Illustrations: Debasmita Das
So, here we were. Prem and I. Subject and researcher. Man and woman. Driver and passenger. In an alleyway off the bustling main street of Prakash Nagar in my beloved city of Hyderabad. So, here we are. Prem and I. In his auto. Talking about sex, desire, and all that comes in the way of fantasies being realised. Prem, whose name is not actually Prem but the name he insisted I use, and I, a generally dazed PhD student studying road safety in Hyderabad.
I came to Hyderabad in February this year to do my research on ‘road safety’ in Hyderabad and the relationship that Hyderabadi drivers have to traffic rules and regulations. As part of my research, I am interviewing auto-rickshaw drivers, app-based taxi drivers, and private citizens while also observing traffic police constables as they go about their daily jobs of regulation and rule-enforcement. In order to find auto-rickshaw drivers to interview, I establish a certain rapport with one or two auto-drivers that are waiting at any auto-stand by making small talk, explaining to them my research, and then asking them if they are willing to be interviewed by me for about an hour. The plan is to get them talking about their views on risk, safety, and pleasure while driving in Hyderabad.
Normally, the drivers either ask me for an adequate compensation or insist that we have chai while we chat and I record the conversation. A few drivers, however, don’t want anything but do insist that I sit in the auto while interviewing them and park in a street off the main road so that the ambient noise of honking does not tamper with the interview recording too much. Prem, who I encountered at an auto-stand on the perennially crowded Greenlands Road one Saturday morning in June, was one such autowala who, very enthusiastically, drove his auto into a narrow street off the ever-busy Prakash Nagar. Prem says that he loves that he is being interviewed by someone from America. I smile an awkward smile. I turn on my recorder and he looks at it for a brief moment before looking at me, a look of amusement and indulgence that I have never since seen in the eyes of my interviewees.
My first question to him is fairly straightforward. Or so I think. Aap auto driver kab aur kaise banein? How did you become an ‘auto driver’? As I ask him this question, I can sense the hollowness of it. I had done about a dozen in-depth interviews by now and each one of them starts with this question, deftly followed by an answer that traces how the lack of education, alternative employment opportunities, and a sudden death or financial crunch in the family results in the birth of an autowala.
Awaiting yet another story that would stir the ready-to-weep liberal heart of mine, I lock eyes with him and smile – as if to encourage him to tell me the tragedies that plague his life. Research, in all its extractive cruelty; research, in all its doubtful potential as a ‘talking cure’. Very often, the taxi and auto drivers I talk to tell me that the company they are working for – Uber or Ola, for instance – tells their drivers to not engage in “unnecessary talk” with the customers, especially women. Apparently, customers don’t like it if they complain about their job too much.
Prem smiles and starts with a well-rehearsed, “woh kab, kaise banne…iska kya pata…rozi roti kamaane ke liye sab ko kuch toh karna padta hai” (Well, how and why I became an auto-driver…who knows…everyone has to do something to earn one’s daily bread). Just as I am about to prompt him to say something more specific, he sighs and says – aapko apni dil ki baat bataane ka mann kar raha hai (I want to tell you a secret, a matter of my heart). I nod and encourage him to do so. Aap bura toh nahi maanengi? (You won’t feel offended, will you?) Confused and immensely curious, I assure him that I will not take offense. Asal mein, mera mechanic ka kaam tha aur who theek hi tha lekin mere dost ne auto drivering karke ye seekha ki auto drivering karne se sex karna bahut easy ho jaata hai (In reality, I was working as a mechanic and everything was going fine but one of my friends who became an auto driver soon learned that it was very easy to have sex this way).
I am now both a bit taken aback, confused, and a bit sweatier than I was a few seconds ago. I ask him – Kya matlab hai, easy ho jaata hai? Kya easy ho jaata hai? (What do you mean, it becomes easy? What becomes easy?) Prem sighs and explains impatiently – Aap jaise hi koi single lady jo shaayad akele rehti hogi, raat bhar tadapti hai sex ke liye aur usko sex dene ke liye koi nahi hai toh woh mere jaise auto driver ko bula sakti hai aur phir sirf duss minat mein dono ka kaam ho jaayega, aisa main sochta hoon…aap bura mat maaniye (A single lady like you, who probably lives by herself could be restlessly horny but has no one to satisfy her and at that time, she could call someone like me and then within ten minutes both of our work is done is what I think…please don’t be offended by what I am saying).
