At 70, Dattaraya Champalal Kalaskar is older than many parts of the city he’s served over four decades ‘on hire.’
Gold-rimmed spectacles offset a face traced by wrinkles of time and travail. Stray hairs spring unchallenged from either ear. His mustache and chin stubble carry a white hue. An honest-to-goodness smile conveys good will past broken teeth.
“The profession adopted me and I am married to it”, says the rickshaw driver, interviewed one summer day.
Chucking, Kalaskar fondly pats his auto, pointing toward words on its front, ‘Bhairavnath prasanna’ (May Lord Shiva be praised), a prayer for the daily journey he and other drivers travel making ends meet, providence delivered through customers.
Kalaskar gave up his slate and chalk at the age of 10 when his father passed away, leaving him to fend for his family. He worked in garages, carpet factories and the beedi industry before settling down as a weaver at Raja Bazaar Mill. He kept at it for a decade till exploitation reared its head and he found himself unpaid, yet compelled to put in extra hours.
Not long afterward, Kalaskar acquired a license, rented an auto rickshaw and began driving for a living.
With time, the boy in Kalaskar became the man of a family: husband to Lakshmi, father to Sandeep, Rohini, Manisha and Truptha, grandfather to seven tiny tots. All his children were educated up till college, he said, and Sandeep is a software engineer. “Me, class five pass, my children college pass,” the driver adds, satisfaction lighting his shriveling face.
Old age brings a deluge of woes. His failing eyesight bothers him and Kalaskar is wary of young passengers who yell at him to drive faster. The job carries no pension. Though he belongs to a union, the body does nothing, he says, for the welfare of senior auto drivers.
His 12-hour stints on the road begin at 8 a.m. When the gods are on his side and customers don’t haggle, Kalaskar said he earns 300-400 rupees on an average day. Lately, he’s fortunate to save 100 rupees per day, thanks to the switch to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) from petrol. Like many drivers, Kalaskar often spends three hours in the queue refueling.
The road comes with its share of pitfalls and potholes.
Even at his age, dowry pressures threaten the calm of his home. “My daughters often come home to stay but the real reason for their arrival is because their husbands expect money when their wives return. I cannot say no, because as a father, my daughters’ happiness is my responsibility. But there is no end to greed.”
His biggest regret? The theft of his last auto. Repeated complaints at the Kothrud Police Station failed to bring justice. Kalaskar says he borrowed Rs.90, 000 for this one.
It is only to eat three meals a day that Kalaskar still drives at his age.
As he carefully wraps the bank challan in polythene, Kalaskar is greeted by two young drivers. Pointing to the youngsters, Kalaskar worries aloud about the growing number of youth joining the profession. They deserve good returns for their labors, he opines, voicing a sentiment echoed by many others.
With that, I put away my pen and notebook. Kalaskar invites me to share the two rotis packed from home. And as I took a bite, all I could do was say a prayer for this man who counts being able to share meals with a stranger among his blessings.