MUMBAI IS HOME to nearly 20 million people, but none are as ubiquitous—and as faceless—as the city’s auto-rickshaw drivers. There are so many autos in Mumbai now that they exceed all order and management, and even the drivers have difficulty estimating their numbers. Some drivers I met thought there might be 100,000 rickshaws in all, while some put the figure at 300,000. One young and somewhat starstruck driver, Imran Ali of Dahisar, said “Karodon honge” (there must be millions).
In Mumbai’s extensive, ever-expanding suburbs, beyond the boundaries of the island city (where they have never been allowed to ply) the auto-rickshaws are to be found on every street and corner. The puttering of their engines is the most familiar sound on Mumbai’s streets; their happy-go-lucky near-right-angle swerves are the most striking moves in the city’s sweaty, hustling traffic; and even they are turned in for the night they can be counted on the roadside in the hundreds.
There are far more drivers than rickshaws: few own their own vehicle, which means that most autos in Mumbai are rented first by a driver and only second by his passengers. Every hired auto usually runs a day and a night shift, supporting two drivers and generating two rental fees each day for its owner (each about 150 or 200 rupees). Many drivers are part of Mumbai’s army of migrant labour: they often return to their villages for months at a time, creating temporary vacancies for new drivers just arriving in the city.
The most common estimates suggest that Mumbai is home to between 250,000 and 300,000 autos, and if one accounts for at least two drivers per vehicle then there must be about 600,000 rickshaw drivers in the city—about three percent of the population. This is a group bigger than almost any other professional class or guild in the city. A person in Mumbai could take a rickshaw every day of their working life and never see the same driver twice—that is, if he or she took care to notice.
EVERY PROFESSION has subtle hierarchies that remain invisible to outsiders. Listening to the drivers, one learns all the ways in which they privately register their differences from one another under the white and brown uniforms and detached manner that might suggest, like the black-and-yellow of the mass-manufactured vehicles, that they are all more or less the same.
For an auto to run legally in Mumbai, it must possess a permit, and its driver must possess a license and a numbered badge. One group of rickshaw drivers is registered with the road transport authority of the city; they have their own badges. But now the state no longer issues fresh badges because of the glut of drivers in the city (though many drivers suspect that this is a conspiracy in which the anti-migrant party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, led by the belligerent Shiv Sena defector Raj Thackeray, has a hand). So a far larger contingent of drivers proceeds badge-less, operating illegally and subject to a 100-rupee fine each time a traffic constable catches them in the act. A driver without a badge lives in envy of those who have one.
Then there are drivers who are old hands in Mumbai, as much at ease on its violently animated streets as they are in their own beds, and then there are those who are new to the city, still coming to terms with its ways.
Some drivers are Marathi-speaking locals, but most are migrants—perhaps the most important distinction in today’s Mumbai, a city less hospitable to outsiders than it was in the past. There are those who have their families living with them, and those who have left them in a village back home; those who need to send money home, and those who do not; those who work day shifts, and those who choose the greater risks and rewards that come with the night shift—higher fares and longer distances, but fewer customers, some of whom refuse to pay. There are those whose autos have four-stroke engines (which can be ignited with a turn of a key, like a car), and those who have two-strokes, and must pump a lever to get their vehicles started.
Finally, there are those rickshaw drivers who have settled into their professional skins, and who accept that this is what they will do all their lives, and those who hate the work and keep plotting their escape, for years or sometimes even decades, into a trade that offers more income or respect.
If there is one trait that seems to unite all the city’s rickshaw drivers, it is that they almost always drive barefoot, with their footwear, usually chappals, neatly tucked away on one side. Even more significantly, the auto-drivers share a common perception of the city and its geography, which divides neatly into a Mumbai they know and a Mumbai they do not. This is because they are not allowed to drive in central and south Mumbai—a triangle of land with Colaba at the bottom and Bandra and Sion at the top. The classic sights and scenes of the city—the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal hotel, Marine Drive and Chowpatty Beach, Chhatrapati Shivaji train terminus—are not part of their everyday life and figure only faintly in their imaginations. Their map of Mumbai is a suburban one, and one of its most important points is the beginning of the Western Express Highway in Bandra, where passengers heading north into the suburbs often get out of taxis to change to the cheaper autos: the point where, for a certain kind of Mumbaikar, the city comes to an end, and for auto drivers, where it begins.
