Three American diplomats discover Delhi in their personalized autorickshaws—one honk at a time.
From right: Ruth, Shareen, and Darby and her mother Ann stand next to their autorickshaws.
Don’t be surprised the next time you spot an autorickshaw with a diplomatic number plate weaving through Delhi traffic. It is possibly one of the American diplomats who have taken a fancy to the ubiquitous three-wheeler and drive around the city in their beloved “tuk-tuks.”
Ann, Shareen and Ruth bought three-wheelers to experience the capital in all its uniqueness. They have taken this quintessential mode of public transport and turned it into a personal vehicle of choice.
Ann has taken special care to personalize her autorickshaw, nicknamed KITT, in homage to the 1980’s show “Knight Rider.” She has been driving KITT for the past two years, adding accessories to the vehicle, which is now an extension of her personality.
“KITT is all about the bling,” says Ann. She has chosen an all-black auto that has doors on both sides of the passenger seats. The passenger seat is protected by two special high-speed leopard print curtains on each side. For her own convenience, she has placed a small fan next to the steering unit and a portable bluetooth speaker in the overhead space, giving her the music she needs. “I also have a little tissue box for my guests and a little phone holder so that I know where I am. Because I am always lost,” she says with a straight face.
Shareen decided to have some fun with the exterior of her autorickshaw—she drives around in a pink auto that has small flowers painted on its body. Even though pink is not even her natural choice of color, there was something about this auto that instantly attracted her. “The pink color just spoke to me. And I waited for three months before I could get my custom pink.” She has been driving her auto around town for the past six months.
It is hard to miss the colors that Shareen’s pink vehicle brings to the roads. She has tied colorful tassels to both sides of her auto and stuck flags of the United States and India near the windshield, in true diplomat style. “It’s a small, nimble vehicle with a big impact,” she says. “As a diplomat, I wanted to live life like a common person and as a woman I find it very liberating.”
Ruth opted for the more traditional black and yellow autorickshaw. It has no bling, no bright colors or quirky accessories. But it means business, and it’s been on the road for the past one year.
“I chose this as my mode of commute because, first it is fun–I love driving and zagging through the traffic. It is also very efficient and convenient and helps me get through the traffic very easily,” she says.
Clockwise from above: Ruth, Shareen and Ann drive their autorickshaws.
The fun of driving an autorickshaw is one resounding motivation behind each diplomats’ offbeat transport choice. And adding to the fun are the unique interactions they have with local commuters—something a regular car would rob them off.
“The pink color attracts a lot of attention,” says Shareen. “I’ve had a three-star (Army) General roll down her window and wave to me. Another time, a person driving an antique silver Ambassador [car] rode up to me and said: ‘You know, I went out of my way to check out who was driving this amazing auto,’ ” she says, laughing.
Waves, applause and questions are all in a day’s work. “There are so many people who look twice at me and they want a ride,” says Ann. “But I always have to tell them no. And they look a little confused, but then they start to laugh. And I feel like we have an inside joke.”
Ruth too has been flagged down by curious onlookers, held up by all types of questions. “I was stopped at a traffic light by a combination of people who were selling items [at the crossing] and people in the traffic,” she recounts. “It is very common for people to stop at traffic lights and get out of their vehicle, come over and talk to me. They want to know why I am driving an auto, whether I like it, if it’s hard. They generally congratulate me for doing it. It’s such a wonderful one-to-one experience on the streets of Delhi.”
But is driving an auto in the Delhi traffic really hard? Ann may have cracked the code. She believes honking is the language on Delhi roads. “There’s a flow to the traffic,” she says. “All of the horns are actually a language telling people where you are, and if you’re a part of that, you can understand the traffic and move with the flow.”
Ruth has taken the honking in her stride. “My fun trick? I honk a lot,” she laughs. “Everybody uses it in their commute. Sometimes it is to let people know you are there, if you are a smaller vehicle, at times [it is] some of the tension as they are driving along. I’ve had people honk at me regularly because they want to attract my attention so that I can wave and smile and say hello to them. So, I’ve made good use of the horn. It is very different from the United States, because we don’t ever think to blow the horn.”
As the driver of a smaller vehicle, navigating some roads amidst big vehicles can be nerve-wracking. But Shareen encourages people to be brave. “My tip for dealing with traffic here is do not be afraid of the size. I get right in there between all the big trucks and make my way to the front of the line of cars,” she says. And this makes sense. Back home in the United States, Shareen commands meaner machines—she can also pilot a small plane.
But in India, these diplomats have taken to the common man’s commute not just for fun, but also to set an example. “One of my overall life goals is women’s empowerment,” says Ann. “I have two daughters—one is here with me, and she also drives this auto. It was never a question. I am always proud of her when she takes it and shows women her age—it’s completely possible for me to drive and why wouldn’t they as well?”