Somewhere between Manickam and Baasha lies this Superhero..
A couple of weeks before COVID-19 took the world by the scruff of its neck and shook it up, I took an auto-rickshaw ride back home from college, as part of my daily routine. Nothing out of the ordinary yet, but little did I know that that ride would leave me pondering over life and its intricacies for quite a while to come.
It started the way you’d expect it to — I hailed an auto after stepping out of the campus, and after about 5 denials and two minutes of haggling, I got into the sixth that I flagged down — a freshly-painted jet-black auto with decals featuring Super Star Rajinikanth adorning the front and sides — and settled in for the 15 km ride back home.
Just as anybody else would, I tried to pass the time by making conversation; In my twenty years of familiarity with autos and drivers, I’ve found that some of the most enriching and thought-provoking conversations I’ve had are with said drivers. I start with the usual — asking him about his day and his routine, and try to get some perspective into his life.
He narrates -
“My day begins at six in the morning. By the time I make tea for my family and wash the rickshaw that I’ve rented out from my landlord, my wife has finished cooking, and my three kids are ready at the table, waiting for breakfast. Two sons and a daughter, they’re my pride and joy”, he beams at me.
“Once we’re done eating, my kids get into the auto and the four of us head out towards their school, where I drop them off before starting my rides for the day. As we leave home, my wife locks the house and gets ready for her day. She works as a maid in the posh neighborhood near our slum.”
After he drops off his kids at school, he starts to look for rides. The first one he finds is usually a parent whose children go to the same school as his own, but once that passenger has been dropped off, even he doesn’t know where the day is going to take him.
“I try not to take rides that leave me outside of a 30 km radius from my house, else with this traffic I run the risk of not being able to go back on time to pick my kids up from school”, he tells me.
He pauses work again in the evening, to pick his kids up from school and spend some time with them, ask them about their day, and possibly mediate whatever new fight that’s come up between them.
“My job has taught me a lot about people and social interaction,” he says. “I have learned to deal with all kinds of people that hail from all walks of life”. He tries to be helpful to the confused, to women traveling with children, and elderly persons struggling with their luggage. Some passengers are polite and generous with tips, while others less so, paying him even less than what the meter spits out.
He tells me about how people that try to haggle with him often don’t fully comprehend the costs of driving an auto. “They argue that for the mileage of an auto and the amount of petrol that is spent on their five-kilometer trip, I charge them too much. But what they don’t realize is that petrol is just one component of my expenses. I need to pay for maintenance of the auto, as well as rent to the owner; you see, I don’t have enough money to afford an auto of my own. Not to mention put food on the table for my wife and kids, pay for their schooling, as well as EMIs and insurance for the TV, fridge, and the computer in my house. I grew up in an agricultural household in a tiny village, and I want my kids to have the luxuries that I couldn’t get when I was their age. What with the fuel prices going up by almost ₹5 every other week, I don’t know if I’ll be able to pursue this as a profession any more”
He sinks into a world of nostalgia as he recants stories of how he loved science and math as a kid and dreamed of becoming a scientist one day.
“All that went down the gutter when one day my father called me out to the living room, sat me down, and told me they couldn’t afford to put me through school anymore. I sat there, unable to process things, slowly realizing that I’d have to drop out of school. I was 16 years old at the time, and I had to drop out of the 10th standard. I don’t ever want that to happen to my kids, I want to give them a platform to bring their dreams and aspirations to life.”
I’m forced to interrupt his tales, as he makes a left turn at a junction where we were supposed to go straight ahead.
“Anna thappana route la poreenga, nera poirkanum” (Brother, we were supposed to go straight, you’re taking the wrong route)
He tells me to calm down with
“Thambi, enna thambi solringa autokaaranukku theriyaadha route ah, naa paathukaren thambi” (I’ll take care of it brother, I know these parts well)
Calmed down, I get back to the conversation, and ask him about his views on the takeover of the transportation market by services such as Ola and Uber. To that, he responds by telling me about how he tried driving as a contractor for them but quit because of the cut that they take from his profits.
“I gave it a try for a month or two, but quickly realized that driving for them wasn’t my cup of tea, and I couldn’t expect to support my family off of the pittance I make driving for them”
He moves the subject of conversation to money matters and tells me about how he saves ₹20 every day towards a fund for buying a new auto, one that would be his own.
“One of my previous rides, a college-going student just like you, told me about how he learned that a 1% change every day could lead to great results. Why not apply this to my own life, I thought and decided to create a bank account just for the purpose of saving money to buy my own auto, and potentially someday my own house. I started saving up ₹20 every day, which seemed a pitifully small amount and deposited the money in my account every month. That was two years ago, and now, by giving up one cup of tea every day, I have enough to finally make a 50% down-payment towards the auto. Never did I imagine that I’d be able to do this so easily, just by cultivating one simple habit!”, he exclaims, clearly proud of himself.
“Are you satisfied with this life that you’ve built for yourself?”, I ask.
“I would say my life has been sunshine and roses, it definitely could’ve been better,” he replies. “But I have no regrets or grudges. My parents did everything they could for me, given their financial condition. The schooling I got was all they could afford.”
Then he adds, “God has been with me. He has been kind to me. I have found that whenever I’ve really needed help, someone has come forward to help me with my troubles. With their help, I was able to move from my tiny village to this city, being an auto driver, building a loving family, and now he has given me a way to own the vehicle I drive every day.”
He does not grumble or complain, but manages to do what he can to improve his situation.
His driving force is easy to guess — to provide a better future for his three kids.
We’ve now reached my house, and I get down and pull out my wallet to pay him; I hand him the fare that we agreed upon when I got in, and throw in an extra hundred; it was the least I could do, and the most I could afford at the time. As I open the gate and walk in, he calls out to me -“Thambi thappi thavari extra kuduthiteenga” (You accidentally gave me more than what we agreed)
I tell him to consider it as my contribution toward his fund, only to be surprised as he thrusts it back in my hand, telling me that he has no intention of accepting charity and that he’s proud of the fact that he has worked for every penny he has earned so far. I can’t help but feel impressed and proud of this man I met barely an hour ago.
As I reflect upon his story, I try to put myself in his position, and all I know is that there is no way in hell that I would’ve survived all that he has gone through in his life.
All I can say is that I have a newfound appreciation for all that I’ve been provided in life and that it was by a mere whim of fate that I’ve ended up where I am today.
Just because someone hasn’t been able to afford the luxury of education to pave the way to a skill-based career, doesn’t mean that they’re any less than us.
As far as rickshaw drivers go, we’re not the only ones that ride in their vehicles — Their dreams and their burdens share the ride with us as well.
Sitting in the comfort of my home, writing the post, I can’t help but think about how bad of a curveball COVID must be to him, but I’m sure that this is just another hurdle in his life that he is going to get over. Can’t imagine anything more inspiring.