The auto drivers love to talk, an opportunity denied to them by their mostly middle-class passengers, who use their time in rickshaws to transact business of their own, or else remain silent. It takes only one or two questions to loosen their tongues, and then it can be hard work keeping pace with their rambles. That said, their talk—an appealing mixture of observation and conclusion, confession and accusation, delicacy and slang, proverbs and non-sequiturs—flows only as long as their meters are running. Once the destination has been reached and the fare paid, they are reluctant to converse. This is because they are paying for every minute of their shift, and time is money.
Most of my conversations with auto drivers, therefore, took place on the road: I talked to their backs as they drove. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of their faces and expressions in the side-view mirrors of their vehicles, or they turned back to emphasise a particularly important point. Although my intention was to put a face to each driver, when I think of them now, I remember their voices more clearly than their visages.
ACCORDING TO THE 2001 CENSUS OF INDIA, there are 811 females for every 1,000 males in Mumbai and its suburbs, well below the national average (which stands at 933 to 1,000). This has to do less with the disappearance of women than with an infusion of men. The figure is explained by the large number of male migrants in Mumbai, living on their own or alongside other men, and sending money to their families back home.
“When a man gets into Bombay for the first time, he usually does one of two things,” said Rajesh Dubey, a rickshaw driver from Santa Cruz. “Either he finds work as a security guard, or he takes lessons from someone he knows and begins to drive an auto.”
Dubey had some farmland of his own in Allahabad, and, unusually for a migrant to Mumbai, spent more time at home than in the city, devoting seven or eight months of the year to his land, and then turning up in Mumbai to drive an auto for four or five months during the lean season. “I have a room in Santa Cruz which I share with some friends of mine,” he said, “and I know the person who has rickshaws to give out. The very morning I get back to Mumbai, I go straight to him, and by the afternoon I’m out on the streets in an auto.”
Most drivers are, like Dubey, first-generation migrants to the city. Their Mumbai looks different from the one held by locals, or even by other migrants from a higher class. The lives of migrant auto drivers unfold in what seems like a different city, defined by the groups in which auto drivers usually mix, their networks of support, their view of family, their relationship to money, the language they speak, the informal systems they follow amongst themselves, and their attitudes towards Mumbai’s own codes—toward its peculiar opportunities and debilitations.
One of the most distinctive attributes of the migrant rickshaw driver is the way in which he lives in two worlds at the same time: both city and village. “There must be about 250 people from my village in Uttar Pradesh now working in Mumbai,” said Imran Ali, the young auto driver from Dahisar, “and I know most of them. It was one of them that taught me how to drive a rickshaw. But it’s not like all of them are in the same profession. Lots of others are in different lines: they work for companies, or as salesmen, or in insurance. Since the time I came to Mumbai, many more have come after me. I myself taught one person how to drive an auto.”
It is this community of shared language and identity, rather than an acquired community of friends in Mumbai or the larger guild of rickshaw drivers, that is typically the auto driver’s source of security and support in the big city. Through its speech and customs he can experience a world that he knows and loves, a world whose often ironic view of the city and its quirks helps cushion the alienation he feels. If his work hours are given to anonymous encounters with other residents of Mumbai, then in his leisure time he seeks the experience of familiar pleasures.
“I don’t really go out much in my spare time,” said Sandesh Mali, a slim, shy, soft-spoken 29-year-old driver from Goregaon. “One doesn’t make so much money as to be able to go out to cinemas or eat in restaurants. Where I stay, near the Ram Mandir in Goregaon West, there are lots of people from my village in UP. In our leisure time we cook together, or watch a film on television together.” Mumbai, as mapped through the aggregated vision of the rickshaw drivers, suddenly turns out to be even more strange and vivid than the history of its own renowned diversity acknowledges. Within its suburban expanses one may find many villages in miniature, distant satellites of small towns and villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
The rickshaw drivers see the city of Mumbai as both friend and enemy, adversary and companion. The city provides work for all those who arrive, an opportunity to make more money than could be earned back home, a busy rhythm that makes the days rush past, a sense of self-reliance, and respect from those back in the village, even if not from Mumbaikars themselves. But it also requires a continuous state of alertness and competitiveness—an eye out for a traffic cop if one does not possess a badge, a rush to beat other drivers to a person on the street carrying a suitcase—that can be draining. The city extracts many sacrifices by way of food and lodging, attenuates family and social life, offers very little opportunity for progress, and eventually, over years and decades, wears a man down completely. It supplies some needs, but frustrates many others. In their villages, the drivers might have a certain family identity, a recognition and standing. In Mumbai, they are an anonymous underclass, defined entirely by the service they provide: they cease to be anybody’s concern the day they stop working.
