The Auto Diaries
I don’t remember when it all began, but vividly remember the sense of discomfort that gradually crept in with every recurrence. I decided to capture it in pictures. It continues. Join me on the ride.
And so it begins.
I am a suburban, city girl in Bombay, and have sworn by the auto rickshaw for commute. And there are about a million others just like me. Sure, I use Uber when needed, but I don’t need to hire a cab when work is only 15 minutes from home and most of my friends and the common jaunts are relatively close by. For me, the world in a sense is in close proximity and I’d rather run down my building and hail the first three-wheeler I see.
I want a safe ride. A smooth ride (as if, with the potholes). A ride that simply takes me from one place to the next without having to worry about much. But, of course, that isn’t the case.
*Insert superfluous rear-view mirror*
It’s the mirrors: unnecessary looking glasses, additional to the mandatory ones on either side of the vehicle, that hang tight above the heads of the drivers giving them a peek to grossly compensate for the lack of eyes behind their heads. Not just the extra ones attached above, also the ones that are inverted and fitted within the rickshaw that seem to reflect more of the inside than out.
The digital time stamp of the first image I clicked for the purpose of record reads 13/4/16. That’s two years now. I browsed through the back-up files from my previous phone along with ones from my current phone and managed to curate nearly 200 odd shots of this invasion of my privacy — not to mention some that I lost owing to my technological ineptitude, and many others that I couldn’t capture thanks to the lack of storage on my phone, or worse, a dead battery. As if it wasn’t enough that as a woman, especially an Indian woman, I need to ‘cover up’, ‘look decent’, or be mindful of myself to be inconspicuous to the male gaze, it now follows me into the auto as well.
Cue: ‘Uhg, what’s she going on about now?’ ‘Bloody Feminist!’ ‘Misandrist!’ ‘She needs to get rid of that stick up her ass’ ‘It’s coming down to mirrors now — what’s next, my beard pomade? Banishing men altogether? She needs to chill the fuck out!’
How about NO?
This phenomenon that I noticed two years ago has reached every second rickshaw that I hail today. The quick adjustment of the mirrors, the stares, the distracted driving — how do you expect one to feel safe, and not jeopardised or threatened? My ride is anything but comfortable, as I sit there, robbed off the mindless respite I can give myself in the interim between home and work, or any destination. All I need is for the driver to have his eyes on the road, but he sits there instead, probably hoping the objects in the mirror were truly closer than they appeared to be.
These mirrors come in all shapes and sizes to offer anything between a sliver to a panoramic view of the passenger. Round, rectangular, square — in small sizes — and even large and wide ones that spread corner to corner, angled to reflect everything face-down.
I decided to engage in dialogue and question these drivers on the intent and purpose of the third mirror. The responses, mostly reactions, spanned across the spectrum. Following are three varied conversations:
Me: Bhaiya, yeh kyu daal ke rakha hain? Do already hain, teesre ki kya zaroorat hain?
(Why have you kept this one? You already have two of them, what do you need a third one for?)
Driver: Madam, mera gaadi nahi hain, main bhaade pe chalaata hu. Abhi daalne wale ko puchna padega. Daalte hain bahot aaj kal, dekhne ke liye..
(Madam, this isn’t my own vehicle, I drive it on rent. You’ll have to ask the owner. A lot of them are putting these up these days to see…)
Me: Kya dekhna hain peeche?
(To see what behind?)
Driver: Madam, unki soch hain abhi, main kya kahu…?
(Madam, it’s their mentality, what do I say…?)
Me: Bhaiya, iss ki kya zaroorat hain?
(What is the need for this?)
Driver *turns around, glaring at me*: Kya cheez?
Me*pointing at the mirror*: Yeh.
Driver*agitated, joins his palms*: Madam, aap utar jao.
(Madam, please get off)
Me: Main aise hi poonch rahi hu, do hain side main, itna bada yahan pe kyu lagaya hain?
(I’m just asking you, you already have two on either side, why have you put such a large one up front?)
Driver*curtly*: Aap jao, please, humme jaana hain.
(Please leave, I have to get going)
Me: Bhaiya, yeh kyu daala hain, itna bada?
(Why have you kept this mirror, such a big one?)
Me: Boliye na, kyu daala hain yeh? Do toh hain aapke paas, yeh kiske liye rakha hain?
(Tell me, why have you kept it? You already have two, what is this one for?)
We could hear the crickets chirping by then. My colleague and I were in the richshaw together at this time. She joined the probing and asked him again. He was red-faced, with absolutely nothing to say. Shocked and embarrassed at being asked, he hung his head in shame only lifting it to navigate through the street. Perhaps he never imagined being questioned about this. Alas, the shame-r, became the shame-e. A strange sympathy swept over me for a split second, only to be abandoned as I saw the curve of my breasts reflected in his strategically angled mirror. I was furious. But the silence was unnerving, annoying. What was this sudden wave of guilt he drowned himself in, with no courage to offer words to defend his actions? And how could he anyway, with such flawed fundamentals? He wasn’t the only one who offered silence and displayed shame. There were many others, who went about the rides stealing nonchalant glances, only to shrivel at being questioned. Did I suddenly remind them of their mother’s hopes of having raised decent human beings? Or were they ashamed at having confronted their lesser selves, at the prospect of actually being held accountable through the unlikely question?
This alarmingly growing trend has been an issue that has plagued not only the city, but some parts of the country as well. Following is an excerpt from a news report published last month:
‘Auto driver gave awkward stares from the rare-view mirror’
Tulika Arora, 24, a software consultant and resident of Rajendra Nagar, says, “I frequently travel in cabs and autorickshaws. A few days ago, I took an auto from my residence to my office in Civil Lines. I had to pick up one of my colleagues on the way and so, we took a longer route via Rampur Garden. On the way, the autowallah kept staring from the rear-view mirror. These days, it feels unsafe to travel in the autos and I feel cabs are much safer.”
The year before, stricter actions were imposed in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala to ban the invasive mirror, deeming it an ‘illegal fitting’ that ‘distract(s) the drivers’.
Closer home back in 2015, activists in Thane campaigned for the removal of intrusive rear-view mirrors altogether. Did their campaign come to fruition? I’m not sure. I must reveal that the aforementioned are the only three substantial results that popped up in my research on the nuisance these mirrors have caused.
It is disconcerting to know you’ve got eyes on you. As I sit here writing this, I’m asking myself what more can be done. Collecting some sort of evidence was step 1. But the whole issue is a larger manifestation of the deep-rooted socio-cultural misogyny that the world today thrives on.
An excerpt from this article on objectification elucidates:
A man staring at a woman’s body maybe seems innocent enough, but when we consider the (possible, unknowable) intention behind the gaze, things can get a little complicated. Is he looking at her to merely acknowledge her presence, or is he planning to hurt her? Does he see a human or an object? And the difference literally can mean life or death to the woman.
According to The Objectification Theory published by Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in Psychology of Women Quarterly back in 1997, sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are isolated from her whole and complex being and treated as objects simply to be looked at, coveted, or touched.
Have you ever felt unsafe in an auto? Share your stories in the comments below.