Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sarcasm on a bumpy road




Journalists quoting chauffeurs, cab or auto-rickshaw drivers has become a bit of a cliche. After the last election, there was a fair bit of eyerolling about it and part of agrees: it would be nice if political ideas were formed outside of a car.

Yet, I also undersand that taxi and auto drivers are a reasonable indicator of public sentiment as far as governance goes. Three big issues that have traditionally affected Indian elections are bijli-paani-sadak. Electric supply, water supply, motorable roads. This might be changing, especially in rural areas where farm income, debt and employment are have become urgent questions. But in cities bijli-paani-sadak remain some of most important issues, along with housing and food prices.

Auto-rickshaw drivers are likely affected by shortages and inflation like everyone else. But they also have the advantage of being outdoors a lot, listening to several other people in public spaces. They can access to a wide range of viewpoints and listen in on conversations. Some of the drivers also develop a rather unique style of political commentary.

The other day, I was in an auto-rickshaw and the ride was a very bumpy road. I exclaimed at one particularly bad stretch of road. The driver responded by saying, “Isn't this great?”

I thought I had misheard him. But he said it again. “This road,” he said. “It's terrible. Isn't that great? It's good for everyone.”

I wasn't sure what to make of him. So I cautiously pointed out that it wasn't so great for the human spine.

He let out a short laugh. “So? Aren't you happy for the nation?” he continued. “Everyone gets something to do if the roads are bad. If you hurt your back, you are supposed to go get a massage. That helps the economy too.”

I said I had to disagree. Back injuries can last several years, even incapacitate a person, put them out of work and so on.

I couldn't see his face but I imagine that at this point he was rolling his eyes. “That's I'm saying,” he said. “It works out for everyone, doesn't it? Before I picked you up, I was going to stop near the pheriwalas (cart vendors), some friends of mine. I just wanted to call out a greeting and remind them of how awesome life is these days. They're still paying hafta (protection money), and they're also being told that they'll soon be driven out of this area.”

My destination had arrived. I got off the rickshaw. The driver said, “Madam, I was joking. You understand?”

I said, I understood. Then he said, “Do you know the latest? Some of the municipal engineers don't come to inspect the roads after the repairs are done. They sit comfortably in their office. The contractor takes a photo of the potholes he claims he has filled, sends it over Whatsapp, and he gets his work approved.”

Before I could get out of the way, a much bigger car, an SUV, swung dangerously close and honked sharply. I turned around to glare. The driver, a woman, wasn't looking at me. She was glaring at the auto instead.

After he was gone, I wondered what he would say to the next passenger, how he'd say it. Perhaps he would say, “Isn't it great that so many people are buying big cars these days? It's the best thing to happen to a city. Now, if you had had an accident back there, think of how many people would have benefitted. What? You don't want your country to progress?”


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