We have been living over two generations in the great city of Mumbai. In this span of nearly 80 years, we have had several individuals as a support to our living and been part of our family. This included a barber who used to show up every morning for 30 years and shave for my father (in fact he did my first shave – leaving some bruises behind as a memory). And there was an Aya (maid) who looked after me for 25 years like my second mother. I always miss Tanubai (her name).
In this “ecosystem”, there were car drivers who worked with my father for years. These drivers did not just drive our cars but functioned like “butlers” and did anything and everything for us. We looked after them well, respected them (never treated them like servants – a term I hate to use) and supported their families. The young generation of today will probably not understand the warmth and relationships, we enjoyed as an extended family. Life is so different today.
I am writing this post about my driver Siddhu Kolekar who worked with me for 10 years. Through this narration, my attempt is to reflect a few sensitivities laced with some humor in the form anecdotes. Pardon me as there are no musings on sustainability in this post!
On a Sunday morning my doorbell rang. When I opened the door I saw a short, a bit stocky and a dark skinned man grinning at me with a paan in this mouth. He almost looked like a chimpanzee.
“Saheb, I was told that you are looking for a driver” He said
I was indeed looking for a new driver at that time as my earlier driver had retired. But I was surprised how this chimpanzee found out about my search?
The man simply got in (almost pushing me) and took a seat on the sofa. He looked around the drawing room to “measure” me up. He took out his (dirty) handkerchief and wiped sweat on this forehead
“I can start working for you from tomorrow” He said in a matter of fact tone.
I was both amused and irritated.
“Who are you Mr.…?” I asked in not so friendly a tone.
“I am Siddhanath – but you can call me Siddhu”
Siddhu looked an experienced person – must be nearly 50 years of age I guessed.
“Where did you work before” I asked
“Well, my first job was with the Chief Minister of the Government of Maharashtra – Shri Vasantrao Naik. That was for 10 years. Then I worked for more than 10 years with Mr. Soman, Inspector General of Police of Maharashtra. You should know these people – both good.”
He saw my gaping face and continued
“Someone told me that you are looking for a new driver. Many told me that you are good man. So I have decided to work with you”
[So I was going to be the third important and fortunate boss of Siddhu!)
I tried to explain to him that he cannot assume that I have selected or appointed him. I am looking for options and he could well be one of them.
But Siddhu did not listen and gave me an impression that he did not understand my point of view.
“I will come tomorrow morning at 8 am. You have Maruti Esteem right. I know this car very well” He said while getting up from the sofa. While opening the door, he turned around and said “I decided my job with you so now you decide my salary – I leave to you”
The Man left.
The next day morning he appeared, a bit better dressed, and sharp at 8 am asking for the car keys.
I accepted him. I had probably no choice – as the Man had already decided.
Since then Siddhu came to work for me every day at 8 am sharp for the next 10 years.
The first thing I had to do was to get a strong and pungent air spray in the car so as to “neutralize” the Siddhu’s body odor. He was a Shepard by birth – and “smelt” of the sheep and the soil. The air spray used to work for the day.
Siddhu was a decent driver and knew how to take care of my car. He could negotiate well with the car mechanics and speak to them like an automobile engineer with an authority and experience. He had a number of stories to tell about his driving skills – especially the story of the award – a silver badge – he received from Larsen & Toubro to bring down one of their massive 12 wheeler from the hills in Chambal Valley – a valley that was rampaged by the dacoits.
Siddhu had an uncanny skill of attracting women. Whenever I used to go for meetings and return to the car, I would see him chatting with women – that included waste-pickers, vegetable sellers and of that kind. He used to be sitting like a Krishna in between.
But there were many interesting episodes with this chimpanzee that I must narrate to you.
When I used to go to my office in IL&FS, security guards at the Gate would stand by and salute me. I never liked this saluting practice and so I told Siddhu to tell them to stop this nonsense. Siddhu laughed at me and said “Saheb, Do you think they are saluting you? They are saluting me – as they come from my village. I am like their Mama (uncle)”. I was simply speechless.
I realized later that Siddhu’s village must be really big or some important place. I remember that once he jumped the traffic signal near Worli in Mumbai and we were promptly stopped by the Traffic Police. The policeman took his driving license and asked him to appear in the court next day and pay fine. I was quite upset and told Siddhu that firstly he should have not jumped the signal and secondly he must report to the Court, apologize and pay the fine, the very next day.
Siddhu said “No worries Saheb. A policeman with a handlebar mustache will come to your house at night and return my driving license. All the driving licenses collected in the Central part of Mumbai go to him at night. This man is from my village and once he sees my license – he will come to your house and return the license” I was shocked with his confidence
And sure it happened as predicted. At night around 10 pm, a policeman with handlebar mustache appeared at my door step. While handing over the license, he said “Saheb, some mistake. Please give this to Mama when he comes tomorrow. Convey my regards”
Siddhu once told me that he has been blessed by a sage that he will not die in a car accident. It’s good for you to know he said. I however told him to re-check with the Sage whether his blessings were for the driver or man with the wheel or whether they were also applicable to someone sitting behind like me! He laughed. “I will check” he said.
