SOMETIMES WE NEED TO RE-EXAMINE OUR STEREOTYPES…
I am waiting in the pouring rain outside the High Court.Suddenly, the sun is out for a brief moment and spotlights the High Court brilliantly . There’s a mad scramble for autos.The supply crisis gives the auto-kaarans a delightful binary choice: refuse the savaari or fleece the giraakki, damn you anyway!
I brace myself to negotiate with the next auto-kaaran in aggressive Madras Bhaashai. He disarms me with, “Saar, please pay whatever you usually pay for this trip”. I quote Rs.150 and he accepts without demur. That is not only below average, but the lowest ever fare I had paid for the journey in ages! Although it is a good Rs.25 above the metered rate, I had beaten down today’s Market Economics. Now, I feel a little sorry for the auto-kaaran.
He gets chatty…. about the water shortage, power cuts and …. the Govt. Reservation Policy. Surprisingly, he is anti-Reservation, pro-Meritocracy. He has 2 daughters and he is working his guts out to ensure that they are given the best education: one is in an elite women’s college and the other is in a good school. He wants them to be proficient in English so that they can get a job anywhere; and stand on their own legs. He tells me, “I did not study English grammar, but I know it intuitively”. He felt that his girl was not speaking grammatically correct English. He shared his anxiety with the teachers but they reassured him “aal vas vell”. He was not satisfied: “when they themselves are imperfect how can they detect faults in my girl’s English?” So he spent more money and sent her to a 3-month Spoken English course to improve her grammar. Now he is proud of her English. “By the way, saar, guess my educational qualifications?” I credit him with an SSLC pass. He breaks into a guffaw and declares, “Saar, I am 3rd Standard pass and learnt the rest by experience”.
Now, I am astonished and curious; I egg him on to tell me the rest of his story. He was born in a village near Sriperumbudur. His entire community earns a living by doing exquisite embroidery. While sitting on his mother’s lap, he learnt embroidery by watching her. By age 8 he had become skillful and he could carry complex designs in his head. He “worked like an adult” and soon he was paid “adult” wages. This was great, till he learnt something else: if a job was worth Rs.10, he got only Rs. 2; it was not anybody’s fault— just market economics. So he decided to cut the middlemen and start his own business in the city.
He migrated to Madras, set up business and built a profitable clientele. His designs were creative and he executed his work well. For instance, if he had to embroider a blouse, he calculated which part would not be covered by the Sari and put his most creative design there. He offered his clients a wide choice of complexity: more complexity meant higher price. Quite often a single blouse would fetch Rs. 5000.He bought a small house near Pursaiwalkam and set up his younger brother in the same business, upstairs. “He is artistic too” he says proudly. He got his sister married off and everything looked hunkey-dorey.
Then why did he become an auto-kaaran? Over the last few years the competition from machine-made embroidery had become intense and his revenue had become unpredictable. Meanwhile his father sold his agricultural land. “My father was ignorant. While land prices around Sriperumbudur were going up due to industrialization, he sold it for a ridiculous pittance”. So he took up auto-driving as a back-up. Eventually, it became his main business.
So what happened to his loyal clientele? “My brother continues to embroider. If any old customer comes with an order I still take up and execute it”. How can he create artistic designs after driving through frustrating Chennai roads, I wonder. He reads my mind: “On days when I get a good order, I just lock my auto and execute the job with full focus”. Aha, a true artist!
We are nearing home now. “Saar, I have no complaints, I have an own house with no liabilities attached. Yet, I always dream of having a good embroidering unit with several artisans working under my direction”. So what is stopping him? “I can even raise the necessary capital. However it would need 6 months of my full-time attention before any decent revenue can be generated. But I need at least Rs. 25000 regularly every month, to pay the education fees of my daughters. Any variance will shatter my dreams for them. That’s a risk I can ill afford. So I will always be an auto-kaaran”. Market economics!
Auto-kaaran= Autorikshaw driver
Savaari= Trip (original Hindi)
Giraakki = Customer (from the original Hindi: Graahak)
Madras Bhaashai = Chennai slang, often considered disrespectful
Saar = Sir (from English)