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The 'share auto' experience

My everyday ride to college in Chennai, India.

I've been living in the south Indian city of Chennai for almost 16 years now, but it was only when college began that I started using the share autos frequently. In my two and a half years of share auto experience, I've come to know a lot more about the city and its people. The share auto drivers, the passengers, the other drivers, the places, and the things these places offer are what make sharing this experience worth it.

Share autos are a popular public mode of transportation in Chennai, especially the college students, the office workers, and the teachers because of the inexpensive fares that save them a lot during everyday travel. This was the same reason why I chose to use these as well (and the lack of a private vehicle, of course).

Per trip, I would have to spend ₹20 - ₹25 INR (depending on the driver). That's $0.54 - $0.61 USD per day. I usually don’t ask for the fares in the morning because I just want to get to the college soon, but during my return trips, I make sure that the fare is only 20 rupees because spending 25 every day might put a hole in my share auto budget for the month.

These share autos travel along fixed routes. Anyone can stop them along the route and get on them. All someone has to do is stare at the sign on the bottom left of the windshield, which shows the route that particular share auto takes, and the share auto drivers automatically know if they want to get on.

If someone stares at the sign and looks away for some other share auto coming behind, it is understood that they are not looking for traveling along those routes. Sometimes, when a person misses the share auto, they call out to the driver to stop. If the driver is not able to hear it, the passengers in the share auto will help out by asking the driver to stop.

There are two types of share autos: white and yellow. The white ones look half like a minivan (due to their short height and narrow, elongated form) and half like a safari jeep (due to the wide, window-like openings in the sides and in the back).

The yellow ones look like taller minivans, but they have regular windows, unlike the large openings in the white ones. I use the white share autos because they're way faster than the yellow ones, so I don’t have to worry about being late to college.

In a share auto, the male passengers usually sit next to the driver's seat (which can accommodate 2 passengers). Most female passengers occupy the front seat only when the back seats are filled. The back seats are divided into two sections. In the middle section, which is very wide, there are two 3-seaters facing each other.

The back section is basically two stools placed on the opposite ends of a narrow space meant for baggage purposes. Passengers occupy these stools when the front and the middle sections fill up.

Let me talk about each of the unique factors that make the share auto experience.

1. The drivers

Allow me to narrate a memorable incident. On one sunny afternoon, during my return trip from college to home, I was sitting in the middle section of the share auto. Other than myself, there was one male passenger, who was sitting next to the driver's seat. I was fiddling with my phone and wasn't paying attention.

Suddenly, the share auto started going backward. It was like a car chase scene out of a Hollywood action movie. I was confused. I thought to myself "Is this guy trying to get a passenger on the share auto. Did he miss someone who wanted to get on? Is this why he is driving so far backward?"

Meanwhile, he tackled the traffic, the parked cars, the pedestrians, and finally stopped and yelled out to some guy. Turns out, the male passenger, who was sitting next to the driver's seat, gave the driver a 50 rupee note instead of 20 rupees, which was his actual fare, and started walking away fast.

The driver realized that the 50 rupee note had a huge hole in it and did the stunt. The passenger walked back to the share auto, smiling from ear to ear (That's right. He was smiling), and gave the driver a proper 20 rupee note.

Such are the drivers of the share auto. Most of them are males (I’ve never seen a female share auto driver). While each driver is different, I found certain similar characteristics that stand out and clubbed them into 5 major categories: the generous ones, the devotional ones, the tricky ones, the conversationalists, and the grumpy ones.

I will start with the generous ones because I have seen a lot of them. There were times (due to buying snacks or materials for a project) when I was left with less money than the actual fare, or I had a 100 rupee note and the drivers didn't have the change for it. At times like these, they don't get angry; instead, they say, "It's fine [dear]" and drive off without collecting the fare.

This one time, a visually challenged lady got on the share auto. When her stop arrived, she gave the exact fare to the driver. But the driver refused to collect it and told her that it was fine and asked her to get down safely.

Sometimes, when a passenger is getting down at places of heavy traffic, the driver checks thoroughly for any approaching vehicle on the side and warns the passenger to get down carefully. In such ways, these generous drivers show care and concern for the passengers.

The next category of drivers is the devotional ones. I keep hoping that I don't get one of these drivers because they light a holy incense stick that lets out fragrant smoke, and I’m allergic to it.

