The Autowallah Who Takes Cancer for a Ride


The Autowallah Who Takes Cancer for a Ride

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

Somashekhara Chari used to be a regular auto driver. Every day would bring the same nagging passengers, the same petty, meaningless fights with them. Sometimes he would refuse to drop anyone outside of Tippasandra, the area he used to live in in Bangalore.

For the last 17 years, however, Chari has been involved in a real labour of love. He has only driven a special kind of passenger – and in doing thus, has become a special driver himself.

Chari is one of two designated auto drivers at Karunashraya, a hospice in Bangalore that provides free palliative care to dying cancer patients, particularly poor ones in the extremely painful last stage of life. He drives these patients and their families, who are struggling to make ends meet and have very little money for medication or morphine to ease the pain.

Aside from the obvious challenge of driving a person in pain carefully, Chari faces a real trial every time he gets behind the driver’s seat: of making conversation in the auto. The families of patients unburden themselves to him, comforted by the objectivity of a stranger.

They tell him just what the doctor has said, whether their patient is eating or drinking, whether they think he or she will survive. Chari diagnoses their loneliness and grief, and listens with objectivity, straddling the role of driver, audience, and counsellor with ease. He doesn’t complain, no matter how far away and inaccessible their houses are: Chari’s blue steed will always go anywhere. When he isn’t driving, he helps with the patients at Karunashraya. If they vomit, or soil themselves, he helps clean up and change their sheets.

Chari knows that this is one of the most difficult things that a patient has to undergo – the feeling of being dependent on someone else for the smallest tasks that were once routine for them. And how consistently that chips away at one’s dignity and sense of self. He knows this first-hand after a family member had to be admitted to Karunashraya.

No number of years at the hospice could prepare Chari to see one of his own on the other side. And it definitely couldn’t prepare him for his death.

It was hard for Chari to watch Ramesh, not merely because he was family, but because Ramesh’s mother and sister pinned all their hopes on Chari.

Many years ago, Chari convinced his family to admit his cousin Ramesh into Karunashraya. If there was anything he had learnt from his time at the hospice, it was that knowing you were cared for made things a little better. At the facility, Ramesh was mostly quiet, taking his medicines and food in time, but with an undertone of resentment. Chari was reminded of another patient who hated being given a bath by somebody else. The man had confided in him that he felt like a burden, and that he had never expected to reach this stage so soon. He was in his thirties.

It was hard for Chari to watch Ramesh, not merely because he was family, but because Ramesh’s mother and sister pinned all their hopes on Chari. They’d often ask him how Ramesh was doing, believing he was getting better – as if somehow, Chari’s presence would help Ramesh get better. “How could I tell them he wouldn’t?” asks Chari. Whether or not they believed him, there would only be sorrow at the end of it. It was in these moments that he realised how difficult it was to tell his own family the small things he would say to ease other patients and their caregivers. This was the only time Chari considered quitting his job.

Ramesh didn’t eventually make it. Chari continued to work at Karunashraya, doing his best to make things better for the sick ones and the people they depend on. He has learnt about the toll caregiving takes on families, and that in their darkest moments, a kind word or a sympathetic ear can make all the difference between holding on and letting go.

Over the last 17 years, Somashekhara has lost track of how many patients he has seen die. Now he chooses to remember the happy things, chooses to let the patients and caregivers into his life. He once told a man about his daughter’s marriage, who told him that he has forgotten that good things also happen in this world.

But even in the midst of this hopelessness, Chari does not allow his smile to falter. He remembers his uncle who had urged him to take up the Karunashraya job because it would do him good. “I don’t know what he meant,” Chari says. “Maybe he meant I would be less irritated and that I’d be happier.” Today, his daughter tells him just this: Even after so many years, after witnessing so many deaths and dealing with relentless grief around him, Chari is happy.

It can’t be the salary that he makes or an undefined adrenaline high that gives him this sense of satisfaction. But the sense of fulfilment that he derives from this labour of love is unmatched.