Rickshaw service to and fro the schools with a bunch of uniformed children was his only occupation. A skin tone closer to Amma’s ‘Pulikkachal’, oil dripping across the sweaty skin, plaid-patterns on the washed out cotton shirt, the lungi and the towel wrapped around his half-bald scalp as a turban, eyes drunk in life and its sufferings and scarlet lips painted by the tan of betel leaves – Doraisamy ‘thatha’ was the one who took us to our destinations in the sweaty Madras mornings and evenings with ultimate care and affection.
‘Ay Seenu’ – is how he addressed me, in his yellow painted rickshaw with colorful curves and flowers across the sides, the red seat which bore him across the years, and coir-filled seats that occasionally had to be revamped with new covers (flashy in their own sense), and finally the rickshaw’s foldable roof in a dull, olive green. Doraisamy’s rickshaw could bear up to 6 children in the age group of 4 to 10, – two on the seat facing him, two on the seat behind his back and two tiny tots on the side-seat, which was like a swing, sometimes shooting up the adrenalin in us.
Nancy, Nandini, Raghu (the bully), Seenu, Sriram, Vasisht, Ramya, Harish, Sarat, the list went on…Some of them are probably in their twenties and thirties, spread across the globe and in different vocations; some must have totally forgotten him and the fights or fun-times from their respective homes to their respective schools.
Doraisamy died some twelve years ago, out of alcohol abuse and old age. He never drank in front of us, nor did he come drunk to work. We could all see the reddish eyes, stained in years of consuming local brandy and toiling in the burning sun. The rickshaw he drove to earn a hundred rupees a month did help him send his then nine year old daughter to school. I remember seeing her once, but that memory is vague now. He had a son, who tried the same profession as him, but gave it up for an alternative job.
There were only a few times when he borrowed money from my parents, who lent it to him not out of pity, but out of trust and concern for his health, and his daughter’s studies. He would return the money without fail, and his loyalty towards his profession as a cycle-rickshaw driver was unchallenged. Even when the era of auto-rickshaws that picked up and dropped school children came, his faith in his own legs pushing those rather grey pedals never flinched. I wonder why he toiled, back stretched forward, hands gripping the bars and calves pushing the pedals up flyovers and braking on the curves…and he continued to toil, despite the opportunities he might have had to earn more money.
If he would have earned anything, then it would have been the warmth of children going ‘vroom’ in their heads with cheer on the slightest hint of sea-breeze or November rain under the rickshaw’s roof, or just the views that could be seen between the fan-like folds of it, or the fun in hanging on the side-seat. His betel-stained teeth and lips, the brown arms that lifted schoolbags and the children onto or off the rickshaw with ease and that familiar smile of an endearing man… tears of joy well up.