkata, India was an auto rickshaw. It is a motorized, 3 wheeler scooter which was built to accommodate 3 to 4 people but in reality, it carried 6. I hailed one with a flick of my hand, jumped in, glared at my fellow passenger if he was trying to get closer than necessary and promptly immersed in my own thoughts, whatever was important at that time – classes, exams, job interviews, crushes. Never noticed the weaving of the auto, never paid attention to the distance of my auto, or the lack of it, from the vehicle in front.
Last year, I went back and discovered that I have turned into a complete wuss! What happened to that intrepid girl who stopped on coming traffic by boldly stepping off the curb to cross the street, who just looked at the cars, raised her hand and the traffic either stopped or weaved around her to let her cross, the girl who could non chalantly get on and off a running bus! I clutched my children’s hand, stepped off the curb and stepped back up quickly as the cars came without reducing speed with the hope they would run the red light without getting caught. It was a hilarious two-step dance. I finally yelled at the traffic police to stop the traffic so we could cross the street. The traffic police completely ignored me and continued to listen to cricket scores. Within a week, however, the old me came back to do exactly what I did fifteen years ago, stopped the traffic with a look, crossed the street while weaving around moving cars.
I go to India primarily to eat. Oh, and visit family and friends, of course. What? Did I say something different??? Since I eat a substantial amount I feel the need to join a gym, mainly for my peace of mind. Every morning, while going to the gym in auto rickshaws, I made two important observations. One was that the decorum of sitting amongst men and women in those vehicles had changed. In my days, when a woman stopped an auto, the male passengers, if seated at the back of the vehicle, got out and went to the front to let the woman passenger take the safer seat, as a show of courtesy. This time I noticed men didn’t bother to get out, they just opened their newspapers wider and continued reading or glanced at the women passenger and continued talking on their cellphones. The sweet act of chivalry had disappeared. Since I believe in women being treated equally everywhere, this didn’t bother me….too much. I protested against this when I was young, but when I saw the absence of this kind gesture I admit I felt the loss of something good and beautiful!
I also discovered the unspoken code of conduct among the Kolkata drivers. There is that special look, when one comes to an intersection, that slightest nod of the head which determines who has the right of way. Most veteran drivers knew the code and followed it. Some new ones waited too long and was awarded with a yell and a choice expletive, ‘Arreh, jaabi to saala, dariye aache dekho song er moto!’ The literal translation, ‘Yo, will you go, beep, or stand there like a clown.’ Few polite ones said ‘Arreh jaa na!’ (just go) without the expletive, but that was rare! At the beginning, I sat at the edge of the seat holding on to the guard rail white knuckled. Then I noticed this silent communication between my auto drivers and the other drivers on the street. There is a reason to this madness after all. After that, I sat back, relaxed, enjoyed conversation with the drivers. Life was good….till I met one who certainly possessed a death wish and weaved around big buses like someone…..possessed. I did croak once in a while, “Bhai (little brother) drive carefully!” My brother would reassure me with a bright smile, “Didi (big sister), don’t you worry! You are in good hands!”
I always hugged my children a little tighter when I made it home safe on those particular days and thanked the universe immensely for keeping me alive to see another sunrise…er, let’s make that ‘another sunset’ as my supportive spouse just pointed out I am fast asleep when the sun actually rises, so I shouldn’t lie in my blog!!!