Auto driver from Chennai distributes water to homeless during the scorching summer

| Video Credit:
Akhila Easwaran

“Do you mind if I stop here for a second,” asks S Jayakumar.

This auto driver who has journeyed through Chennai for 33 years has seen an expanding city, an intermingling of autos and technology, and a sharp rise in temperature during the summer lately.

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 10 May 2024: FOR METROPLUS:  S.Jayakumar, auto driver distributes water bottles to the needy homeless, and elderly people in Chennai on  Friday. Photo:Akhila Easwaran/ The Hindu

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 10 May 2024: FOR METROPLUS: S.Jayakumar, auto driver distributes water bottles to the needy homeless, and elderly people in Chennai on Friday. Photo:Akhila Easwaran/ The Hindu
| Photo Credit:
Akhila Easwaran

He reaches for a large carton of one-litre bottles placed behind the passenger, pulls out one bottle and hands it to a waste collector.

Jayakumar kick-starts his auto and continues to drive. Few words are exchanged between him and his benefactors except an occasional raised hand signalling a blessing and a muttered ‘thanks’. Stranger things have happened in Indian autos.

“Sometime around 2015, I saw another person distributing bottles of water to those who could not access a clean water source. I wanted to replicate that. Everyday, I buy three cartons with 36 bottles and hand them out to those in need. Everyday… except Tuesday. It is my day off as there is not enough savari. I don’t like to make a fuss about it,” he says, smiling.

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 10 May 2024: FOR METROPLUS:  S.Jayakumar, auto driver distributes water bottles to the needy homeless, and elderly people in Chennai on  Friday. Photo:Akhila Easwaran/ The Hindu

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 10 May 2024: FOR METROPLUS: S.Jayakumar, auto driver distributes water bottles to the needy homeless, and elderly people in Chennai on Friday. Photo:Akhila Easwaran/ The Hindu
| Photo Credit:
Akhila Easwaran

Jayakumar says that his mother is supportive and contributes some extra money during the summer, especially because the last few years have been exceptionally hot. “During the monsoon, I buy two cartons instead,” he says.

Though Jayakumar has been taking part in this exercise for nine years now, he does not know the names of most people he hands out water to. “I stop while driving passengers. I cannot afford to waste their time. It is not a chatting sort of relationship. Sometimes they [the passengers] chip in for a bottle or two but there is no obligation. I do it of my own accord,” he says.

Although he does not have a conversational relationship, he has been able to chart out a map of the homeless across the city and knows who usually sits where. They greet him with kindness too, he says.

“Let’s go near the Museum Theatre. There is a kind elderly blind man there,” he says.

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 10 May 2024: FOR METROPLUS:  S.Jayakumar, auto driver distributes water bottles to the needy homeless, and elderly people in Chennai on  Friday. Photo:Akhila Easwaran/ The Hindu

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 10 May 2024: FOR METROPLUS: S.Jayakumar, auto driver distributes water bottles to the needy homeless, and elderly people in Chennai on Friday. Photo:Akhila Easwaran/ The Hindu
| Photo Credit:
Akhila Easwaran

Abdur Rahman grins when he hears Jayakumar’s voice. “Yaaru? Auto driver ah?” he asks, with a flash of recognition. “ Be well,” he says as Jayakumar hands him a bottle. “The police sometimes drive us away but we find our way back. People like thambi help us survive during trying times,” he says.

Jayakumar says though he feels a sense of satisfaction at the end of each day, there is a cost. “There will be days when I drive to familiar spots and not find the regulars. An enquiry at the tea shop would usually reveal that they have died. It is a silent and undignified death. This leaves me disturbed,” he says.

But he is resolute. “I have no choice now, do I?” he adds. The auto, he says cannot stop.

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