The auto rickshaw, or ‘auto’ in local parlance, is a cheap and convenient way to get around Indian cities. Each city has its own system. In Bangalore this is pretty straightforward: you pay the fare on the metre. A minimum fare of 12 rupees covers the first two kilometres and then 6 rupees for each extra kilometre. Most drivers use their metres and don’t give you hassles for an extra fare. The auto-drivers in Chennai (Madras) however, have the worst reputation in all of South India… Here taking an auto is always a very annoying business: drivers invariably quote at least double the actual fare and it’s very hard work trying to get them to agree on something more reasonable. They always come up with some feeble excuse why you have to pay more: “Traffic is there, madam!” or “Petrol costly, madam!” or “One-way road, madam!” “U-turn, madam”… etc, etc.
One day after dance class I took an ‘auto’ from Kilpauk to the Sangeetha restaurant in Nungambakkam. I told the driver my destination and asked him the fare. Surprisingly the fare he quoted me was correct and I thought to myself: this is an honest man. But it wasn’t only his honesty that made me notice that this driver was not like the others. First of all, he spoke fluent English. Though few auto-drivers speak English, most have the basic auto-driver vocabulary of “right”, “left”, “straight”, “U-turn”, “signal” “opposite” and of course, “No change, madam!” I was also intrigued by this driver’s long hair and long beard which set him apart from the usual oiled hair and big moustache. As we drove through the midday traffic, I wondered if he could be a Sikh… he wasn’t wearing a turban but isn’t one of the tenets of Sikhism to not cut hair? I decided to ask him, this being India, and therefore no question being indiscreet.
He looked puzzled when I posed my question, so I explained that Indian men don’t usually wear their hair so long. He laughed and replied: “No, I’m a yogi.” He then explained that he teaches yoga asanas, meditation and pranayama but that he doesn’t believe in asking his students to pay for his teaching. So to make money to support his family, he drives an auto-rickshaw. I was surprised and further intrigued. Here was an educated man (as Indians would say – the fact that he spoke fluent English reveals this) doing a job which is seen to be one reserved for the lower classes. He could obviously make a living in a more ‘respectable’ and higher paid job. He could make a better and more respectable living by… well, by teaching yoga! But he chooses to teach for free and drive an auto-rickshaw instead to make ends meet. Well, why not… his job probably gives him the flexible schedule he needs to combine teaching with driving. Perhaps this is also a way for this yogi to practice ‘karma yoga’ – the path of selfless action – where the ego is given up to selfless service.