The pain of the Capital’s poor finds poetic reflection in several of this auto-rickshaw driver's writings.
Some of Prem Chandra Shukla’s poems are titled Road, India Gate and Ant, and Aarushi — the last one a deep reflection on the Aarushi murder case. The final lines of the poem, written in Hindi, goes like: “Children, elders all are still spending sleepless nights as Aarushi is still lying dead on the crossroads of relationships.”Says Shukla, "The worst part of the Aarushi murder case is that it has brought into question the sanctity of relationships between parents and children." This auto driver writes short stories, poems and articles for many literary newspapers and magazines. Born and brought up in Ramapur, a small village in Allahabad district, Shukla has two Master’s degrees: an MA in psychology from Poorwanchal University (he says he topped the college) and MA in Hindi (through correspondence from Delhi University). Shukla came to Delhi in January 1996 after completing his post-graduation to find a job and stayed with a cousin, an auto driver.
It had been a few months since he arrived in the city but could not find a job that suited his education. The pressure from his family in the village, which comprised an old father, a wife and two daughters, to send money was mounting. “My daughter had suffered severe burns a few months before I came to Delhi. I had taken a loan from my relatives for her plastic surgery, and there was pressure to pay it back," he says. His cousin, who owned three autos, suggested that till he got a job, he could drive one of the vehicles. Desperate, Shukla, then aged 25 years, agreed. “In July 1996, I got my learner's license and started driving an auto in the North Campus area of Delhi University because I wanted to be in touch with the student community. While I was driving the auto, I was still appearing for various competitive exams, including the IAS, with Hindi and history as my subjects,” says Shukla.
Shukla drove the auto during the day and studied through the night, and made about R250 daily after paying the auto rent. “That was good money those days. Each month, I managed to send a few thousand rupees to my family,” says Shukla, adding, “But my preparation for the competitive exams was suffering. I was not able to put as much time into studies as required. I realised I was trapped in a vicious circle as I had to drive the auto to send money to my family,” says Shukla.
A few days before his MA final exams, he met with an accident while driving the auto and broke his leg, but he was determined to take the exams. “Kirori Mal College was my exam centre. I had to be physically lifted and taken to the classroom by my friends. I managed to pass the exams and thought it would help me at least find a teacher's job,” says Shukla.
But that did not work out. A distraught Shukla realised that it was the end of the road for him as far as his dream of finding a decent job in the Capital was concerned. That was when he turned to verses for solace. “I started writing poetry in my diary. One day, one of my relatives, a Hindi teacher in a Delhi government school, saw them and sent them to a literary newspaper. All of them were published with my photograph. That was my happiest moment in Delhi,” says Shukla, who has since published his poems and short stories in various literary magazines such as Yadi and Sahitya Prasoon. His poems have also appeared in an anthology called Udghosh (Proclamation). This March, he was invited to speak at a national conference in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, on the subject “Lok Jagran and Hindi Sahitya (mass awakening and Hindi literature)”, sponsored by the regional office of the University Grants Commission (UGC). “I could not go but sent my paper on the subject,” he says showing us the invitation.
Today, Shukla drives the auto during the day and writes between 11pm to 5am. “This is the time devoted to my literary pursuits. I write every day without fail,” says Shukla, who often gets invited to poetry conferences and seminars in east Delhi. Ask him about his wife, and his eyes lit up. “She is not educated, but she understands my poetry well. In fact, she is my biggest critic too. She feels my poetry has depth, but it is not suitable for recitation,” says Shukla, whose first collection of short stories, Bade Ghar Ka Lal (The son of a rich family), is slated to be published later this year.
As a poet, he draws inspiration from his own life experiences. One of his poems, Tipahiya (Three wheeler), captures his pain and agony at the circumstances leading to his becoming an auto driver. When he meets us wearing the auto driver’s uniform, with a thick pile of literary magazines and papers he has written for, he hands us a copy of his curriculum vitae, which mentions in English: “Ten years’ experience as a poem and short story writer, 13 years’ experience as a light-motor vehicle and auto-rickshaw driver.”
“An auto driver has no respect. Most people think they are all cheats. But the fact is there are many people who do not go by the meter and haggle over the fare thinking auto drivers will take the longer route,” says, Shukla, who lives alone in a rented house in east Delhi’s Khajuri Khas. His family is still in his village.
Shukla says that nothing reminds him of failure in life as the rise of his cousin who first gave him an auto to drive. He has since set up a toy factory, and employs about 40 people, Shukla says. “But I am still out on the roads. When I was in school, my father wanted me to be the most educated person in the village, a dream I fulfilled, but he is deeply pained that still I ended up driving an auto in the Capital.”