I MET RAJENDRA NANDGAONKAR on a busy evening outside Bandra station. Ours was one of the millions of five-second negotiations and agreements that are perpetually taking place in the city. Unable to see the queue for autos that operates, somewhat haphazardly, outside most stations at peak hour, I attempted to stop Nandgaonkar’s as it was passing by.
“I can’t stop here,” he called out, as he slowed down. “The traffic constable might catch me.”
“It’s okay,” I called back, from five feet away. “I can’t see a policeman around.”
He looked around. “If I’m caught,” he asked, “will you pay the fine?”
“Okay, I will.”
“Then get in.”
Once we started talking, on a ride no more than a quarter of an hour long, Nandgaonkar, a glum, sallow man in his late 40s, and one the few Marathi-speaking drivers I met, proved himself a master of piercing pessimism. “Those who drive autos should actually be numbered among the ranks of the unemployed,” he declared. “Because in Bombay, it’s only when a man has nothing else to do that he drives an auto. There’s nothing in it for him—he does it just to survive for another day, or to keep hunger far from his family. If a rickshaw driver meets with a serious accident, he doesn’t stick around the scene. Why? Because he knows he can’t afford to pay the costs. He runs away, and catches a train for his native place. After a month or two, he comes back to the city to start out again.”
Nandgaonkar’s disillusionment was actually fairly typical. From their specific condition of uncertainty, itinerancy and alienation, many rickshaw drivers have forged a kind of gallows humour—disillusioned, ironical, self-deprecating, a rueful acknowledgement of failure or stasis in a city which venerates success and progress. Although they keep the city always on the move, they see themselves as stuck in a hole, without any prospect of advancement and prosperity. “Two things can always be seen on a Bombay street,” said Faujdar Yadav, a driver in his early 40s from the far northern suburb of Bhayandar, whose close-cropped white hair and weary face made him look about a decade older than he was. “One is garbage, and the other is autos. You might say that autos have the same status as garbage lying by the wayside.”
“If you think about it, the life-span of an auto-rickshaw and that of an auto driver are the same,” said Nandgaonkar. “When a new rickshaw appears on the roads of Bombay, it is given a permit. When does the permit expire? After 25 years. After that the auto is good only for scrap. Now let’s turn to the auto driver. When does a man start driving? In his early 20s, or maybe by the time he’s 30, after he’s exhausted all other options. He drives eight or nine hours a day, always tense, always breathing this terrible air, not eating his meals on time. How long can he go on before he dies? About 25 years at the most! By his 50s, he’s finished. He lives only to die, and even his family has no use for him.”
When I said goodbye to Nandgaonkar and asked for a phone number, he gave me a card. It had his own photograph on it, three mobile numbers, and, in capitals below his name, the words ‘Kaz Button Works.’ This small piece of paper was a vision of an alternative future he had imagined for himself as an entrepreneur. “It’s a small business I started recently,” he said, with a grin. “I coughed up 100,000 rupees for the machinery. But it’s not going too well right now. The buttons keep breaking in the machines. That’s why, after many months, I took the auto out today. And what was the first thing I saw? Someone had stolen the battery.”
The fact that the drivers are poor themselves offers little protection against those who would further prey on their vulnerability: not just the traffic police, who are usually Maharashtrian and therefore hostile to Hindi speakers but also, in the small hours of the night, the drunk and the desperate.
“These drunks can’t be trusted at all,” said Satyanath Pal, a driver in his 40s. “Often, when you get them home in the middle of the night, they refuse to pay the fare. If you insist, they turn violent. Sometimes they hang out in groups of two or three, stop you somewhere in a lonely place, and rob you of all your money. That’s why, even though my shift begins at seven in the evening, I often stop work at midnight.”
“In Bombay, there are more drunkards than honest people,” said Babban Pandey, a proud, upright man in his late 30s from Andheri. “They can’t be reasoned with. And these bastard charasis will do anything to make sure that they can get their fix. Only last week a driver from Shankarwadi, where I stay, got to his auto in the morning only to find it at a lower height than all the others. All three tyres were gone. What was he to do? If there’s anything you need in an auto, it’s the tyres! Even though he filed a police complaint, he had to buy three new ones that very day and start again. I tell you, there’s just no end to one’s tension in this city.”
