For most of the year, Alex Jones, 25, is a respectable tax consultant working in Bristol. But for two weeks, he takes off on a wild romp. This year, he’ll be travelling 7,500 miles by train from Bristol to Shanghai. Last year, he was in India to take part in the Mumbai Xpress autorickshaw rally, a 1,180-mile romp from the Western metropolis to Chennai down south.
It was a memorable experience, says Alex on email, though rather stressful. It was the height of the monsoons and at the end of a week, he did not have any dry clothes left. But he did manage to have fun, and even an impromptu shower in the rain with some shampoo he’d bought. Stopping for chai and chat at roadside tea-stall, he tried to teach the chaiwala how to make English tea, “but he was very sceptical and much preferred his chai”.
This might sound like typical Western romanticising about India, but the point is that the humble autorickshaw is emerging as a major ‘tourist’ attraction for a lot of foreigners.
There are now two well-developed ‘circuits’ — one centred around Chennai and Aravind Bremanandam, who’s been organising autorickshaw rallies since 2006. There are three now with a fourth, Malabar Rampage, starting next year.
There’s also ‘Rickshaw Run’, run by UK firm, The Adventurists, a twice-yearly race that starts from Goa, and ends in Pokhara, Nepal or Shillong in the northeast.
Autorickshaw racing is a sport aimed primarily at the West. “Sixty per cent of my clients are European,” says Bremanandam. So prices are in euros or pounds, and many thousands of it. Add a few hundred more for ‘pimping’ — jargon for the additions made to the vehicle, everything from musical horns to stickers and custom paint, DVD/MP3 player, fridge, and fans.
Autorickshaw races didn’t start like this, of course. It is a phenomenon peculiar to Chennai, say Bremanandam and others like Rakesh Aggarwal of Delhi-based auto drivers’ outfit Nyaya Bhoomi. “They were an underground phenomenon in the 80s and 90s,” says Pushkar, director of Oram Po (2007), a Tamil film on auto racing. “Races took place on the East Coast Road, at the crack of dawn. These were rough with lots of banging about and violence.” The Chennai police cracked down on auto racing some ago, and it’s almost died out now - only to be reborn as an adventure tourism sport.
But the story of the autorickshaw's metamorphosis does not end here. Early this year, the auto became the vehicle — literally — for the head honchos of DHL, the MNC courier company, to play corporate games. “Our South Asia Pacific/Europe Tradeline Summit was happening in Mumbai and we wanted to make it especially memorable, not just hire a bus and take everyone around,” says Jyoti Row Kavi, the DHL spokesperson. It was German expat Franz Festl who came up with the idea of an event around the autorickshaws and roped in Bremanandam. A few autorickshaws were hired, and everyone divided into groups of two-three - one from each continent. The groups had to take part in an ‘autorickshaw ballet’, one driving and the other navigating. “It worked as a great ice-breaker and was also a lot of fun,” says Festl.
Perhaps we Indians need to look at the autorickshaw with fresh eyes?