Friday, August 27, 2004

Un Poco Coco Loco

Okay, scholars of Delhi-life, Indian-life, armchair travellers, and transport wonks: your travelsponent is ready to dish the dirt, tell the truth, undermine received thinking, sh-shatter some sh-shi-sh-shibboleths, tear up your standard rough planet travel manuals with the real deal on getting around this incredible nutball of a city.

You will recall that weeks ago I regaled you with On the Buses, weird tales of the wacky and life-threatening of the Delhi bus system. I think I mentioned that some Dilli-wallas thought me strange because I took the buses – smiles play at the corner of mouths, widen into grins, “you take the bus???” I’ve since found out that this isn’t bemusement at some foreigner essaying the Delhi Wild West – that’s just extra funny – but that people feel that about anyone who takes the bus!!!

So when you come to Delhi, the bus is a big nix. Very wise. That leaves you with private car, taxis, autorickshaws, ordinary rickshaws, bicycles, and walking. Unless you count the new Metro, which doesn’t yet go anywhere or have any passengers. All those deserve their own chapters, believe me, but today I wanted to tell you a bit about the autorickshaw.

It’s a bit of a misnomer. The real rickshaw is someone pulling a cart on wheels with someone in it, right? And that’s what obtains here in Delhi. The autorickshaw is not an automated version of that, rather a very basic taxi. It’s like a pint-size Mini, with a squat boxy body on 3 wheels, a skeletal frame over which stretches a yellow canopy, and looks a bit like those little plastic toy car rides that supermarkets have just beyond the checkout into which children rope their parents after the weekly shopping agony into blowing their spare change.

There are no doors, but the entire structure is open to the elements. You can board and disembark on one side only (the other has a tiny bar to provide a simulacrum of some concern for safety), a very basic put-put motor powered by the inevitable compressed natural gas, and is painted yellow and green. The Cubans call them Coco-taxis, the tropical idea being that they resemble partially hollow coconuts. Here, they’re autorickshaws, or autos, driven by autowallahs.

I should mention before proceeding that you can, of course, take a real taxi. They’re generally more expensive than autos, but more comfortable, and are almost always Ambassadors, those Indian knock-offs of 1950s Morrises that are still in production… they’re better if you need room, have luggage, or have lots of money/want to avoid the close contact with streetlife provided by the autorickshaw. You aren’t immune from problems in taxis, I should add – I complained to one resident about the taxiwallah’s invariable practice of covering up the meter with a towel to obscure the starting amount, and he said, “oh, no, you’ve got that wrong, that’s done for two reasons, one legit, one not. The legit one is that the meters get screwed up by the summer heat, so they need protection. The other is to allow the taxiwallahs to rip you off!” Thank goodness for making that clearer! But generally speaking, we’re not talking real taxis here.

A second characteristic that taxis and autos share is a near complete and total absence of any idea of how to get where you are going. Although this varies, generally I have found about half the time that I am directing them, rather than them taking me. They eschew my Big Map, trusting rather to the old stop-and-ask-someone method, sometimes maddeningly 3 or 4 times, during a journey! No London Taxicab ‘knowledge’ required here!!! Of course, I suppose with directions such as “GK II, V-1422”, you have to give them a bit of a break…

Now on to the auto. There are thousands of them around the city, and they’re the way that most people in Delhi get about when they don’t take buses. Here’s how to use the auto.

Finding an Auto. No problem, usually. You can find them at an auto stand (not good – they tend to be more expensive) or, more likely, cruising the streets. In fact, the opposite problem is more usual – shaking off unwanted autowallahs. They have the annoying global taxi habit, when you don’t need them, of swarming like locusts, than evaporating at nighttime or in inclement weather!!!

The autowallahs always go one better, though. They have this really maddening habit of swooping on you when you least want it – you can be frantically waving your arms, hailing a bus, and they suddenly dart in between you and the bus, the driver beaming this ingratiating grin at you, “where do you want to go, sir?”

“I want you to get out of my way so that I can get the bus”

“Yes, but where are you going?”

“Green Park Extension”

“Eighty rupees, sir!”

“I am trying to get the bus. Get out of my way, you pillock!”

And so it goes on. When you get off the bus, they almost run you over, then expect you to hire them. They’re small, so they dart through the traffic. You can’t rely on any traffic, by the way, to go one way or the other way – vehicles emerging from side roads or slip roads cheerfully bump along the verge of the main road, going in the wrong direction. But don’t get me started on Delhi traffic…

Negotiating the Price. All autos have meters and, by law, have to use them. What that means is, 90% of all autos have meters which either don’t work or they don’t use, and they try to charge an above-average price all the time. They ignore the law – and why not? So you have to agree the price/destination before you get in. They will sometimes suggest a completely outrageous price – I was told Rs. 250 to go from G K I to Safdarjung’s Tomb, and eventually agreed a price of Rs. 50, twice what the price should be – or, more likely, a very high, loaded price, say Rs. 80 instead of Rs. 50. Wherever you start, you have nowhere to go but down…

I luckily lost my auto virginity with Dr. Dilli. We’d gone to eye up the fleatraps at the Y and were heading back to Green Park that evening. He hailed 4 autos before finding one that would accept the Rs. 40 he said was standard for the journey. All of them refused to use the meter. 3 of the 4 autowallahs didn’t really get at first what Dr. Dilli, who speaks English, Hindi and Malayalam fluently, was talking about. What hope does anyone else have? Autowallah No. 5 took the Rs. 40, dropped the Doc at the I.N.A. Market, then proceeded to scream and shout his way through the heavy Aurobindo Road traffic to drop me – almost literally – at the Uphaar Cinema, near where I was staying my first week.

