Just one more day of school. Wishing myself good luck, I begin my journey. My school, Don Bosco School Liluah, is situated in Liluah, which is a five kilometres’ journey from Howrah Railway Station. Howrah is located in West Bengal of India.
Crossing the stretch of no man’s land, from Howrah to Liluah, is not merely a journey; it’s more of an adventure sport. And, travelling in an auto rickshaw augments the adventure. I belong to those fortunate fools to avail this ‘devil’s own’ mode of transport to reach my school, twice every day, five days a week. It is an epic journey every day.
The unforgettable journey begins with the morning sun beaming its warm and affectionate rays of light on to a long stretch of autos waiting to come to life. Starting the engines of most of these modern day dinosaurs is a beastly task. Kicking once or twice never suffices. One needs to kick an innumerable number of times with raw brute force to get these engines cranking. No wonder the auto drivers have strong muscles! The newer models of auto, which are somewhat easier to start, cannot digest the stress of the highly convoluted and pot-holed roads of Howrah. Hence, the prehistoric vehicles are the sole survivors.
Besides starting the vehicle, one more hurdle needs to be crossed. All autos are parked in such a packed manner that getting out of the parking lot is more than a challenging job. After a few bumps to the auto at the back and a few to the one in front, the venturing auto manages to squeeze its way out. After breaking free off the chain of autos, it joins another queue and waits for passengers to board the flight.
Approaching the auto, one can view its grand interiors, and which justly needs a good description –– like a Mercedes Benz E-Class. The handrails and iron backrests of the autos are highly fascinating. They are ‘painted’ with rust! Anyone who desires to give rest to his aching back by leaning on the handrails also realises the task of scrubbing it to remove the ‘never say die’ rust marks. For any queries in this rust-removing matter, please contact our teacher, Mr Shantanu Bandopadhyay, who is very experienced in this field!
From handrails, we come to the down-to-earth seats. Most of the royal seats are nothing but a hard wooden board covered with tarpaulin. Sitting on them, one can truly experience Newton’s Third Law! The seat presses back with equal and opposite force! Other than these, the mud-laden curtains, the holey roof (no, I did not mean holy) and the greasy floor also add to the splendour of any auto of Howrah.
Besides school students, there are other attractive commuters like fishmongers and garage-workers who also avail the services of these celebrity autos. Any travelling fishmonger sits with an air of pride, because he receives a good share of space on the seat. This is apparently because he smells horrible! Actually, his ‘fishy’ co-passengers are the real culprits. Occasionally, one may see a couple of fishes peeping out of their container! The garage-worker too gets a good percentage of seating space and that is solely due to his grease-stained clothes. For when he gets down, he leaves behind proof of his existence — those black marks on the seat and handrails which are instantly transferred onto our ‘Ujala-White’ uniforms!
“Size does not matter” is the watchword for all auto drivers. No matter how small the auto is, there always seems to be room for an infinite number of passengers to fit in. Their unwritten constitution states that a minimum of seven passengers must sit in order to begin the journey. The passengers are strategically positioned –– three beside the driver, three behind and one more on a specially designed ‘luxury’ seat. This special seat is nothing but an extension of the toolbox in the rear leg-space. In this regard, the auto drivers are better space savers than most of our modern interior designers. However, one feels pity for the person sitting on this seat which has sharp edges poking from all sides. I recall that day when an elderly woman felt it was “God’s will” to sit on this seat. It was just after a minute’s journey that the seat collapsed and what happened next is best left unsaid.
Now, with passengers stuffed like hens in a coop, the vehicle makes a wild lurch forward. Anyone who has experienced a camel ride can well compare it to an auto ride. The usual route is through the Grand Trunk Road. By inspecting the awful road conditions, anyone can guess that it was first laid by Sher-Shah-Suri, some 500 years ago! Most parts of the road are uneven and has bare, exposed stones. May be even the roads of ancient cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were better than this! The driver meticulously avoids the frequent Martian craters on the road, which are evidences of the great excavation works jointly undertaken by the Howrah Municipal Corporation, Calcutta Telephones and Calcutta Electric Supply Commission. We may soon expect the autos of Howrah patent a cause for ailments like insomnia and indigestion!
One can see the helpless traffic police at the next bus stop after Howrah station. As per rules, no lorry can travel through Howrah during the day. However, on our way we are very often stopped by frustrated lorries trying to either get in or out of a lane, almost like our little Debraj trying to squeeze out of the classroom desks. (For those who are not acquainted with Debraj Chatterjee, he is our classmate, weighing a bit over a hundred kilos.) No Parking boards and one-way signals are posted all over the road. Sadly, they are meant for only those who can read them. Parked cars, lorries and rickshaws occupy over two-thirds of the road. Other than these, the rest of the available space is crowded with pedestrians, cycles, hand-pulled rickshaws and hawkers. In this scenario, the horns of the autos emerge like the weapon of Brahma. The peculiar croaking sound remains permanently switched on. It is very effective in clearing vehicular traffic, pedestrian congestion and as well as the numerous bulls and cows meandering about. Other than them are a huge number of cats, dogs, giant mosquitoes and other big and small creatures living in harmony with the ever-tolerant human population of Howrah. Who said animals dwell only in forests?
On both sides of the road, open drains substitute for footpaths. These drains are clogged throughout the year and the whole area turns waterlogged during the rainy season. Even during summer, parts of the road remains wet due to overflowing drains. And our multipurpose all-terrain vehicle crosses this ocean in rain or sunshine.
Other than manoeuvring skills, the driver also needs to have a good stock of words in his vocabulary. Words mean expletives, which are the best and only alternative to blowing the horn. Most of the talking done by the auto drivers is either to curse the traffic or to quarrel with the irritated passengers and hence that part is being censored.
Regarding pollution, these autos had undergone their sole emission test when they were manufactured some decades ago. Neither the Howrah Auto Association nor the Howrah Police pay any attention to this issue. An interesting part of the affair is that the engines of these autos are located under the driver’s seat and most have a defective silencer pipe. This leads to an interesting phenomenon; whenever the autos are stationary with their engines running, the smoke emerges from under the driver’s seat and the whole auto is engulfed with smoke. From outside it seems as if the auto is on fire. So, the next time you see a ‘fuming’ auto of Howrah, don’t waste water on it. Then again, when the auto is accelerating, thick black clouds of smoke spew out from behind the auto — just like the trails left behind by high-flying jet planes. This aromatically perfumed smoke also acts well as a “Goodnight Human Repellent!”
Just when it seems that the ‘world is not enough,’ my destination arrives. I get down from the auto and for a split second, feel like I have just landed on earth from a gravity-free spacecraft. Getting on my trusted pair of legs, I pay my fare and walk towards my school gate.
Just like trams are Kolkata’s heritage, so are these autos the heritage of Howrah.
~ Published: The Statesman, April 17th 2003