However, I mostly notice this only after I get on the share auto and sit. By then, it would've been too late and too awkward to just stop and get down. So, I endure it with the help of my napkin, which I use for another purpose that I will be mentioning in the later sections.

The next category consists of the tricky ones. These drivers try to get more than the actual fare, and the victims are usually the ones who seem like they know nothing about the city or the share autos.

For instance, on one of my return rides to home from college, I asked the share auto driver how much the fare was. I asked this to make sure that it was only 20 rupees and not 25 rupees (as always). The driver, thinking that I was new to riding on a share auto, told me it was "30 rupees." I thought to myself “No, thank you” and waited for the next one.

Since then, I changed my question. I now ask, “Is it twenty rupees?” and the drivers either say, “Yes,” or that it is 25. Many drivers are unaware of the fact that some drivers charge 25 rupees instead of 20.

So, when I ask them this question, they say, “Yes,” and after I get on, they ask if the others take more, so I explain the scenario to them. Ultimately, despite the tricky ones, most of the other share auto drivers are honest, humble and generous.

Then, there are the conversationalists, who try to initiate conversations with whoever is sitting next to the driver's seat. They keep talking about things that the passengers don't have any need to know and keep asking them random questions. I was twice a victim to these boring small talks.

The one instance that I clearly remember is when I was sitting next to the driver's seat (all the seats in the middle and back sections were filled), and the driver kept random things, such as "So, you study here?," "I came to that college yesterday," "Are you studying on your phone?," and "Is that your friend (pointing to my classmate who greeted me on the way)?" I, being a silent person, was feeling awkward, and I only nodded and shook my head to all his questions.

Luckily, another passenger came to my rescue. The back seats were still filled, and she sat between me and the driver. She was a North-East Indian and didn't know the language of Tamil that the people of Chennai speak. The driver knew this and yet never gave up on his determination to make a conversation. He spoke in broken English, and the woman, just like me, kept nodding and shaking her head.

He kept pointing to a place, every 2 minutes, asking her if that was where she had to get down. The poor woman finally got down at her destination and I, realizing that the middle section was now half-empty, went and sat there.

However, when I gave him the fare after getting down at my stop, he smiled and waved, and I too smiled and waved back to him. I guess some people just love to talk and make a friend wherever they go.

The final prominent category of drivers is the grumpy ones. They don't make conversations. They don't smile. They don’t even respond properly to any passengers. These drivers often try to get in more passengers than how much the share auto could accommodate, and it's usually an uncomfortable, cramped mess.

There ends my five major categories of share auto drivers. Next up are the people who help the share auto drivers make a living.

2. The passengers

It is fun and informative to observe the passengers or hear the loud conversations they have with each other or over the phone. Most of the passengers fiddle with their phones or listen to music with earphones on.

Some college students, school students, and interviewees can be seen studying or reading a book or a file. Some observe the passing places, some observe the other passengers, some start conversations with each other, and some just fall asleep.

I am the phone-fiddler. Almost everyone is an observer because one has to check if their stop is nearby and in the process, they observe the places and the other passengers.

Almost every day, four people sit in the 3-seaters of the middle section. The process goes like this: passengers get on along the way, and soon, the 3-seaters on both sides are occupied by 3 passengers each.

The next passenger who stops the share auto either goes to the back section (if the passenger is a female), the front section (if the passenger is a male), or they just decide to sit (uncomfortable and cramped) in the middle section, thus, turning the 3-seater into a 4-seater.

Sometimes, the 4th passenger will not have enough space to sit, and one of the other three passengers in the seat assures that their stop is nearby and to just hold on for a little while.

Sometimes, the passengers don't bother sitting cramped among males or females. This is something I admire about the share autos. In a country where the people, politicians, and the media are constantly reminded of the distance that the opposite sexes have to maintain with each other, share autos break the barriers and give way for positive relationships to emerge between the opposite sexes.

In here, passengers are passengers. However, sometimes, the drivers ask the male passengers to either come to the front or go to the extreme back seats when the middle section is occupied by female passengers; others just don't bother. They sit, mind their own business, and get down when their stop arrives.

Also, due to the cramped nature of share autos, it is no place for manspreading. Manspreading is a term used to describe the way in which some men sit in public transportation with their legs spread wide apart.

