The clock was about to strike 12 when PV Raji Ashok’s phone buzzed. She has had a long day of work, but she knows that this call cannot go unanswered. The call was from a woman wanting a ride to her office for the graveyard shift. In many ways, Raji’s work as an auto driver is as important as that of a doctor or a policeman.
Unfortunately, such is the sad state of affairs in the country that stories of appalling crimes against women have become run of the mill. Whether working the graveyard shift, going to the airport to catch a late-night flight or stepping out of the house for an emergency, the darkness cloaks innumerable horrors for women in India. In such a scenario, trusting cab and auto drivers is an avoidable choice. How else would you commute through the city then?
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As someone who has been in all three situations, I understand that every ride is filled with trepidation. Every time I step out in the ‘risky hours’, I note down the details of the car and the driver, send it to a trusted colleague and ask them to track the journey. This process is necessary for our protection. And I urge all to follow the same.
And Raji understands this.
“Whether it is the middle of the night or an insufferably hot afternoon, I never refuse a ride to a woman. Even after my 8-9 hour shift has ended, I get many calls from women to go to Chennai airport, or from women working late shifts. I accept all the requests. My only condition is that they book the ride at least one hour in advance so I can schedule them,” she explains.
Raji, fondly known as Raji Akka by women she has ferried safely, has been working a 9-hour shift daily for the last 20 years. Raji offers free rides to young kids, senior citizens and those women who may not have the cab fare to pay.
Women who ride with her have come to know Raji very well, and they understand her request for booking rides in advance. She completes almost 30 trips every day! Today, Raji earns between Rs 30,000-40,000 monthly, but the beginning of this journey as an auto driver was as bumpy as the roads she drives on every day.
It began with a love story.
Raji is originally from Palakkad, Kerala and has a BA in Philosophy. While she was still a student, she fell in love with Ashok, an auto-driver from the village, whom she married later. Although she didn’t go into the details of the struggles the couple initially faced but shortly after getting married, the two decided to shift to Coimbatore. Here, while Ashok drove an auto, Raji worked as an accountant at a travel agency.
However, the couple shifted base to Chennai after the 1998 bomb blasts in Coimbatore that took nearly 60 lives.
“The horrific blasts had affected hundreds of people, and we were two of them. We had no option but to restart our lives and so we came to Chennai. My brother worked here in the railways, so we had a strong base to restart our lives on. This change of city brought with it its share of challenges. For one, I could not find a job despite my qualification and experience. After several failed interviews, I decided to start driving an auto for a living just like my husband,” says the 48-year-old.
The auto-driving license that she had obtained in Coimbatore seemed like the right decision now. But the small piece of paper wasn’t enough to teach her all the skills of driving an auto in the Chennai traffic. She was still new to the city and didn’t know one road from the other. During the first few days, in moments of panic, she even crashed the vehicle.
“These were hiccups in my journey but could not stop me from getting better. I traded my new auto for a second-hand one and practised even more. Soon, there was no street in Chennai that was alien to me, and I could manage driving in the traffic as well as any local,” she says. She also informs that her parents and husband supported her decision, and it was because of their constant support that she has become the Raji Akka that her happy customers know her as.
“Over the past few years, I have given motivational talks in over 13 colleges in Chennai. I also give free auto driving lessons to women interested in joining this profession. This is a great occupation for women, and I want to encourage more ladies to drive autos professionally,” she says.
Raji Akka believes that whatever job one does, they must be completely satisfied with it.
The way she is.
(Translated from Malayalam with Serene Zachariah’s help)
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)