Back in the early 1990s, a time before cell phones, and in my case a time of economic precariousness, auto rides were a spa-style getaway of sorts. It was a time to zone out, your body spared the dhakka mukki of regular commute, your mind drifting past gajra sellers and newspaper vendors, commuters and bus stops as if in a time lapse shot, arriving at the destination, refreshed and relaxed.
For me though, any old rickshaw was not okay. I always wanted a musical auto. Then, especially in the rains, it was like a cocoon, with the yellow rexin curtains tucked tightly as a quilt. Outside was the thickly constant rain. Inside was the chinka-chinka sound of the duplicate music system, playing some new, fast songs (in the early 1990s, Hindi film music was groping for its second life). Outside the world was mundane and repetitive, inside you were in your own movie, complete with soundtrack. You were a boss, a heroine, a cool type, the music unlocking a parallel, gliding sensory journey as the city went past.
Pic courtesy: Paromita Vohra
Earlier music systems were mostly in cabs and they were more old school. If you asked a cabbie, “Dada music hai?” he would often reply with, “Haan, par joona hai,” meaning songs from the 1960s and before. It seemed a suitable accompaniment to the ride past Matunga’s grilled balcony fronts and Dadar’s half-art deco and eventually, after Opera House, the sea. There was a nostalgia and glamour, especially in night-time rides, in musicwala cab. My friend Anil once loved a cabbie’s music collection so much that after reaching Chakala from Bombay Central, he told the cabbie to turn right back so his musical trance wouldn’t be broken.
On a less lucky day, you were likely to get a cab which had one mix tape which I called The Worst Hits of Mohammed Rafi. The most lachrymose, sorry-for-self, mournful songs of masculine heartbreak — yaniki, dil ke tukde tukde karke, muskurake chal diye types — would accompany your deathly drive. Sadly, this tape was very popular with a lot of cabbies.
Autos were different though. It’s like they were teenage cabs. The markets had begun flooding with cheap music systems and autos were full of these – except totally tricked up. Big boombox style speakers, like the zoot suits of speakers, flashing lights and a laconic air pulsed with what became famous as jhankar beats – the generic chikichikichik track that was used to remix old songs by Super Cassettes. Autos usually played new songs and they seemed to exemplify an oncoming suburban brashness, an Oshiwara streetside feel that was yet to emerge — the world of a new piracy generated cool.
At some point it’s rumoured that T-Series, began to distribute tapes of their new singers — like Altaf Raja — and film songs for free to auto drivers as a clever marketing idea to popularise the songs. Standing at midnight crossings, traffic signals reflecting red and green in the wet city streets, the autos were a travelling disco, carrying the sounds of this new Bollywood, the Nadeem-Shravan, Himmesh Reshammiya Bollywood into the city.
Now musical autos are less common, though you suddenly encounter one throwing snatches of music into the street like some passing millionaire throwing money into the crowd. When I ask why no music they laugh — oh everyone’s on their cell phones. Or they have their personal music system. Earlier, the song joined driver and rider in some connected reverie I imagine. Now here we are in our own heads, alone together.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.