Life Lessons From an Autowallah

January 05, 2010
Linette Lim

After all this time in India, my greatest takeaway was not found in the advertising firm I am working at, but plucked off the dusty streets of Mysore. The story of an auto wallah - the local term for an auto rickshaw driver - whom I only know as Harish, is one I will never forget.

I met Harish by chance. I was waiting for an auto rickshaw outside the hotel, and his came by. I asked to be taken to Jaganmohan Palace, and he said "25 rupees". It was the amount the receptionist at the hotel said I should pay, so I hopped on. After that, I asked him for walking directions from Jaganmohan Palace to Mysore Palace. He said he would drive me there for an additional 5 rupees. "OK", I said. We started talking, and my instincts told me that Harish was an honest and trustworthy person. I wanted to trust him. More importantly, I want to believe that innate goodness existed in man, regardless of which part of the world I go to. I made enquiries about booking his auto rickshaw for an entire day.

We followed the itinerary I had planned, covering St. Philomena's Church, Chamundi Hills and Guru Sweets, an Indian sweet shop famous for its Mysore Pak, a delicacy made from butter, sugar, and chickpea flour. Harish then brought me to have delicious, piping-hot butter dosas in a small hole-in-a-wall joint called Mylari. Then we returned to the Mysore Palace; he said I had to go back just to see how the palace looked like in the night, illuminated with 96,000 lights. The day ended with a tour of the palace temples, where Harish showed me how to do puja, and taught me how to differentiate one Hindu god from another. For example, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is always sitting or standing on a lotus flower, while Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, is always depicted to be carrying a stringed music instrument called the veena.

I had just finished reading R. K. Narayan's 'The guide' and I felt that Harish is a lot like the protagonist - enterprising, with a lot of local contacts. For our trip to Somnathpur the next day, he managed to procure a Tata Indica hatchback because he said that the road to Somnathpur is in a very bad condition. I initially suspected that it could be a ploy to charge me a higher rate but I soon found myself on a road so bumpy that I was bopping up and down throughout. Harish told me that the government passed a bill for road works but the money for the road works probably went straight into some politician's pocket.

We drove through some 35 kilometres of villages, sugarcane plantation, and paddy fields to get to the ancient temple - the last important temple built by the Hoysala Empire. Along the journey I asked Harish where he learnt his English from, and that led to a rendering of his personal and family history. He had learnt it in his Kannada (the regional dialect of Karnataka state) medium school, where he had studied up to grade 10. He is the eldest of six children, and he added that it was just as well he didn't continue schooling - the factory his father was working at had closed down, and Harish, aged just fifteen then, needed to work to help support the family.

After his father died, the burden to marry his two sisters off fell on him. In India, as in most parts of the Indian subcontinent, it is the norm for the bride's family to pay dowry to the bridegroom's family, as well as pay for the wedding expenses. Harish had a plot of land, which was given to his family by the Mysore king - his grandpa had worked in the palace - and he sold it in order to raise enough money to marry his sisters off. He says that it is a little easier on him now, as all his brothers are grown up and are able to support themselves.

After we returned from Somnathpur, Harish invited me to his house for lunch. His wife cooked a typical South Indian vegetarian meal, consisting of spiced basmati rice, lentils, chickpeas, sambar, chapatti bread and pappadums. We sat on a straw mat in the living room and ate while we watched a Jackie Chan movie on television. Harish's adorable children asked if I knew any kungfu, and shrugging off their disappointment when I said that I didn't, they proceeded to show me some complex hatha yoga moves.

Harish lives in a cramped two bedroom house with his brother's family. He works long hours seven days a week, 365 days a year - just to make enough money to get by. I wonder if Harish is happy. I think he is. He constantly spoke about having a peace of mind - that the most important thing in life is to have a peace of mind. That is his goal in life, and it is closely intertwined with his religious beliefs. I guess if Harish made money-making his goal, he wouldn't be as happy as he is now.

I am really moved by what I had learnt - about Harish, about life, about fulfilling one's duties. There are probably a million Harishes out there right now; plying the roads, doing what must be done to secure a better life for their children and siblings.

Linette Lim is student from Singapore with a deep interest in traveling and writing about society and culture. She started writing about India during a 5-month work stint in Bangalore and Hyderabad and is plotting a return to India as soon as she graduates.
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