The 78-year-old ex-serviceman is content with life and continues to drive commuters around Pune
Driving auto-rickshaws is one of the most tiring tasks in any Indian city. The driver has to sit in an awkward position in the front, face numerous clients ranging from quiet college students to an irksome office-goer, or a shrewd and stingy commuter to an abrasive and abusive passenger.
Many drivers give up the job after a few years of back-breaking and frustrating rounds in their vehicles, handling massive traffic snarls, angry motorists and bus drivers and sometimes even being bullied by traffic cops.
You catch a rickshaw anywhere in India and you’ll find it difficult to converse with the driver, who is angry, annoyed and irksome – in short fed up with the day’s job.
So it comes as a surprise when you meet a driver who has been in the profession for more than a quarter of a century and has absolutely no plans to quit over the coming years. And considering that the man is 78, one must admire, not just his driving skills, but his entire personality.
Jovial auto driver
Surender Bahadur Singh is a jovial auto driver, who enjoys his job and also likes to converse with his customers, if he/she is interested in doing so. And though he took up driving 26 years ago, he has had an interesting career – in the Indian army initially and later with a nationalised bank.
I caught up with Singh some time back and he drove me home in Pune on a quiet afternoon. The auto driver is originally from Delhi and studied till class VIII. His father worked for a cotton mill in Kanpur.
“I joined the army at a very junior level when I was just 18,” recalls Singh. The busiest years were towards the end of his service, when he found himself landing on the hills outside Dhaka in 1971 during the war. “We fought a lot after being para-dropped there, and mostly did not have many weapons,” he recalls.
Unfortunately, after the war his father passed away and Singh – the eldest of three brothers – returned home and also took premature retirement. After a while he joined the Union Bank of India’s security department in Delhi and was later transferred to Pune.
While his other brothers – one a police inspector in Kanpur and the other in service there – preferred to stay in the north, Singh liked Pune a lot. “I was asked to return to Delhi, but I told the bank I liked it here and would want to continue,” he notes.
A shrewd investor, Singh bought five guntas – one gunta is about 1,090 sq ft; and 40 guntas add up to an acre – of land at Pune’s now posh Kalyani Nagar, way back in 1975, for a mere Rs2,500. Of course, today land there is sold for more than Rs50 lakh a gunta.
Though Singh visits Delhi and UP about twice a year, mainly to attend weddings and social functions, he still prefers to live in Pune. And his children are also well settled and enjoy life in the city.
His wife, Rajini, is a social worker and is involved with working for the poor, rushing to help fire victims or meeting women who have ended up at police stations because of some dispute.
Singh left the bank nearly a decade ago – he used to drive an auto-rickshaw part-time even then – and today drives for nearly nine to 10 hours. “I take customers wherever they want to go and don’t argue about destinations or the fare,” he says matter-of-factly.
Once he recalls there was a fight in the auto and the matter went up to the police and later the court. After listening to his case and after going over his ex-army background, the judge asked the police whether he had to be treated like a terrorist. The matter was resolved quickly.
For a 78-year-old, Singh is quite happy with his earnings. “I earn about Rs800 to Rs900 daily, which is net of all the expenses,” he explains. “I also get a pension of Rs28,000 a month, besides another Rs8,000 as rental income for my Kalyani Nagar property.” He stays at his home in Nana Peth in Pune.
Singh says his health is good. Looking at him you realise that he’s capable of driving his vehicle for many more years and in even worse traffic conditions. He doesn’t wear spectacles and reads a lot. Recently though he’s started taking medicines for blood pressure, after a doctor advised him to do so. “I walk for about two km daily,” says the contented ex-serviceman.