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Touching

I am inside a traffic jam in Bhubaneswar. My first traffic jam in Bhubaneswar. Have there been other traffic jams in Bhubaneswar before this? May be. I do not know. This is my first one.

I have caught a shared auto going straight from the old bus stand to Damana Chhaka. The auto is supposed to travel further north all the way till Magnetic Square. When it reaches Acharya Vihar Chhaka, the traffic on the highway is as thick as Ma’s jau.

Everyone gets down. Apart from a young college student and me. A man who would have been more than sixty years old gets in. He is wearing blue jeans and a funky T-shirt. The college kid is sitting in the middle, the old man, at the other end.

The boy has straight, or perhaps straightened, hair falling till the shoulders. He is not particularly good looking, but he is attractive. I take him all in, in a fleeting glance. He notices, but looks away towards the footpath. What is there on the footpath? Nothing, as far as I can see.

The auto moves and stops, moves and then stops again. What looked like heavy traffic a few minutes back is now a roaring traffic jam.

‘What happened?’

‘Soumya Patnaik’s daughter is getting married.’

‘So?’

‘He has invited five thousand people and the reception is in Janata Maidan.’

‘Oh!’

‘So, the traffic has now started piling up even a mile away because of the lack of parking arrangements.’

I get a book out and start reading, ‘And then there were none.’ I had put the book in the bag thinking I had forgotten the plot. But I have not. I still want to read it though. But not here, not under the present circumstances. I keep it back in the bag and take out Bisada eka rutu (Dejection is a season), a collection of poems by Bhanuji Rao, a twentieth-century Odia poet who never got married. The poems are exactly what the doctor ordered. A few minutes pass. Or, is it a quarter of an hour? I do not feel like fishing my mobile phone out and checking the time.

I look up from Bhanuji Rao to see the boy staring at me, rather at my hair. ‘Is your hair really like this?’ ‘As in?’ ‘You haven’t permed it?’ ‘No.’ He looks at my face now and asks, ‘Can I touch it?’ I say, ‘Of course.’

He does not do anything for three seconds. For some reason, I start counting and count till six when he reaches out first with his left hand and then with the other hand and puts both his palms on the top of my mop. He bounces one of his palms a bit and says, ‘Cool’, and rubs a few strands of my hair in his fingers. As if on cue, the traffic starts to move, albeit very slowly, but it moves. 

We cross Janata Maidan in ten grueling minutes and Kalinga Hospital Chhaka in another five. After that the traffic is still heavy, but there is no jam. The boy and I do not say anything to each other. I get down at Damana Chhaka. He gets off to let me pass, so does the old man who has been playing some game on his mobile all this while. I hope the boy would reach out to touch my hair again. But he does not.   

Seeing

You cannot see through the auto’s back. That much is obvious. What you see from the backseat depends on how crowded it is. If there are four people squeezed on the backseat, with each alternative person leaning against the seat or pushed into the front with the knees touching the partition behind the driver’s seat, then it boils down to where you are. 

The best seat is the second one from behind the driver’s right if you are sitting pushed to the front. You are squeezed ahead with only your posterior resting on the seat. You can turn your head to the right and have a clear view through the gap. You can also look straight ahead, or to the left for that matter. You also have a good view of the mirror. You can check the driver out and occasionally check him checking you out. 

But the best seat of all is of course the one in the front to the right of the driver. You have a 180-degree view of the street.

The height from the ground is hardly 20 inches, perhaps a little lower than the driving seat of a scooter. You feel closer to the ground. From the middle of the backseat if you turn towards your right or left, the view is more or less a classic portrait one—a series of moving portraits congealing into a multimedia installation rather than a video. 

On the left, the view is of walls, government-approved and sanitized wall paintings, shops, houses, parked vehicles, decreasingly of trees. On the right, it is primarily of moving traffic and straggling plants on the slivers of soil on the divider. 

However, you perhaps do not look out of autos to see the city. You do that due to the very old human habit of looking out of windows. For the two sides of the backseat of an auto are that strange thing—doors that are also windows and windows that are also doors.

Stopping, not stopping

I am traveling to Cuttack by public transport after a while. Usually, I ride my scooter. But not today. I get down just before the Link Road intersection and loop back to the street going towards the High Court. There are no autos at the head of the road, where it branches off from Press Chhaka. 

I start walking. After three minutes or so, I see a shared auto moving towards me. It seems full. I hail a ride nonetheless. It stops. ‘High Court gadaa?’ I ask. He says, ‘Yes’, and requests a thin guy sitting to his right to move to the back. With some help, the passenger squeezes into the backseat, settling on the tiny wedge of space ceded by the three who are already seated.

I sit on the narrow ledge to the right of the driver. It is not comfortable. The driver, who would not be a day older than twenty-five, senses my discomfort and shifts a bit to his left. I move my posterior by a few inches. It is still not comfortable. But I have a firmer ass-hold now. The driver does not stop for any more passengers. Near the CDA intersection, the guy sitting to the left of the driver gets off. He gives a twenty-rupee note to the driver, who returns a tenner.

The passenger gives it back saying that it is a soiled and damaged note and no one would accept it. The driver takes it back without saying a single word, shuffles through the hamper hanging on the steering for change, figures out a crackling note that looks like it is hot off from the press and gives it to the man now standing on the footpath, saying, ‘Take and sow it’, and zooms off. There is a woman hailing a ride a little further down the road. The driver does not stop.

Listening 

What you generally do not listen inside an auto is the noise of the traffic outside. Wait, you are saying that is not true. Let me explain. You hear the noise of the traffic outside, but you are actually not listening to the honking and the silencers of the bullets. Because you are busy concentrating on your neighbours’ conversations on the mobile phone.

You may hear, for example, a sophisticated, obviously upper-middle-class-looking woman relating her woes of being regularly battered by her husband to her friend in a matter-of-fact manner in Odia. Or someone from Bhawanipatna calling up folks back home and describing the meal that he just had at a marriage reception in a four-star hotel in chaste Koshali. Or a Bengali college student calling her friend and explaining why she prefers Bhubaneswar over Calcutta. You also hear Kui, Santhali, Telugu, Hindi and English. 

The shared auto in Bhubaneswar is a self-evidently polyglot space than any other place in the city, with the possible exception of a general class railway compartment. You also hear stories, like that of the battering, that you would rarely hear elsewhere. What is it about the enclosed space of a shared auto rickshaw that invites this willingness to expose oneself? I do not know. 

But I do know this. Things do sound a little different when you are sitting in a shared auto. The sheer density of the weight of human bodies cramped together in a small space seems to muffle things a bit. So do the plastic dropdown sheets that most autos use to screen off the rains in the monsoon and the chilly winds during winter. 

When the plastic sheets are dropped down in the auto and latched to the poles with strings, the pitter-patter of the rains suddenly moves to a distance. The traffic sounds as if it is coming from a few metres away. It is not so much muffled, as tuned down. Is it this that invites the revelations in shared autos and its polyglossia? I do not know. Do you?

—Sailen Routray

Cover image by Om Prakash Sethia on Unsplash.

Complement this essay with Swati Pathak’s ‘An untitled journey’ on daily commutes and exceptional journeys made in and out of the city, and Samprati Pani’s ‘City on the move, in fragments’ on the sociality of traversing the codes and infrastructure of the Delhi metro.

Glossary

chhaka: A chhaka literally means a square. But in practice, it refers to any kind of junction on a road.

gadaa: A gadaa is a declining slope from a road on an embankment.

jau: Jau is a thick and gooey Odia sweet made by boiling cooked rice with milk, grated coconut, jaggery, pepper powder and salt. 

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