The laughter part reminds me of another incident. I had taken out my good friends Richard Ackermann and Hari Sankaran for a dinner at Copper Chimney in Bandra in Mumbai. I was dropping them back at the Carter Road where Hari lived and then to Taj Lands End where Richard was staying. Richard was at that time Sector Director of Environment at the World Bank and Hari was Joint Managing Director of IL&FS. The conversations in the car were extremely intellectual laced by Richard’s sense of sophisticated humor that would make all of us laugh. Whenever we would do so, driver Siddhu would also laugh. I was surprised and also irritated to see him laughing. “How come this guy laughs when he does not know even a sentence in English?”
When we were returning home, I could not resist asking him – why were you laughing Siddhu? I am sure you understood nothing what Richard was saying”. Siddhu replied “Saheb, doesn’t it look bad if three in the car laugh and the forth doesn’t? Bad manners isn’t it? So I joined you all in laughing.” I didn’t know what to say. Laugh or cry!!
I used to pay Siddhu his salary in cash every month as he did not have a bank account. Once day while counting the notes, he told me” Saheb, don’t take me wrong, but I just wanted to tell you that I am much richer than you are. I have 4 acres of fertile land, four deep wells, 30 sheep, 4 cows and 2 bulls. And where I live has the sun, wind and the oxygen” He was absolutely right I thought, especially in the latter, where Mumbai always had overcast sky, poor “ventilation” and more of carbon monoxide than the oxygen. “Then why do you work for me Siddhu?” I asked. He was about to finish his counting of the notes and so took a pause and said “Saheb, I have everything I said but no cash. And I am here just for that”. Indeed, many from rural areas of Maharashtra are in Mumbai because of the hard cash this “sin city” gives.
Siddhu was quite popular across my office colleagues and friends as he used to often give everybody his free advice of “wisdom in practice”. One day, Santosh Shidhaye, one of my colleagues in IL&FS passed me a cassette of Marathi loksangeet (folk songs). He said that one of the singer’s voice in the cassette resembled Siddhu’s voice. I left the cassette in the pouch of the car and forgot about it.
One day, while on the Western Express highway, I remembered what Santosh said. I asked Siddhu to take the cassette from the pouch and play. After a few songs, which were all good, there came a song about a Shepard. Moment this song started, Siddhu got visibly excited and pulled the car to the side of the Express highway, rather abruptly. I thought we just missed a fatal accident. “What are you up to Siddhu I almost shouted?
Siddhu turned back to me and said in a chocked voice “Saheb, this is my song. I recorded this at the HMV (His Masters Voice) studio in Marine Lines, some 10 years ago. They never gave me the cassette but I get every year a money order of 25 Rs. This was a great surprise to me. I checked the inside cover of the cassette and it did have a name of the singer “Siddhanath Kolekar and Party”. So, Siddhu was an accomplished singer.
Siddhu however continued to speak – now recalling his memories. “Saheb, I not only sang but wrote this song. This song is based on a folk tale about a Shepard”.
I got curious and asked Siddhu to explain.
“Well the song tells a story about a railway tunnel project in the ghats (mountains) during the British times. A British engineer was trying to figure out the right alignment of the tunnel that would connect both sides at least excavation/blasting and generation of spoils. He was not able to come up with a good solution. Locals in the area told him that he must speak to the old Shepard who grazes sheep on the mountain. Only he will know – most people said. The British engineer met the Shepard and learned from him how to arrive at the best tunnel route.
The tunnel got built and gave the best result. The British engineer was now worried that the credit will also go to the Shepard. He therefore arrested him and cut off his hands so that he can no more walk in the mountains and mend the sheep. This was done in all possible brutality.
On the day of inauguration, the train left the station from the city with an engine whistling and smoking proudly and catching a good speed to reach the tunnel. As the engine reached the beginning of the tunnel it suddenly stopped. Despite all efforts from the engine driver and the mechanic, the engine would not move. It looked like the engine was in the tears remembering the tragedy of the Shepard. It did not want to cross the tunnel of injustice! The song ended with this touching tale where someone not human cared for the poor human being.
“So you wrote this Song Siddhu, a story to remember and ponder” – I exclaimed. Then in a voice that was still chocked Siddhu said “Saheb, in this world and in this city, I see many like the British engineer and many like the Shepard – people innocent and compromised”. We did not speak a word in rest of the journey.
One day while accepting his monthly salary, Siddhu declared that now is the time to quit. When asked he reminded me that he had told me when he joined that he will leave me on his own – no questions to be asked. “I want to go to my village and get back to farming” he said.
I let him go as he was clear and firm.
Farewell day! (me standing back on the right)
Many told me later that Siddhu had decided to quit as his eyesight was getting worse due to a cataract. He used to have difficulties in driving me at night especially on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. So he apparently left for my safety – knowing that the Sage whom he had met had assured him of his safety but not of the person sitting in the rear seat!
I have not seen Siddhu again.