It is a morphological need for men to spread their legs while sitting. However, some men tend to spread their legs very wide apart and sit leisurely as if sitting on their couches. Share autos don't let them to do this.

In fact, nobody can spread their legs or let their bags occupy the seats because space is required to accommodate other passengers for the share auto driver to earn money.

There are a few, very interesting passengers who get on the share auto. They don't mention their destination to the drivers and just act enthusiastic. One might think that the passenger is an assistant to the driver because that passenger tries to get more people into the share auto.

Experienced drivers get suspicious easily and ask such passengers to give the fare in advance. When the passenger doesn't, the driver stops the share auto and asks the passenger to get down. In my experience, all such passengers were men. When the passenger is asked to get down, he usually smiles and refuses in the beginning but then gets down after the driver forces him to.

Some women can be seen wearing a scarf covering their mouth, nose, and hair. This is to protect themselves from the heat and pollution, that Chennai has been experiencing high levels of, lately. As mentioned earlier, I carry around a napkin to cover my nose, and I wear a scarf to protect my hair from the heat and the dust.

Those are the passengers of the share autos; they are diverse yet united, and they work to coexist peacefully in their journeys to their destinations.

3. The other drivers

The share auto drivers know each other and are friendly with each other. They engage in random jovial fights while driving. In the beginning, when I was new to share autos, two drivers started shouting at each other.

I thought maybe one of them drove rashly or hit the vehicle. But they started laughing and asking each other how they were doing. Since then, I witnessed many such incidents, and now, I am used to it.

They also have a great helping nature. These drivers try to get passengers for each other's share auto. They literally guide the people standing at the bus stops to each other’s share auto if the destinations match.

They give change to one another if they don’t have any. If a share auto has a flat tire or is out of petrol, the driver just asks another share auto driver to accommodate all his passengers. And in those instances, the driver doesn’t collect the fare from any passenger for the travel so far, and neither does he ask the other driver for a share of money.

4. The places and the sights

Anna arch, a large twin arch that marks the entrance of the southern part of Anna Nagar on the Third Avenue, was built in 1985 by the Corporation of Chennai at a cost of Rs. 1.2 million to commemorate the platinum jubilee celebrations of former chief minister C. N. Annadurai (a revolutionary teacher-turned-politician who started a political movement that continues to dominate the southern state). Each arch stands 52 feet tall and weighs 82 tons and was even restored at a cost of ₹ 6.4 million.

Despite the glory of this arch, what do some men of this city use the walls near it for? Peeing! Every day, I witness at least one man turning toward the wall and peeing on it.

I pray and hope that I don't see any genitals early in the morning on my way to college. I think to myself, "Could it be more male-dominated?” because god forbid if a woman exhibits such behavior.

Jokes aside, it is frustrating to witness such behaviors in public because it is only the men who exhibit these behaviors. The citizens, male or female, even when standing next to the spot, don't mind or question this.

After all, there is a bigger problem underneath the surface involving the people, society, government, and the system of caste. It only further proves the privilege some people enjoy and the male chauvinism that exists in the Indian society.

Moving to a lighter side, most mornings, I see this middle-aged man jogging in a funny manner, with his head tilted and hands stiff. It is obvious that the man is suffering from a disease.

But to look at his determination to keep himself healthy—jogging every day along the roads, without caring about what others might think or say—is really inspiring. I, for one, find myself lacking the motivation to exercise, and he is a role model for people like me.

During the rains, when the share autos drive close to the pavements, one can see roadside vendors making hot breakfast. The smoke, the sizzling sound, and the mouth-watering smell makes people line up for it.

During summer, however, the dust and pollution rise and spread easily in the air, and it doesn't matter if one is a smoker or not; they will still be forced to inhale it. As mentioned earlier, this is why many people use a scarf or napkin to cover their hair, nose, and mouth.

On the whole, the share auto is like a community. The drivers and the passengers constitute the members of this community. The passengers are diverse and mostly strangers to each other. Yet they feel safe in each other's company and comfortable in each other's close presence.

They help each other out, speak kindly to one another, and make others feel welcome. This mutual respect and unity has made the share auto community sustainable for so long, and this is what will help it continue in the future. I am happy to have been a part of this community and to have gained the wonderful, exciting, new, and thought-provoking experiences that it had to offer.


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