If in doubt, it’s a pretty safe strategy to wait until you find an auto with a meter working, who will use it. If you feel a bit braver, you can play the numbers game with them – “80” “80? you must be mad. Try 30.” “30? Ha ha ha. 70.” “Still too much. 40.” “OK, 50” Wow! He dropped Rs. 20! Musta got him…the real price is, of course, something like 25 or 30, but 100% overpayment against 200% is progress, I guess, and if you’re translating currencies, remember: Rs. 80 is £1, or $1.80, or CAN$2.25, so there is a sense of perspective to be retained…

The journey is a body-shaking, back-breaking tour de force, especially when the autowallah neglects to notice the speed bumps in the road, and you jounce up and down on your little seat, hitting the roof (“ow!”) of the auto. Hold on tight…to what, I don’t know, but hold on. Seatbelt? Don’t be ridiculous.

And, because there are no doors and it’s open to the elements, there are special precautions to keep in mind if it’s raining. These are: (i) don’t take the auto, (ii) if you do take the auto, sit in the centre of the seat, avoid the sides, hope that the rain is coming straight down, and try to get one with side flaps to keep off some of the rain, and (iii) don’t go in the auto down any roads that get waterlogged, such as the Aurobindo Road during a cloudburst on Tuesday, 17 August 2004 at 13:32 in the afternoon. The water is over a foot deep. Ordinary vehicles jounce in the lake and make slow progress, because they can’t see the ruts and potholes that will hole their petrol tank. Even moving slowly, they still spray great washes of dirty water into each side of your auto. How do you keep dry in an auto during a rainstorm? You don’t, so don’t even bother trying!!!

The last word on the auto experience I leave with a recent female immigrant to Delhi from elsewhere in India quoted in The Times of India: “every day is a tussle with the autowallah: they never go by the meter and have a ready excuse to overcharge you each time. As for buses, getting on to one in a sleeveless top and tight jeans is asking for trouble.” At least that’s one problem I’ve managed to avoid so far…
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The aftermath of Independence Day was relatively peaceful, except if you were in Assam, where there were bombings, or the eternally difficult Kashmir, where there were disturbances…you may wonder about these and whether they are a regular occurrence. Well, sectarian violence is a problem in India, everywhere, and has partly led to the demand for and proliferation of states in the Indian federation. But in Delhi, anyway, things were relatively quiet, which was good. And with the tension reduced, I could get on with my searches for cities…

I went to the remains of the Siri Fort, where a few outer walls are all that remain of Siri, the city built in 1303 by Sultan Alauddin Khilji. Mostly the walls of the city are an atmospheric enclosure for a very nice green park, in which is the shopping area of Shahpur Jat. I guess the rest of the city has, as with other cities in Delhi, been plundered for stone or destroyed in the continual redevelopment.

The same Khalji period yielded the Chor Minar, or Thieves’ Tower, a rubble-built tapering tower on a platform, with a staircase inside (you couldn’t get in). The holes sunk in the walls were where severed criminals’ heads were displayed as a deterrent! During this part of the walk, I stumbled on an old Mosque that had no name, was not on my map, and was not in anyway identified…to see the photographs of Siri Fort, Chor Minar, and the Mystery Mosque, and some others, click here.

I then walked through a Ring Road construction site, to Begum Pur, through some incomprehensible backstreets where the map just fades the lines of streets into white space in some expression of cartographic helplessness…”sorry, chaps, we just didn’t figure this one out…” to the Bijai Mandal, which was behind a fence. It was a royal palace where the Sultan, seated on a raised cushioned seat, placed on a white carpeted dais, held public audience and reviewed his troops. It was hard to believe that today, and I couldn’t find a way in!

Next I walked through more backstreets to the Begumpuri Masjid…it was at the centre of the Sultan Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s new capital, Jahanapanah. Remember him, son of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq of our last episode, and his capital, Tughlaqabad? He lived from 1325 – 1351, and gave the Masjid an elevated position and a striking building, that would have been the focus of the community, a place for prayer, a treasury, the place for meeting and transacting business, and a madarsa. Sultans often decreed that the city’s grain market and bazaars be situated just outside the mosque’s portals, thus making it a real centre of city life.

Today there were several men sitting on the ground, legs akimbo, singing or praying, rocking back and forth…then, in the courtyard of the Masjid, a group of kids flying kites, a couple of them with their fathers, amongst the cloisters. Then, a wrong turn or two and a hot walk later, I got to the Lal Gumbad in Malviya Nagar, an isolated tomb that is supposed to be the burial chamber of the Sufi saint Kabiruddin Auliya. And that’s it for this week’s tour – next weekend is a 2-day one, so I’m looking forward to getting in some heavy-duty touristing and sightseeing…

2 Comments:

Blogger Hels (the webmistress) said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

August 27, 2004 11:25 AM  
Blogger mrs_jazz said...

Your photographs are
wonderful.

August 28, 2004 5:29 AM  

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