“Royapetta?” the autowallah indicated that he understood where I was going so I continued “landmarkaa AIADMK?”
“Okay, madam get in”
“ No…wait…ummm… elli, evlo?”
“100 rupees madam”
Autowallahs in Chennai are well known for their arrogance and general practice of drastically over charging. They never use the meter and most people who live in Chennai simply stopped requesting meter usage or expecting a fair rate. It is customary to simply haggle for a rate that is close to being reasonable. This particular autowallah wanted to charge me Rs100 for a Rs50 ride. Therefore, the negotiations began.
“50 rupees” I replied
“85 rupees madam”
“70 rupees no more”
“85 rupees madam”
Unwilling to pay more than Rs70 rupees, I turned away and once again secured my scarf over my nose and mouth.
I was always fond of scarves, but after I moved to Chennai, my scarves evolved from fashion accessories to shields that protect one against an extreme level of pollution, uncovered coughs, dust, free flowing sneezes, and miscellaneous airborne debris. Seconds later, another auto approached. I removed my fashionable shield in order to speak with him.
The autowallah leaned in my direction and pointed to his ear with an index finger “What?”
“Royaapett-aaah” I repeated the name of the area once more and I tried a bit harder to say it without an American accent.
“ohhh Rooyaaapettaa…yeah…sure sure sure” He seemed pleased that we were making progress and I shared his enthusiasm. So, I continued.
“landmark-aah AIADMK” His response was a blank stare. While making a genuine effort not to get frustrated, I tried again.
“AIADMK officeaah?” He understood and he was clarifying that he heard me correctly. With excitement, I eagerly replied
“Okay okay sure sure sure…” he said while gesturing for me to enter the auto, but I refused
“Evlo?” I asked
This seemed slightly too easy. Normally, the haggling also requires the patron to walk away. Flag down another autowallah. Negotiate with him (it is always him). When it seems that you may take the second auto, the former auto will walk over to you as say “okay madam” and offer you a relatively reasonable rate.
In this instance, I tried to avoid seeming too surprised. Slowly I mumbled “aamam 60 rupees” and quickly entered the vehicle.
Midway to my destination, he turned around and asked me how much the other autowallah wanted. I pretended not to understand him and just repeated the name of my destination
“AIADMK office-aah” until he gave up and stopped asking.
We reached the office and I directed him to the actual location of my Tamil Class, which was only 2 two blocks away from the landmark (AIADMK Office).
He stopped in front of the building. I give him a Rs100 note. He gave me Rs10 in change and said 90 rupees madam.
Unable to control my outrage, I replied
“90 rupees madam, further than AIADMK”
“Ellie, no no no, I want the rest of my change… 30 rupees”
“okay, 10 more rupees”
“No, 30 more rupees,” I insisted
“10 more” he repeated with a level of arrogance that made it difficult for me to keep a level voice.
“Give me my change or I will call the police and report you for stealing.” My lips released the words without consulting my brain first.
“okay madam 15 more,” he said this as though he was doing me a favor
“No, 30 rupees,” I in insisted once more
This is the moment when I took my mobile phone out of my bag and I hoped that my poker face would not fail me. I pretended to search for the number for the local police. In reality, I had no clue how to dial the police. However, the autowallah was unaware of this.
My heart raced a bit, but my adrenalin and outrage helped me to maintain my composure. As I stalled and scrolled through all of my contacts, none of which were police officers, I was relieved to hear him say
“no madam, police not necessary madam”
He seemed quite concerned. I took advantage of this, raised my cell phone a bit higher and put my thumb on the call button. He was unable to see that there was no number on the screen for me to call and I waited for his reaction.
Two or three of the longest seconds passed and I calmly repeated, “30 rupees”.
He turned around, removed 30 rupees from his shirt pocket, and gave it to me over his shoulder while continuing to look straight ahead. Feeling very grateful that he did not call my bluff, I left the auto as quickly as I initially entered.
That evening, I enjoyed my Tamil class and I learned some useful phrases, but my top priority was to learn how to ACTUALLY dial the police.