As Sponsored by the Public Transportation Corporation of Delhi
I was in second grade when I discovered the only dream I would continue to harbor for the next 11 years. My life changed one morning at 8 a.m. when a classmate walked in crying. Second graders are not a particularly sensitive breed, and our class fit the mold: We loudly pronounced the crying classmate a “baby, ” a “girl, ” and a “nincompoop.” Two of those descriptors are demographic identities; none of them are insulting. Within the next hour we were told the auto rickshaw that the boy and his siblings took to school had overturned while speeding.
Auto rickshaws are three-wheeled public transportation vehicles(read: taxis) that always look just slightly unstable. They’re made mostly of plastic, but sound like rusty rattle toys. When their rickety engines are pushed beyond 15 miles per hour, they shudder and give up. We’d all heard stories of rickshaws overturning and had questions about the particular mechanics of the gruesome incident.
My friend and I proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes discussing the position in which the auto might have landed, figuring it was either tipped onto its side or flipped over completely onto its roof. We decided that both options were plausible, but we wanted to know which of the two had happened to the “nincompoop” we kind of knew. The celebrity had been mobbed by our class, and we thought it was inconsiderate to ask him about the minutiae of his near-death experience. However, curiosity eventually trumped sensitivity, and we soon discovered the rickshaw had toppled over sideways. In that moment, my dream was born: to see an auto rickshaw flip upside down. Ever since, I have carefully watched any auto rickshaw that has crossed my path.
Although I have an admittedly strange desire to watch a rickshaw overturn, I am unafraid of riding in autos. There is something innately Indian about my attitude towards potential fatality: In India we study danger, examine it under our smudgy microscopes, discuss it at length with angry gesticulation, and finally decide to live as we had before we even were aware of this danger. In 2012, for example, when a 22-year-old woman was violently raped and left for dead in a neighborhood in Delhi near where we lived, we were presented with statistics: Delhi was the seventh most unsafe place for women in the world; one in six girls in Delhi will be raped in their twenties. However, despite this horrific incident, we continued with our daily routines as if nothing had changed—mounting busses, taxis, all modes of public transportation without second thought. We look danger in the face, bob our heads ambiguously in its general direction, and then continue to live our lives under the ridiculous assumption that this danger did not and even can not see us.
This irrational response to danger is our only mechanism for survival. For those of us outside the infamous bubble of the 1 percent, perhaps the greatest danger we face is caused by the inhabitants of the 1 percent bubble. There is no limit to the power exercised by those in this bubble. In Delhi, everything and everyone can be bought—everything except for the will of an auto rickshaw driver. Drivers in Delhi have attained spiritual transcendence—the same transcendence that many young white people, eating roots in remote ashrams in the Himalayas, seem to think India is all about. These drivers attribute no value to material possessions: They have found the avenues to express their most true selves.
The surfaces of an auto rickshaw in Delhi resemble the top of my MacBook: Neither is a practice of minimalism. The windshield is layered with a plethora of colorful stickers, so many that the driver is forced to peer through a small opening free of stickers to see the road. The black tarp on the back is covered with advertising banners, often for products like fairness creams and muscle building protein powder. The walls of the auto itself are also decorated, laminated with various pictures of popular Bollywood actors. I have learned to sit exactly in the middle of a seat—sandwiched between photos of the shirtless male actor and the actress awkwardly bending over. While my hair becomes a tangle of dust and sand from the strong wind blowing through the car during the ride, the actors’ hair remains perfectly coiffed.
In creating the Human Development Index, a composite statistic of indicators of development that is used to rank countries into four tiers of development, the United Nations Development Program has consistently said that one of India’s greatest failings is the economic gap between the wealthy and the poor. Apparently, they’ve said it to everyone but the auto drivers.
Luxury cars in Delhi seem exempt from the law; theypass through standstill traffic, ignore red lights, speed through congested alleyways. Nothing can slow these posh drivers down, except for an auto rickshaw driving 15 miles per hour in front of them, straddling two lanes on the expressway. Auto drivers resist the wild gesticulation coming from those inside the $250,000 cars and the aggressive fist-shaking of their chauffeurs cursing loudly from inside the sealed car. These taxi drivers remain unperturbed—they are steadfast and dependable. Their autos, however, are not.
As India takes significant steps toward lower rates of emissions and safer public transportation, I see that soon the auto rickshaw will become obsolete. The air in Delhi will no longer lead the world for most polluted, and fewer children will suffer from the trauma of being tipped over on their way to school. Though this change will undoubtedly be beneficial for the general health of the country, the nation will inevitably resist it. They will begin by criticizing everyone—the politicians who supported it and those who opposed it. But they will eventually learn to bob their heads ambiguously at the thought of the three-wheeled disaster we let roam freely on the Indian roads for decades.
I look forward to lamenting the loss of the fabric of the Indian middle class in the way my parents describe Ambassador taxis and my grandparents describe walking. This lamentation may come at a price: I may never see an auto rickshaw flip over, and that may be okay.