The Auto-rickshaw Entrepreneur of Chennai
There were good reasons for why I had arrived in Chennai airport alone, and why there wasn’t anyone to receive me. My grandmother had passed away on 4th December 2006 and I had to leave a few days earlier than my planned visit to India. My wife was unable to get away from her work commitments and had to stay back for more day. I left on a Thursday afternoon hoping to be present for the 10th day ceremonies. And since I travel on a seat available standby basis, to avoid logistical problems, I find it better to not have anyone come to receive me at airports preferring to manage by myself.
It was early December, a time when hordes of NRI’s descended on India, and thus a bad time for standby travel. Not wanting to miss my grandmother’s ceremony the following morning, I’d opted for a business-class seat, and thereby secured a seat at Frankfurt.
When I saw the red neon Anna International Terminal sign from the window of the aircraft after landing, my relief at having made it to Chennai in time was palpable.
Even though it was past 1 a.m., a huge mass of people were lining the exit path, anxiously peering for their relatives and friends to emerge. I wheeled the trolley with my suitcase saying no to all the taxi requests, and walked to a quiet part of the road and approached an auto-driver solely because he had not approached me eagerly.
My bargaining ritual is almost always the same. I said ‘T Nagar,’ he quoted a price, and no matter what it was, I asked for 50 Rupees less, and we settled somewhere in the middle. When he came around to place my suitcase in the back, I guessed that he was in his fifties. He was in a lungi and khaki shirt – the standard-issue uniform that auto-drivers all over Tamil Nadu unfailingly wear.
Right at the airport entrance, opposite the Tirusulam station he stopped near a food vendor who was selling from his bicycle. The auto-driver asked me if I wanted samosas.s I politely declined, and he got a few ssamosass for himself and stashed them in the back of the auto for eating later.
As the auto made its way up the airport road towards St. Thomas mount, the humid tropical breeze felt welcoming, even that late at night in December. I love the semi-sheltered feeling of the auto-rickshaw, covered yet open. I was reminded of my fantasy to take a long journey across the length of India in an auto.
I started with the same question I always ask.
“Do you own this auto, or are you renting it?”
“It’s mine”, he said.
“Have you paid it off?”
“Oh no, no. This is very new. Less than 3 years old.”
He then told me that he drove it all night, and at 9am, someone else came and rented it from him and drove it all day and returned the vehicle back to him again at night. Thus, the auto was in use practically 24x7. The other driver paid him Rs. 150 per day as rent for the use of the vehicle. He added that it was not difficult for the other driver to make some cash after paying off the Rs. 150 and the petrol each day.
The driver seemed willing to talk, so I asked him when he had started driving autos.
“Adhu rombo naalu aidichi, Sir.” He had been driving for quite some time. When I pressed, I learned that he had been driving autos since 1978. He had come to Madras from a small town near Madurai and had done some odd jobs. Then someone had suggested that he could try driving autos. And since then, after having started 28 years ago, he had never stopped driving auto-rickshaws for a living.
I had difficulty in grasping the enormity of the time he’d spent as an auto-driver – back in 1978, I had still been in Bhubaneswar. I estimated that he had given well over 1 lakh auto rides to his customers taking them all over Chennai.
While I have been impressed by all the new technology that has come to India in the last three decades, I am even more impressed by the contrasting stasis – the things that haven’t changed at all along with everything else.
I was particularly taken with the contrast between his life and mine. I viewed his life as mostly unvarying, whereas mine had changed so much in the same time interval. This guy had come to Madras and started driving autos around the time when long forgotten movies like Nizhalgal and Varumayin Niram Sigappu had been released. And during all the intervening years when I had moved to Madras, finished secondary, higher secondary school, and gotten into and out of college, he had been driving autos every day. And I had switched countries, gotten more degrees, a job, gotten married. I knew that he too must have had so much changing in his life, but to me it seemed unvarying. While all these huge chunks of my life had been playing out, through all my small victories and big failures, he’d been steadily driving auto-rickshaws ferrying customers from one Chennai suburb to another. It seemed an awfully long time for one man to have been driving auto rickshaws in one city.
By the time we reached Guindy, he had shared quite a bit about him and his family. Using the money he earned, he had taken care of his parents back in his hometown, had financed his younger sister’s marriage, and then had gotten married himself. He had two children and the daughter was now in ninth standard.
He mentioned that at one point, someone who had borrowed a lot of money from him had been unable to pay him back, and had offered him a shop instead. He had accepted that barter and his wife had helped run the shop until they had sold it off.
Past Saidapet we were on the road that I had taken daily when I was a student commuting to KVCLRI, back in the early eighties. Just as he made a left turn, turning north into CIT 1st Main Road, he casually mentioned that he now owned 6 auto-rickshaws.
