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Auto-Mobile Literacy in India

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 5, 2008 No Comment

Ok. Tata. By. Phir Milenge (see you again).” The cursive white lettering (a mixture of English letters and the Hindi Devanagari script) stood in stark contrast to the grassy green body of the three-wheeler (called “autos“), the ubiquitous mode of transport on Delhi streets.

Growing up in Delhi, I’d always been fascinated by the words handpainted with a thinnish brush on the back of autos, trucks, and two-wheelers. While American bumper stickers and innovative license plates amuse me tremendously, there’s something very different and unique about this “auto”-“mobile” literacy. The one I saw today (see above) reveals more than one would imagine at first glance: Indians do tend to say “tata” and “bye” together, almost as if they were not synonymous; the English-Hindi bilinguality is a reflection of the linguistic mixing that is a vital aspect of our society; and, the hopeful optimism of the “Phir milenge” is endearing in a very “Indian” way.

The words are not always simple and secular; many autos have religious sayings (generally drawn from Hinduism/Islam), some are political, nationalistic (a common phrase seen is “Mera Bharat Mahan” which translates into “My India is great”), and some are moralistic in tone. A common cautionary one to be found on trucks and autos is: “Buri nazar waale tera muh kala” (You with the evil eye, may your face become black). Another one I once read out loud to my dad (to my horror and embarrassment when I understood what it meant), at a traffic light, was: “Paanch minute ka mazaa, nau maheenon ki sazaa” (Five minutes of pleasure, nine months of pain), back in the day when population control seemed to be the number one priority for the government.

I am almost willing to bet my life that every truck in India has the words “Horn Please” (actually, both “horn” and “please” may be found in a variety of avatars in terms of spelling) blazoned across the back. Sometimes an “Ok” will find itself sandwiched in the middle, and I’ve never been clear why, but it appears to have some kind of cult status.

Sometimes there’s a loving reference to a departed mother, or a tender reference to a wife. Some proudly proclaim the name of the driver: “This driver’s name,” as one informed me, “is Rajiv.” I have found references to Bollywood/Hollywood films, Hindi pop and film songs, and famous literary figures…

For a country which gets such a bad rep for having high levels of illiteracy, I thought it would be fun to celebrate a very unique kind of literacy which is quite special in its own way but nearly always overlooked….

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