I stare at him while he is talking, each word a revelation of something I had not even thought of. I look around to see that the street is completely empty, while nodding at him, and wonder about my escape routes. As someone who has grown up in the middle-class bubble where the working class male subject is demonised and feared more often that sympathised with or remotely understood, in this moment I find I can only think in stereotypes and curse myself for not being more careful with where he was parking the auto. My liberal thinking finds itself on shaky ground. What was I thinking!? Having read so many newspaper articles, editorials, tweets, Facebook statuses, WhatsApp forwards, etc. that time and again demonstrate how unsafe India is for women, what was I thinking gallivanting in the city on my own talking to the men I was told to be cautious around? I think of all the times my family and friends told me to “put safety first” whenever I told them I was interviewing auto-drivers; I think of how they’d tell me “we told you so” in case something happened. I worry, as I have been told to worry all my life, that this autowala might rape me because why else would he be saying such “terrible” things to a woman? What other intention must he have but bad, evil ones? I wait for him to do something to me – touch my hand, grasp my breasts, something – as I prep to escape, somehow.
But Prem seems lost in his own confession, neither staring at my chest nor glancing at my lips – something I have noticed some of my other informants doing. He asks me if I have more questions and I realise I have not said anything to his previous answer. It has only been four minutes into my interview, but I am not sure how to proceed. My Interview Guide has five parts to it – each professionally curated to denote a certain ‘phase’ in the life-cycle of auto-rickshaw driving but none has space for the revelation of raw desire that Prem was putting up in front of me. The Interview Guide is no good today – or any day when a subject decides not to conform to the identity fixed for them by interview guides.
Logic tells me to end the interview and flee. But my gut tells me that Prem is not going to harm me. So, I probe him further – acha, toh aap sachchi mein isi wajah se auto drivering mein aaye? (Ok, so, really, this is why you became an auto-driver?) He nods enthusiastically and tells me about Jagan, his friend, who has a “medam girlfriend” now – a young, thin woman who often takes Jagan to her home where, according to Prem, she lets him lick her flower. I try not to cringe. Prem continues, unabashed, and says that he does not even have such stellar ambitions. He thinks that just his auto is enough. He can park it in a street like this and one can easily have sex in the auto. Many people do so, he insists. At that opportune moment, my eyes fall upon a used condom on the footpath next to which we are parked. I cannot help but smile. He sees me smile, spots the condom, and bursts out laughing.
By now, whatever it means, I am in this conversation about sex with Prem. As if by exhibiting a sense of curiosity, I have crossed the line of no return, committed myself. For the next half hour, Prem reveals to me how he imagines his life ought to be – do ‘auto-drivering’ in the morning from 8 am to noon, go to “koi” (some) “medam girlfriend” at noon, have some biryani for lunch (wink, wink – he does not just mean food), nap for some time, do some auto-drivering till 7 pm and go home to his wife and kids. Who, in his words, are the reason he works all day. Sometimes, he fantasises, he could go back to ‘medam girlfriend’ for a second round. Maybe this time it could be longer than ten minutes. He has seen videos of men and women licking each other. He thinks it could all go on for about an hour. Beyond that, he does not think he can control himself. He will just erupt, he says. Do I want to see the videos? No, I say – politely but firmly.
I cannot help wondering if he has an erection while talking about this but I dare not look.
I ask him if he feels guilty about wanting ‘baahir ka sex’ (outside sex) when he has a wife? He clicks his tongue and says that daal is daal, biryani is biryani. I cringe at the oft-repeated cliché but don’t say anything to him. Suddenly, perhaps sensing where my loyalties may lie, he says that he would never leave his wife, his mother, or children for anyone. At the same time, he is not someone to treat his ‘medam girlfriend’ badly. He just wants to have two different lives. He is bored of just this one life. Do I understand him? I nod. So, he asks me with more boldness in his voice, aap karte mere saath sex? Aap jaise cute medam girlfriend mere hote toh Jagan ki futt jaayegi (So, will you have sex with me? If a cute ‘medam girlfriend’ like you became mine, Jagan will explode of envy).