“Six autos?!” I asked.
“Amaam, Sir,” he said, and laughed, sensing the surprise in my voice.
“You have paid all of them off?” I asked.
“Illa Sir. Ellam rotation thaan.” He used the word rotation to refer to what the business books I read called ‘cash-flow.’ It then occurred to me that this driver understood cash-flow in ways that many well-educated middle-income people who pulled regular 9-to-5’s simply didn’t.
Since my knowledge was all theoretical, I was impressed with his street-smarts, his practical knowledge of business.
I then asked him the obvious follow up question. “Why was the owner of 6 auto-rickshaws still up and working this late into the night, long after everyone else was asleep?”
“Emaathiduvaanga, Sir,” he said emphatically. He felt that they would cheat him, not give him his rent money. To prevent the cash-flow from drying up, he had to be one of them.
The whole area was deserted when we reached S. Usman Road. I was looking out for the Telecom office building that two of my aunts had worked in for years. Once, I’d gone there to listen to my cousins participate in a singing contest. Krishnaveni theater, the area landmark was no longer in existence.
“Konjam tea kudhicutu polama Sir?” Shall we drink some, tea? he asked, cutting into my reverie. I was surprised at his suggestion.
“Illinge, rombo late aidihichu.” I suggested that since it was very late, he drop me off first and then have his tea on his way back.
“Enna sir, nambo ivalavu pesittom. En kooda utkarndhu kojam tea sappida matingala?” What is this, we have chatted so much. Won’t you have some tea with me? He insisted and I gave in.
At the big roundabout intersection between Usman Road and Burkit road, right across the T Nagar Bus Terminal, he pulled into a tea-stall. I was surprised to see that even though it was well past two in the morning, there were quite a few customers, all young men. We walked in occupied a plastic table. The auto driver shouted an order of tea for both of us to the cashier who seated at the front of the stall.
“Tea nalla irukka, Sir?” he asked as soon as our glasses arrived, playing the host. The previous cup of tea I’d had, just a few hours back, had been served by a Lufthansa flight attendant, while we were possibly flying somewhere over Central Asia. It had been served in a fine china cup that rattled due to the mild turbulence. The cup had been spotless, but the tea had been hopelessly weak. In contrast, the cup of tea in the teashop was of questionable cleanliness, but the tea tasted great and I told him that.
Wordlessly, he then walked out of the shop, leaving me sitting in a table with both our cups of tea. For two tense minutes, I entertained the very unchristian thought of him driving off with my suitcase and my carry-on. But he came back soon and I was quietly ashamed at having suspected him. In his hand was a newspaper-wrapped packet with the ssamosass that he had purchased right outside the airport.
“These ssamosass are my own that I bought at the airport, so don’t charge me for these!” he shouted to the tea-stall cashier.
He offered me the ssamosas.s I declined again, not wishing to cut into his late night food stash.
“Naalu irukku illa, rendu eduthukunga.” (We have four, so please take a couple)
Despite my protests, he gave me two of his samosas. Though they shared their names with the plump potato-filled versions found in North India and elsewhere, these Madras samosas were very different. With more eagerness than I now care to admit, I bit into a small crisp samosa, savoring the onion strands.
Even my jet-lagged mind could see that there was an aura of unreality to all of this. Here I was, flown to Chennai because my grandmother had passed away 10 days earlier. But at nearly 3 am, having just arrived in India just a little over an hour ago, I was sitting in a tea-shop with an auto-driver, sipping tea with some locals and eating my driver’s samosas. Neither my parents nor anyone else knew that I had actually arrived in India. In just four hours, I had to be showered and ready to head to Santhanam Chitappa’s place for paati’s (grandmother's) 10th day ceremony. I would get to meet my uncles, aunts and cousins there. My uncle and aunt from Sydney would be there. Meanwhile, here I was, in a tea-stall, with Tamil music blaring and several young men around me sipping tea, who seemed to have no interest whatsoever in getting any sleep.
The driver brushed aside summarily my offer to pay, insisting that it had been his idea to buy me tea.
We headed up Usman road past Siva-Vishnu temple and an eerily empty and garbage-strewn Ranganathan street. We crossed Panagal park, and in my eagerness to reach home, I asked him to turn right too soon and quickly lost my bearings. We had to ask two night-watchmen for directions before we reached my parents’ place in Sarangapani street and he dropped me and my luggage.
I thanked the driver. The extra money I gave him as a tip rendered moot all my initial bargaining with him at the airport. I asked if he could find his way back, and immediately realized that it was a silly question to ask someone who’s driven autos in the same city for 3 decades. He said yes, and drove off towards Thirumalai Road.
Wondering if it would be my mother or my father who would open the door, feeling guilty about waking them up at this late hour, but also anticipating the welcoming smile on their face, I knocked.