Mission Delhi – Hari Om, On the Road
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The white hair are standing spindly upon his head, ably covering the bald patch at the center. When the auto rickshaw stops at the Purana Qila traffic light, he turns off the engine, and bends down his head towards the left side, as if in deep thoughts. Perhaps he imagines the wait may be long at this light.
It is 3 in the afternoon, very hot. The glare of the daylight hurts the eyes. He has been out of the home since 8 in the morning.
Finally, the light turns green. He restarts the engine, his arms are firmly clutching the handles. The auto slowly picks up speed, racing along the road, but not rashly fast, keeping a safe distance from the vehicle ahead.
Hari Om has been driving auto rickshaw in Delhi since 1974. He is in his 70s. A person of his age usually gives up work and stays at home, watching TV, reading the newspapers from first page to last, and Whatsapping cute images to friends and relatives.
On being asked what is keeping him on the road in his advanced years, the elderly driver responds in a single line: “Bachhe nahi hain (no children).” He makes a clarification on further queries. “I have a daughter but she lives with her family… she has two children of her own.” Hari Om himself lives with wife, Mamta, “jumnapaar” in Geeta Colony.
Another traffic light. This could be even longer than the last one. It is after all ITO crossing. Hari Om again turns off the engine with a decisive gesture. A coconut vendor approaches him, his tray is neatly stacked with white wedges of the fruit. Hari Om isn’t tempted. He had lunch an hour back—his wife had packed rotis. “It is so hot so there is no point in carrying subzi from home… it can’t bear the heat.” He picks up a dish from any random roadside eatery. “I have two rotis in the day, two rotis at night,” he intones in a singsong tone as if reading a poem. “My daughter is a acchi bachhi (good child), her husband too is a driver… he drives a cab.” During the worst periods of the pandemic, aware of his age-related vulnerabilities, he did not drive the auto. “We lived off our savings.”
The red light turns green.
While dropping his customer near Rajghat, the venerable driver finally smiles, and says: “I will retire only after retiring from life.” He now awaits a new customer. As always, he will return home at 5 in the evening.
[This is the 484th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
Working till the end of time