“The world has turned upside down,” Sunil Kumar said calmly, as she sprayed sanitiser on the passenger seat of his autorickshaw.
It is late night and Kumar has just picked up his latest customers in south Delhi’s Saket. After reaching a deal acceptable to both the parties, he gets out of the driver’s seat, politely urges the passengers to stand away and slips into the backseat to spray it with a sanitiser.
To be sure, like most fellow citizens, many auto drivers have adapted to the mask. They also partition the auto with a plastic sheet, a pandemic-era safety tool. Quite a few auto drivers also carry hand sanitisers. But few are as exacting about sanitization as Kumar.
“I must keep the customers protected… if they are safe from the virus, chances are that I will be safe from it too,” he shrugged. He confessed that each time he bought a new bottle he asked himself, “Why am I spending for other people?” After all, his earnings have drastically fallen.
“Most people these days commute in their own cars or bikes and are fearful of sitting in autos,” he said, shaking his head. Today, he has earned Rs 500. Before the pandemic, he would have made “thrice or four times more.”
Despite his smiling demeanour, Kumar confessed that his life was “full of tension.” He borrowed money some months ago. In his 40s, he lives with his wife and two children. “And sometimes things get so desperate that my wife is forced to work as a maid in people’s houses.”
But before the pandemic, life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses either. Kumar admitted that he wasn’t free of stress around the same time last year. “I was working as a dish washer in a small restaurant… I was unhappy then too.”
After dropping the customers in Connaught Place, he parks his auto outside Palika Bazar. He has the sanitiser bottle in his hands ready to clean the seats as soon as a customer appears. “I wait for passengers to arrive before I sanitise, so that they can see that the auto is safe for them to board.”
Ten minutes pass and nobody arrives. After a wait, Kumar starts the motor and drives away.