The time: 6.45 a.m. Not quite morning (Mumbai mornings wake up late, though the people, of course, are up and about, including yours truly).
Up and about at high speed. On the Western Express Highway, which is converted to a Formula One race track every morning (till 8.30 a.m -after that it's a different story altogether). And so, the daily round of Formula One races are underway. Instead of foreign-Ferraris, our local F1 champs drive the proudly-Indian auto-rick(ety)shaws. From their respective pit lanes (in the bylanes of Borivili and Kandivali), the desi Lewis Hamiltons, Kimi Raikkonens and Fernando Alonsos cruise (at deceptively ‘normal’ speed) to the Highway. The wide open newly-concretised makes a tempting racetrack in the pale yet-to-be-sunlight. And then the race begins. With me as a VERY RELUCTANT PASSENGER and SPECTATOR (with wind-whipped hair, high-jumped heart and gut-curdled stomach).
At any red traffic light, the autos screech to a stop, forced into what is called a grid position. But even when cars and buses are content to wait, our intrepid auto-champions push and jostle their way to pole position (the most advantageous position in the front of the grid from where to start the race). And almost before the light changes to green, they open full throttle, slipstreaming behind the huge Goliath-like BEST buses and overtaking them like fearless Davids. They zoom over flyovers and down monstrously wide stretches of not-so-open road (often passing within centimeters of people running to cross the road) from Borivili to Malad and beyond. (I am not even mentioning the heart-stopping daredevilry of the helmetted-incognito-two-wheeler-riders who weave in and out of the more-than-two-wheelers).
What further unsettles me is the high-fiving camaraderie of the auto-rickshawallahs, interacting with all the bonhomie of members of a Scuderia (racing team). They will often casually lean out and chat with a fellow driver (riding alongside recklessly at a similarly breathtaking speed), making my heart almost leap out of the autorickshaw, too, in the process.
Turbulence, according to the Formula One Glossary, “is experienced in the area directly behind a car”. In auto-rickshaws, however, turbulence is experienced in the area directly behind the driver, especially when that area is occupied by me. I sit upright and afraid, clutching my mobile and bag and desperately dreaming of all the things I want to do while I live. With neither the hi-tech suspension or the fancy survival-cell of a Ferrari, I am always in a suspense about my survival in this auto(rickshaw) racing line. I keep having flashbacks to the fate of Ayrton Senna, the Formula-One triple world champion who died in a crash on the racing track in 1994.
As my Michael Schumacher (or whoever it is for that day) approaches the Pushpa Park bus-stop, with immense relief and thankfulness I say, “Aagey se left” (Take a left turn). Rather indistinctly, because my heart is still blocking my throat and my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth.
As the disappointed driver (he has been forced to retire from the race, not because of accident or mechanical failure, but because of passenger interference – surely that is against the rules of racing?) reluctantly turns left off the Highway, his speedometer (if he has any – many auto-rickshaws do not) and my blood pressure returns to normal.
Till the next morning, same time, same place, different race.