By Rajyeshwari Ghosh
I said, “Anna, I don’t know Chennai well. Please go to the main road. Why are you taking this lane?” It was getting dark. I was getting scared.
It was my last weekend in Chennai. I went to T. Nagar to finish last-minute shopping at Sundari Silks. On my way, I stopped at Murugan Idli shop. My friend, Madhu, who is a native of Chennai, had taken me to the sari store when I told her that I want to buy Kanchipuram Pattu saris. A former colleague had recommended the Idli place to get the taste of authentic regional food. Since then, I started going there.
All kinds of thoughts were passing through my mind. I didn’t know Tamil. Most of the auto drivers in Chennai spoke little English. They hardly spoke Hindi. I was getting nervous.
I was thinking, “Why in the world I had to leave this last-minute shopping for this weekend? I knew all this time I had to pack and leave on Monday morning.”
Every time something like this happens, I start pleading to God to please save me one last time. And that I would never do it again. But then, I find myself in situations like this again and again.
I also remembered Ritu’s words, “Raaji, why do you keep calling the old man for everything?”
Nitu is an atheist. She does not believe in God, but I do. She tried to convince me many times. For the sake of our friendship, we just settled to accept each other the way we are. I reasoned with her differently. I told her, “Ritu, it does not matter whether you believe in the existence of God or not. What matters how much we love and care for each other. I know you do. That is godliness – the qualities of God in you – to me.” She did not argue with me any further. We left it there.
I have not told you about Anna. Anna was the auto-rickshaw driver. I do not know his real name. I just called him, ‘Anna’. In Tamil, Anna means ‘brother’. There was an auto-rickshaw stand near my guest-house. In those eighteen months, I rode in his auto-rickshaw to visit various places in Chennai. I could have taken cab rides also. I get a sense of openness and freedom in auto rides. I do not feel the same in a solitary cab ride. He also dropped me almost every morning at my workplace. I could have walked to my office. But then, with my western wear and high heels, I felt uncomfortable walking alone. I felt, Chennai was still then a very conservative place.
Anna could hardly speak English. I do not know whether he knew how to speak in Hindi or not. I picked up a few Tamil words from here and there to get by in daily life. So, most of the time, I would just say the name of the place, and he would take me there.
In the initial days, I had realized it was much more expensive to ride in an auto-rickshaw than to take a cab. It was there in Chennai when I first heard about one of these – Ola, Uber, Mega Taxi. I do not exactly remember which one I did.
Anna was a tall, skinny, middle-aged man. On most days, he wore crushed, faded casual half-shirts. When we got stuck in traffic, he often took out his small dabba and ate something from there. I was curious but never asked what he had from that dabba. I wish I did; I could have shared with you now. And there was a big plastic bottle from where he drank water from time to time. It seemed to me Anna did not care much for him. However, Anna was very particular about his vehicle. He took great care of the auto-rickshaw. He used to keep his auto-rickshaw neat and clean. There was a picture of Balaji, and he put fresh flowers and garlands. He decorated the front windshield with string lights. There was even a small fan near the steering wheel.
In Kolkata, whenever I took the shared auto, to go from Rashbehari to Basanti Devi college stop, I paid only eight rupees. If I remember correctly, for the same distance in Mumbai, it will be twenty rupees. It was straight hundred rupees in Chennai! Of course, it was not a shared ride.
In those eighteen months, every time I rode in Anna’s auto rickshaw, invariably, we would bargain in the first few minutes.
I would say, “Anna, please turn on the meter. I want to see how much the fare will come there.’’ He nodded his head both sides.
I said, “Yes or no, Anna? I did not understand what you said.”
Anna would reply, “Hundred rupees!”
I would say, “No, Anna. I will pay only seventy rupees.”
Then, we would settle the fare at eighty rupees. Yes, every time I rode in the auto-rickshaw, I would first bargain and then ride.
As I said, Anna was very particular to keep his auto-rickshaw neat and tidy. Before I sat on the backseat, he would tell me to wait. Then, he would take out a piece of cloth and clean the backseats while humming some tune from a recent Tamil movie. On the way to work or to T. Nagar, if I saw some familiar faces, he did not mind giving them rides. I always felt that was thoughtful of him.
On the last weekend, I left the Guest House after having brunch. As usual, I bargained for the right fare. I told him that this would be my last weekend in Chennai.
I said with my usual spunk, “Don’t worry, Anna. I will not bother you again on Monday morning. I am leaving for Mumbai for good.”
So, all kinds of thoughts were gushing through my mind. I was thinking I should not have said that I am leaving. I was still feeling very nervous. I was not able to recognize the streets.
Then, suddenly, Anna parked the auto-rickshaw at a corner. There was a kirana shop right next to it. The usual grocery items were there – jars containing biscuits, various snacks. A lady dressed in a sari came out. I could tell she was married. She was wearing the mangalsutra. She held something in her hand. She came walking towards me. She had a warm smile on her face. She gave me a bottle of buttermilk, a packet of biscuits, and some snacks.
Anna uttered in his usual heavy Tamil accent, “My wife!”
I just did not know what to say. It was one of those times when no words could ever describe the way I felt. The feelings were a combination of guilt, happiness, and joy. I felt guilty because only a few minutes ago, I got suspicious where he was taking me.
I felt deeply touched. I was speechless too.
Anna was happy that I accepted his parting gifts. I stood there and spoke to his wife for a few minutes. She said she looks after their kirana shop and their children while he is away during the day. His two children also came out to greet me.
Anna called me and said he would drop me at my Guest House.
When we reached the Guest House, he helped me with my shopping bags. I handed over the money to him. He refused. I insisted that he should take it.
I told him I will always remember him for his kindness, “It was not about the money, Anna. You gave me what money cannot buy also.”
I dedicate this piece to Chennai’s Anna – the auto-rickshaw driver – who used to take me to places during my Chennai days. I do not know whether I will ever going to see Anna and his family again. But whenever I think about Chennai, Anna’s spirit of kindness always comes to my mind.
Rajyeshwari Ghosh is the Founder at Quantum Holistic Advisory Services, a Quantum paradigm-based multidisciplinary leadership, and management consultancy practice. She is a Certified Blockchain Practitioner and a contributing Member of Blockchain Chamber of Commerce. A former Wall Street and Big Four professional, she is a Trusted Advisor and a Management Consultant who advocates holistic thinking, practices interdisciplinary approach to organizational problem solving, and advocates meaningful use of Technology for good of humanity. She is the author of Essence of my existence: Poems to acknowledge my truth. Do look up her LinkedIn profile here.
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