Finally, the moment that I have feared. Although, what, am I being asked — if I want to have sex with someone? Not even several of my dates in the past have done me this favour of an explicit question. I sense an opportunity here – an opportunity to impart (unasked) wisdom about consent. After all, one can never understimate the power of a latent middle-class desire to reform others – it exists in the way we move about the world, always looking to educate the “masses” about safety, security, consent, prosperity, decency, and so on. I bounced back with a mirthful nahi, bhaiyya, mujhe toh koi interest nahi hai inn cheezon mein lekin aapne mujhse poocha, toh ye permission waali baat mujhe achchi lagi! (No, brother, I am not interested in these things but you asked me and I really liked the fact that you sought permission). I want to say more, but I don’t, for my words make his face droop a little.
We both don’t speak for some time. I smile, half-apologetically, while thinking of how my friends will probably laugh when I tell them that I – who cannot generally shut up about my sexual (mis)adventures – have told someone I am not interested in anything to do with sex.
Prem sighs and says that it is his bad luck but that he has never even touched a woman without permission – heck, he does not even speak to people without permission. Very often, beautiful women sit in his auto and all he can think of is having sex with them but he does not do anything. I say that his sturdy insistence on seeking permission is essential to having a good relationship with anyone, and he nods. Although do I really need to tell him something he seems fully committed to? He says that he feels like one cannot make sex good if it is not willing from both sides. I could not agree more. We talk some more – now, veering back to the Interview Guide – about traffic policing, accidents, insurance, licensing procedures, and I learn a lot more about Prem. At one point, he says that everything is fine but all he wants is someone to have sex with. As someone as single as she has ever been, I can only sympathise with him.
What initially made me fear his presence fades, for I sense that he is not going to touch me, but perhaps I would feel differently had I sensed a violence within him. The line between pleasure and danger is consent – or ‘permission’, as Prem puts it. Where he picked that term up from, I never managed to ask him. Did I ever imagine having a conversation with a stranger in an auto about how unfulfilled our sexual desires are in this City of Pearls and Paradise Biryani? Never. But do I feel threatened? Very often, as a woman doing research in a highly male-dominated space and sphere, I encounter men who help me because they feel like they are helping me and doing me a favour. And, of course, in a way they are. But, for once, here is someone who by not giving me the “respect” or distance I feel instinctively entitled to because of my social class, makes me feel…weird. I feel a general sense of amusement, mixed with a sense of wonder at Prem’s ability to speak about sex and desire so forthrightly, trusting me to not judge him, chastise him, or call the police on him – as I have been told to do by every SHE Team (all-women police) hoarding in the city. And, in a way, this is a risk he has taken.
I tell Prem that I have had a swell interview but now if he could do me the favour of dropping me home, I would be grateful and I could pay him for the ride and perhaps an extra tip for his time. He refuses the tip but drops me home, safe and sound, all the while telling me how much he wants more women auto-drivers on the roads of Hyderabad so that, perhaps, one of them would be able to fulfill his fantasy. I cannot help chuckle at how normal this seemingly bizarre conversation about sex has suddenly become with Prem, and at his single-mindedness. I feel like I am talking to one of my sex-deprived college-mates about how nobody wants to get it on with him. I offer my sympathies – a little nervously for I am still thinking about his wife and whether she approves, or even knows, of her husband’s love for lust – and, before I know it, I am home. I pay Prem and am about to leave when he calls me back.
He looks at me and coyly and says – aap ek baari try karte toh shaayad pasand aata. He suggests that maybe if I tried it once, I would like it. It. Sex. I say, with utmost sincerity, that I will think about it. He says that I must keep his number, in case someday I cannot handle my lust and just need someone to stick it in me. I, nervously, take his number and tell him that I do not intend to call him but that I appreciate his concern. He points out that he did not take my number, which means that he genuinely does not mean to trouble me. He is simply being frank with me. I thank him and leave.
Little did I expect that this interview would turn out like this, destroying my illusions of having a grasp on my fieldwork. My interview guide felt irrelevant, my ethnographic experience seemed unconvincing to me considering how Prem had just revealed deeper dimensions to risk, safety, pleasure and danger on the road – concepts I had almost taken for granted. While talking to women drivers and commuters, I have often had the term ‘road safety’ take on gendered connotations as safety from assault, abuse, violence and sexual danger while being on the road. Similarly, both men and women who own their own cars and/or bikes have discussed the role of pleasure in driving was often communicated in terms of freedom, speed, autonomy, mobility. But, in all my interviews, none had so brazenly, freely, sexualized the mundane fact of being on the road. Perhaps abandoning the familiar road – of the interview guide, and the safety rules of how to be in the ‘outside world’ have shown me the best reason for doing ethnographic fieldwork – to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. To know each other better.