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An average automaniac raves about dream machines that cost the earth. But there is also a little-known tribe of men and women floored by the charms of the very plebian autorickshaw.
There is a whole army of ardent auto lovers which can't seem to get enough of the annual rallies in which brightly-coloured three wheelers crisscross the country. A few even end up buying these vehicles.
Arvind Bremanandam's love for the auto started early, from the time he went to school in an autorickshaw. Today he owns over 30 autorickshaws and runs Chennai Event Management Services, a company that organises auto rallies across the country.
"Autos are cute. That almost eggshaped design is completely indigenous, completely Indian. It is difficult not to become attached to them. You can speak to your auto, plead with it: 'Please don't break down now'. Most people give their autos names;I call mine Nora, " says Arvind.
"Our rickshaw was called Barry. . . I'm not sure how this came about, but we loved him very much. Many people come up with pet names for their vehicles and get attached to them. There's even been tears when giving back the keys for the last time, " says Matt Dickensen who lives in Goa and is the India manager for The Adventurists - another company that organises rickshaw rallies. These rallies, over a dozen happening every year in different parts of the country, have become a huge tourist draw and have rickshaw enthusiasts, mostly foreigners from across the world and India too, participating in them.
Most auto aficionados love the effort of primping up their rickshaws. Fancy horns and garish decorations are big hits. But Chennai auto lover Ayappan would rather spend long hours making his vehicle comfortable. His golden yellow auto has fancy trappings - an electronic ignition, anti-theft technology, a camera to help him watch the rear when he reverses and even a remote control that draws the auto to him after a shopping expedition.
While most auto owners talk of switching to a Nano, Ayyappan is firm in his loyalty to his vehicle. "An auto is the most compact vehicle you can have. It's easy to manoeuvre even in terrible traffic, " says Ayyappan, who ferries his family everywhere in the auto.
Briton Benjamin Higgins fell in love with an auto way back in 2000 when he hired an auto driver to take him all around Kerala. Then he decided to drive it himself in a rally last year. He loved the experience so much that on his parents' 60th anniversary he invited them to participate in an auto rally. "They completed the rally and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, " says Benjamin who dreams of owning one back home in the UK.
An Australian travel writer based in Mumbai, Sharell Cook, is yet another convert. "What I love about the autorickshaw is that it's open, yet enclosed - like a cross between a motorbike and a car, " says Sharell. Incidentally, auto lovers point out that no matter which part of the country they are in, they always manage to find a mechanic in case of a breakdown. "Willing helpers, plus the usual crowd of onlookers, appear out of nowhere, and shops with spare parts are always close by, " says Sharell.
The autorickshaw, for most of its fans, is also a way to get to know people better. "They are great conversation starters. It's not shutting out the world like when you are in a car. Rickshaws get help from everybody, " says Aravind.
Matt narrates an incident to prove just how easily people become friendly. "We were passing through Chennai when we got a puncture. We pulled over to get it fixed and grab a chai when a lovely young woman, Sujatha Bakianathan, with whom we are still in touch, came out of her house beaming with delight. Her husband had had a dream about rickshaws driven by foreigners just the night before! She invited us in for a meal and to rest. It's moments like this that really make the Rickshaw Run an event
without equal, " says Matt.
Sharell loved the reaction of autorickshaw drivers too. "I won't forget the rickshaw driver who pulled up alongside me and challenged me to a race, or the autorickshaw drivers in Mumbai who smiled at the sight of my brightly-painted rickshaw. As we queued up at the traffic lights, I asked one of them 'Accha lagta hai?' (looks good?), he nodded enthusiastically in response, " says Sharell.
Serious three-wheeler fans have experimented with variations in the theme in different countries - the ubiquitous tuk tuks of Thailand and the coco taxis of Cuba. But the Indian auto, they say, is incomparable. Matt Dickensen is dismissive about the charms of the tuk tuk. They are, he says, "a little like rickshaws that have been spending a few months in the gym and too long in front of the mirror". His favourite three-wheeler ? "I couldn't possibly betray my beloved Indian rickshaw now, could I?" says Matt, who hopes to own an auto some day.
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