City Life – Raju’s Pandemic Days, Gandhi Nagar
The corona-era life.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
As the worries for everyday struggles seem to recede for him, auto rickshaw driver Raju has started to think again of a dream he had before the coronavirus shook his world. “My ambition is to have a small plot of land in Gurgaon, and build a house on it.”
Indeed, life and its aspirations must go on, and Raju, 24, is back to riding his auto rickshaw from 8 am to 10 pm.
“I started driving again not long after the lifting of the (coronavirus-triggered) lockdown, but for some weeks I wouldn’t spend the whole day on the road,” he says, chatting on phone. Initially, Raju explains, he wouldn’t get many customers—“Most people were still scared to get out of their houses.” He thus didn’t see the point of staying out for too long, and would mostly remain at the one-room rented dwelling he shares with his wife and three little kids in Gurgaon’s Gandhi Nagar in the Greater Delhi Region.
At this very moment, while talking, the masked Raju is driving a customer to Sector 6— but he rushes to assure that he is chatting through his mobile’s earphones, and that his hands are safely placed on the auto’s steering handle.
“Now I get more customers… so I’m working the regular hours,” he says, his voice being one among a host of highway sounds, including the horn he is frequently blowing through the traffic.
Feeling secured enough in reclaiming the old routines of his working life, the auto driver is freely talking of his longtime dream. He calculates that it would take him about three lakh rupees to buy just the land. The realisation of having his own house is essential for him because “I have never had a true home. My parents died when I was very young… my chacha-chachi (uncle and aunt) are the ones who raised me.”
Actually, some weeks ago, Raju even slipped out of the metropolis for a ten-day solo trip to his Dwasa Pipra village in Katihar, Bihar, to visit the elderly couple: “I had to go check on chacha-chachi. I am what I am because of them.”
But he is also a self-made man. Raju arrived in the Delhi region years ago as a “baledar,” a labourer. “Buying an auto last year, on loan, raised me to a higher level, until all the gains were destroyed by the coronavirus… I still have to pay back my loan installments for the auto.”
Despite certain improvements in the income, things are not the same as in the pre-corona days. “Back then, I would be earning about ten thousand rupees every month,” he says, adding that the figure has now been cut in half.
And yet, daily living today is superior to what it was during the lockdown and the weeks that followed. “We were having only aloo or dal-chawal for food, but now we are also having hari subzi (green vegetables), that were difficult for us to afford in those days.”
The normal life is back, he concludes, and his earnings shall consequently rise again. “My kids will eat better, they will continue with their school, and my wife and I will again start to save money so we can buy land, maybe somewhere just outside Gurgaon.”
By now, he has already dropped the aforementioned customer and is waiting for another one. “I recently studied the rate of my earnings and the price of land these days, and have determined that if something like coronavirus doesn’t happen again, it will take me three years to have my dream of getting a house come true.”
He now takes off his mask—there’s no other person in the auto—and flashes a smile.