TO SPEAK TO A MUMBAI RICKSHAW DRIVER is one way of learning to appreciate the value of a rupee. Rickshaw drivers have a remarkable processing ability and memory for numbers, and all kinds of figures come tumbling out of their stories.
“In the early 1990s, if you remember, the minimum fare used to be three rupees,” said Rajesh Tiwari, an animated, straight-talking driver in his late 30s who liberally sprinkled our conversation with curse-words (his signature line was “Bombay badi kutti cheez hai,” or “Bombay’s a real bitch!”). “Then it rose to four. Then it rose to five. The next time it rose,” he continued, as if observing some kind of mathematical miracle, “it jumped straight to seven! It never stopped at six.”
“A permit for an auto costs 85,000 rupees for three years,” Babban Pandey explained when I asked him to break down the economics of the business. “At 150 rupees a shift, two shifts a day, the owner renting out an auto makes 9,000 a month. Even if he spends, say, 3,000 a month on maintenance, he still makes 72,000 a year. That’s your investment for three years recovered in 14 months. The rest is all profit. I know a Madrasi in Andheri who has 85 rickshaws on hire. Think of how much money he must be making!”
“Before I started driving an auto, I used to work in a hotel in Marine Lines,” said Rajesh Dubey, the farmer from Allahabad. “Then I got into an argument, and left. Now, as a rickshaw driver, I make about 9,000 a month. Anand Shukla, who used to work with me at the hotel at the same salary as mine, now makes 16,000 a month, with all meals included. And two months bonus at Diwali! That’s a lot of money.”
“People think that after the 20 percent rise in fares, auto drivers are making more money,” said Shivaji Rane, a driver from the suburb of Mulund, a few days after the fares were increased in June for the first time in five years. “They don’t stop to think that prices have been rising like anything for years now, and that we drivers are the ones getting squeezed from all sides. The rent for one shift used to be 130 rupees. Now it’s 170. Motor oil used to be 80 or 90 rupees a litre—now it’s 140. Previously, if you stopped at any garage with some small problem, the mechanic would fix it for you for five rupees. Now they won’t even look at you unless you give them ten. We drivers don’t earn any money. We just pass it on from one person’s pocket to another.”
When we arrived at my destination—the apartment building of my chartered accountant in Mulund—Rane looked at the meter and gave me three rupees back from the 20 I gave him, though under the new fare scheme he should have kept it all. I pointed this out and gave him the change, to his embarrassment. “I guess I’m still following the old system,” he said.
LIKE MOST RESIDENTS OF THE CITY, the drivers have their own, highly developed and opinionated Theory of Bombay: how life is lived here, what makes the city tick, and what their own place is in the scheme of things. (Most rickshaw drivers still refer to the city as ‘Bambai.’) Always on the streets, continuously in contact with all kinds of people, they possess wider knowledge and more persuasive intuitions about the city than most. Their descriptions of the city have a certain heartfelt poetry, especially since their Hindi—and its many dialects—has a purer, sweeter sound that the patois that is Mumbaiyya Hindi. Looking around as they drive, they seem almost to be thinking aloud, and their words are a distillation of many years of wandering and watching.
“Bombay is a terrible city if you happen to be poor,” said Faujdar Yadav, the grizzled driver from Bhayandar. “It’s good only for those who have do number ka paisa (black money). Or at least that’s what I think. If you don’t agree with me, Sir, then tell me. These politicians here are fattening themselves and destroying the city, and those back home in UP are even worse, which is why so many hundreds and thousands come running here for employment. We’re all being eaten up by this lot.”
Yadav also had the disconcerting habit of saying “off ho gaye” when he meant that someone had passed away. During our conversation he not only revealed that his own father was now ‘off,’ but also established that mine was as well.
“There’s no humanity to be found in this place,” he declared. “Only greed, and power. A traffic constable has a salary of 10,000 rupees a month, and that’s about how much a rickshaw driver might make. Both of us have families to support, so you’d think there would be some sympathy from one side for the other. But no! They love to leech us. I’m telling you, these traffic constables make 2,000 rupees a day just from bribes and fines. Now, if you’re going to be making that much, you don’t get to do so for free. Everybody wants a cut. That’s why these people have to pay [tens of thousands] of rupees to higher-ups just to get their jobs. The system’s rotten from top to bottom. These people lost their sense of fairness and humanity a long time ago. What they love is cash, and a tipple in the evenings. And you know: as you eat, so is your disposition. Jaisa ann, waisa mann. So their mind runs off on those lines, of corruption and debauchery.”
