Posted by: cochinblogger | July 26, 2018

Prakasam, Auto Driver

As I was settling down in the auto-rickshaw I'd just boarded, the driver spoke: "When you get down, please make sure that you've taken all your belongings." I thought this a little odd, but assured him that I would not leave anything behind. At my destination, as I was handing over the fare and preparing to disembark, he reminded me again: "Please check that you have taken all your things."

Did he think I might leave a bomb behind in his vehicle? He sounded like a man who had burnt his fingers in the past. What lay behind his unease? I asked him: "Why are you so concerned? You sound worried."

He then narrated the following incident. It was night and he was at home when he heard a mobile phone ringing outside. Nobody answered the call, and the ringing continued, insistent. When this went on for some minutes without stopping, he stepped out. The ringing was coming from his own auto, parked in the yard. He found the phone behind the passenger seat. It must have slipped from a passenger's pocket and slid down the gap between the seat and the back rest.

He didn't know what to to do, he told me. Pointing to the side mirror of his auto, he said, "The phone was that big. I didn't know how to operate it, else I would've answered the call or called him. Look at my phone!" He took his phone out of his pocket to show me; it was a basic Nokia model.

The act of paying my auto fare has always been automatic: I step out of the auto, at the same time whipping out my wallet and counting out the fare, which is handed over in an instant, completing the transaction. It is over in a matter of seconds. Today, I had been stopped in my tracks while initiating that action: one foot was on the pavement, my hands held the wallet, and my body was aligned toward the door of the auto. One step and I would be out, caught up in the whirl of scurrying commuters. On my right, the traffic streamed past, a never-ending flow. And yet, I sat there. I could not move. We were no longer driver and passenger; he was the storyteller, and I was the listener. He had not held me with a glittering eye like the Ancient Mariner, but he had reeled me in, alright.

He decided to go to his daughter's house, which was some distance away. His daughter made contact with the owner of the mobile. He was relieved and grateful that his phone was safe and had apparently found its way into honest hands. It turned out he stayed in Thodupuzha. He was tied up there for a few days with urgent matters, and could someone come down to Thodupuzha with the phone? It was an extraordinary request (Thodupuzha being a good two hours away from Kochi by bus), but my auto driver told him he would be in front of the Thodupuzha police station at 6:30 am the next day.

There, they met. The owner of the phone was profoundly grateful. He was preparing for the Public Service Commission exams, and his entire preparation material was stored in the phone. "My life is in my phone," he said. He took the auto driver to his house and introduced him to his family members. He was served jack fruit and mango as well as a variety of snacks. The phone, he learned, cost Rs. 30,000. The owner of the phone gave him Rs. 5,000 as his reward. I bid farewell to the auto driver, and went about my business. But his story stayed with me.

A few months later, I boarded an auto. It was only when I got down that I recognized the driver. I greeted him, but he stared at me blankly. All I had to do was mention the passenger from Thodupuzha who had lost his phone. At this, he smiled in recognition and folded his hands in salutation.

Last Sunday, I hailed an auto to the Metro station. To my surprise, it was the same driver. This time, he smiled when he saw me. As we sped toward the Metro, he spoke: "Sir, something interesting happened the other day." This is what he said.

"A mother and daughter boarded the auto, asking to be taken to Chennai SIlks. A couple of minutes later, I asked them to be sure to take all their belongings when they left the auto, leaving nothing behind. They replied that they would be careful, the mother adding that she appreciated his warning." They got off at Chennai Silks. A few minutes later, he pulled into a petrol station. Something fell from the passenger seat with a loud noise. It was a brand-new umbrella. The auto driver was crestfallen.

From the petrol station, he sped toward the Chennai Silks showroom. There he had to pay the parking fees for his auto. Entering the building, he found his passengers climbing the stairs. They were surprised and pleased to get back the umbrella, which they had never expected to see again. The daughter said she had put down the umbrella momentarily to take money out from her purse, and forgotten to pick it up again. Our auto driver was given Rs. 50 for the up-and-down travel.

I was struck by his sense of responsibility: if something was left behind in his auto, he felt honor bound to return it to the passenger. Until that was accomplished, the burden of unearned ownership lay heavy on his conscience, denying him peace of mind.

I stepped out of his auto, paid my fare, and was about to walk away when I realized I didn't know his name. I needed something concrete to tag his memory with. "Prakasam," he said. Our paths diverged, as I turned toward the Metro station and he headed into the traffic.Note: The photo above is a representative image.

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  1. I’ve been away and almost missed this post. Am so pleased I caught it!

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