Mangalore’s colourful, centenarian driver

By Nithin Belle

DRIVING has been a passion for C.R. Robert Michael D’Souza ever since he was 18 – which was way back in 1932. It continues to remain the focus of his life, but sadly, deteriorating driving conditions, a growing number of motorists with deplorable habits and rapid urbanisation of cities have deprived him of the joys of driving.

Says the still sprightly 104-year-old, living in a quiet area of Mangalore, the vibrant hub of south Karnataka: “I have driven all kinds of vehicles including military ones, buses and trucks. But now I just use my car.” He now provides services to a family living near his home.

Michael was born in Ooty on a plantation on October 16, 1914. His father had, over his lifespan, married five times and had about 30 children. “I could study only up to standard VIII,” recalls the ageing Michael.

 

He joined the British Indian Army after getting his driving licence and worked for a decade as a driver and mechanic. “Those were tough days,” recalls the centenarian.

Later, he joined a power company before getting into the public works department (PWD) in the erstwhile Madras Presidency (Mangalore was part of it then), and had continuous service of 37 years, mostly driving vehicles around the state.

Mangalore as home

In 1949, his job brought him to Mangalore, which has since become his home. Michael married and lived with his wife for several decades, though the couple never had any children. “I have a younger brother in Ooty now and many children and grandchildren of my other siblings come often to Mangalore to meet me.”

His wife, who passed away about five years ago, was hard working, recalls Michael. “One night she vomited and I took her to a hospital. Fortunately, she did not have to struggle and passed away soon thereafter,” he adds.

Michael was a heavy smoker – up to five cigarette packets a day – but gave up smoking nearly a quarter century ago. And after his wife’s death, he also gave up alcohol. “Earlier, I would shower with some little brandy added to the water, take a peg and then go to sleep,” he says.

 

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Of course, he’s grateful that he’s had a hassle-free life for the past more than a century. “I’ve only gone through one operation, for cataract,” elaborates Michael. “I never took English medicine or got admitted to a hospital in those days.”

Sadly, his first stay in hospital was one after completing his century. “Many television and print journalists had come to Mangalore to interview me,” recalls Michael. “I went to a function in the morning, but couldn’t go to the evening one as I couldn’t sit or even stand.”

He was hospitalised for a fortnight – and was slapped with a hefty Rs49,000 bill. “But after that the videographers and journalists were not seen,” he says.

No interviews, photographs

And when he turned 102, many called him up again, asking him whether he would pose for pictures. “I warned them not to come home,” says Michael. “I do not give interviews to any journalists now.” (The exception, fortunately, was this one).

The centenarian driver continues to be a busy man. Living in a small house, he only has a dog, cats and a few birds as company. “Of course, God is always there,” he remarks. “I get up at around 4 in the morning, and start cleaning the house.”

Michael is multi-lingual and speaks Kannada, Tulu, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and even English.

Asked about his favourite passion – driving and cars – he recalls that cars and even roads in the past were much better than today. “I still remember taking just 30 minutes to travel to Udupi from Mangalore,” he says. “Today, even after widening of the highway, it takes more than 90 minutes.”

He bemoans that not many motorists follow rules or traffic signals. They overtake arbitrarily from the right or the left. “I ask policemen to take action against such motorists, but they are helpless.” And when motorists blow their horns at this ageing driver sitting behind the wheels of his car, he tells them to fly off.

When he was young and in the military, he had bought a motorcycle for a mere Rs200. Of course, today cars and other vehicles are prohibitively priced. His driving licence was renewed for five years, and the officials at Mangalore transport department told him that next time when he comes, they will renew it for a lifetime.

Michael has not travelled abroad and also does not have a passport. Has he taken flights? “I aim to go on the last one, which will soon take me away forever,” he quips. He prays to God daily, pleading with him not to hospitalise the centenarian for a month or two, but to take him away quickly and painlessly.

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