“What this city gives with one hand, it takes with the other,” Babban Pandey declared half an hour into our conversation on a rainy night in June, on a drive from a friend’s place in Andheri to my mother’s home in Borivali—about 15 kilometres. “In Bombay, sure you might have work. But you have no respect. You may have food to eat. But you don’t have peace of mind. You have clothes to wear, but in another way you’re stripped naked by the city. How rudely everyone speaks here to people of a lower class! I’m a Brahmin, and I was brought up with certain values. It’s painful to me to be spoken to in a certain kind of way.”
Pandey, was driving on the Western Express Highway, which cuts a line through the western suburbs. As we laboured through one water-logged patch, cars raced past us on either side, drenching us both in foul water. Pandey apologised profusely, saying he shouldn’t have been driving in the middle lane. It took him a while to return to the theme he was considering.
“If there’s anything good about the city,” he said, “it’s this. Even if it treats you badly, it gives you a chance to learn things like no other place does. I’m 39 now. I worked for six years in a printing company at 6,000 rupees a month, then gave it up when they increased my duties but wouldn’t give me a raise. When I was leaving, the boss came up to me and said, ‘Listen, I’ll give you 2,000 more. Now just get back to work.’ I told him, ‘Even if you double my salary, I’m not staying.’ And I left. I had some friends who used to drive rickshaws, so I started driving one too. I’ve been driving one now for 11 years. I’d always wanted to start a small business of my own. Last year my father said to me, ‘Son, all your working hours are spent driving your rickshaw. How will you even start a trade?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry. Driving an auto, getting around the city, one meets all kinds of people, one sees all kinds of things. While I’m driving my auto, I’m also seeing from where people buy goods, where they go to sell them. I’ve seen how people buy something from one place at one rupee, and sell it somewhere else at ten. I know a man who supplies goods in this way to all the vendors on the bridge of Jogeshwari station. So I’m keeping my eyes and ears open, father, getting ready for when the time comes.’ But time doesn’t wait for anybody. My father passed away on 31 December last year.”
By this point we had reached Borivali. It was nearly one in the morning. But Pandey was speaking so animatedly that we continued to chat in the dark, by the roadside. Suddenly a man pulled up on a motorcycle and came to a halt beside us. The driver, a young man in jeans, a T-shirt and a windcheater, asked Pandey rudely in Marathi, “What’re you doing here?”
Somewhat taken aback, Pandey said, in Hindi, “I was just chatting with this passenger.”
“Do you think you can stop anywhere at any hour of the night and chat? Be on your way!”
“I don’t understand,” Pandey replied, with great courtesy. “What’s wrong if we were just talking?”
“Know who I am? I’m the shakha pramukh of the Borivali branch of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena,” the man said. “It’s my duty to keep the law and order. Think I’m cruising around at night just for fun? There have been 46 robberies in this area in the last month. 46! I’ts my duty to keep the law and order. Think I’m cruising around at night just for fun?”
“So what?” said Pandey, raising his voice and switching to Marathi, which he spoke fluently after a lifetime in Mumbai. “You do your job and let me do mine. I’ve just come in from Andheri, and that’s where I’m going. I don’t have anything to do with your neighbourhood.”
“Don’t get so worked up,” said the man, backing off a little. “I was just checking, because I saw you parked by the roadside with your engine off.” Fishing out his wallet, he gave Pandey his card, and then decided to hand me one as well. I squinted at it in the dark. It said: Pritam Revdandekar, shakha pramukh, MNS. We thanked him for his troubles. “All right,” he said. Revving up his bike, he stylishly pulled his windcheater around his shoulders and drove off, a vigilante on the prowl.
“See that?” said Pandey, outraged and vindicated at the same time. “I told you! This is the kind of city where, if you speak nicely to someone, you won’t get anything for your troubles. But after I raised my voice, and spoke to him just as rudely as he spoke to me, he saw that I wasn’t going to back down, and he came to his senses. I tell you, my home town is Lucknow, where they say ‘janaab’ to you everywhere, and every time I come back after spending time there, how my ears ring when I listen to the people of Bombay! I’m telling you, this isn’t a place to stay for long. It’s a place to learn something, and then be off.”
CHANDRAHAS CHOUDHURY is the Fiction and Poetry editor at The Caravan. He is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins, 2009) and editor of ananthology of short stories, India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2010). He studied English at Delhi University and Cambridge University. His book reviews appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.