No poetic meter

No poetic meter

I have long suspected that the digital meter in a Chennai auto plays the same role as the appendix does in the human body. It is a vestigial organ left in place by the evolution of auto technology. A recent visit confirmed this suspicion.

I arrived in Chennai Central by the morning Shatabdi Express, half an hour late. After a long trek down the length of the platform, I found myself face-to-face with a pugnacious and intimidating individual: the fabled auto driver of Chennai. A mere 500 km separates Bengaluru and Chennai, but for a Bengalurean trying to communicate in the local language, Chennai may as well be a foreign city.

By long habit, I spoke in Kannada, but I was given the French treatment. It effectively conveys, "Even if we know your language, we aren't going to acknowledge it." I tried Telugu. The Madras Presidency united Andhra and Tamil country under a single banner for a couple of hundred years. Hey, for old times' sake! Maybe some memories of the language exist still? I waited with 'non-local' written all over my anxious face while his brain made rapid calculations behind the horizontal sandalwood lines and the dot of vibhuti on his forehead. Perhaps he was trying to estimate how much I would be willing to pay to reach my lunch destination - the iconic Hotel Saravana Bhavan.

Hoping to pass off as a frequent visitor, I switched to rusty, halting Tamil. He tied up his Chentex lungi and pulled at his upper cloth. I watched him in fascination, fully expecting him to twirl his handlebar moustache, just like in Tamil movies before a fight scene... but he just nodded at me to get in the auto, quoting a price with a 'take-it-or-leave-it' nonchalance. I took it humbly, but I couldn't resist a little request. "Can you turn on the meter?" I guiltily mumbled as if I'd just asked him for a free ride. Noticing his condescending and knowing smile, I understood that it was an outrageous question. Oh, these innocent Bengalureans have no clue!

The ride itself was enjoyable. I was surprised by the pleasantness of the weather till I remembered that it was December: the month that Chennai feels comfortable without a fan running.

We passed by huge posters of the ex-chief minister, Amma herself, in her garlanded glory, still beaming down on the city a full year after she died.

By the time I reached Mylapore, I could not hold in my curiosity any longer. I just had to ask. "Does anyone in the city ever use the meter?"

He got off first, handed me the exact change and courteously helped me with my suitcase. We had become friends. He then said matter-of-factly, "Nobody uses it. It's just there."

Maybe this sweltering city with a character as strong as its filter kaapi will come up with an alternative to the digital meter. But for now, I would recommend a mass meter-ectomy.

 

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