Chauffeur. I was 18 the first time that I had heard this word. I had been chatting with an American friend at a driving class in Memphis during my summer break after my college freshman year. I had lived in India till I had completed high school. Back home, we used the term 'driver' to refer to a chauffeur. So, during the course of the conversation, I kept referring to “our driver in India,” much to the amusement of my friend. I was referring to Solaiappan.
Solai had been part of my maternal grandparents’ household since the early 1970s. My grandpa was a banker but was also a small-scale industrialist, who owned a small factory that manufactured silencers and battery caps. In my early years, the ‘factory’ was a shed right opposite our house. Solai, who had been groomed by grandpa to be a jack-of-all-trades was, at that time, both the senior most employee of that factory as well as the ‘driver’ of the household. He was very fond of me but would not hesitate to call me out when I was being a brat - that happened quite often! He would bark at me for wearing soiled clothes and dirty shoes in the car. I would argue that it was impossible to be impeccably dressed in the sweltering heat after playing cricket in the middle of the day (and in the middle of the road, I might add).
After watching the Wimbledon finals in 1989, I decided that I would beat Boris Becker when I got the chance. I never had a middle name but if I had one as an eight-year old, it would have been chutzpah. My father either appreciated my confidence or indulged his only child or both, but there I was attending tennis classes at Stella Maris. (Yes, it’s a women’s college but there was a tennis court there where classes were held for boys and girls.) After returning from school, I would pick up my racket, change into a t-shirt and shorts and dash off to the shed, asking Solai to drop me at class. He would invariably say, “Wait. I need to finish a few more pieces,” to which I would respond, “Aiyyo Solai, vandhu pannaa piece yenna thaenjaa poidum?! Tennis-ku late aagardhu.” (For non-Tamil speaking readers, I apologize. A direct translation is impossible. Just know that I prioritized tennis over silencers even though the latter helped pay the bills!) So, in a huff, he would pick up his wallet, driver’s license and listen with understandable annoyance while I would proffer advice on how to drive fast on crowded Alwarpet roads. I would also, just to needle him, add that if he quit his smoking habit, he would have more time to work on silencer pieces.
Solai revered and adored my grandfather. My entire family was overjoyed when he decided to get married in the late 80s. I vividly remember the time he invited our family to meet his bride-to-be. It was touching to see the arrangements he had made ahead of the visit. He apparently insisted that my grandpa be the person to hand him the thaali (an auspicious thread that the groom ties around the bride’s neck) at his wedding, an honor that is typically bestowed to someone that the couple respects deeply. (Solai and his wife were blessed with two kids and continue to lead a happy married life.)
But as much as he respected my grandpa, he was extremely candid with him too. So, like a teacher complaining to a parent about a recalcitrant kid, Solai told him that he wanted to concentrate solely on the factory and asked him to employ the services of a driver whose responsibility was just that. Solai, in my presence, told my grandpa that the trips to school, my friends’ places and tennis courts were all taking a toll on him. This was before the time that I drove my bicycle beyond the neighborhood. Never known to be subtle, my grandpa matched Solai for bluntness– he said to me, “Ramu, unaala thaan Solai vandi oatta maaten-nu sollaran!” (Ram, it’s your fault that Solai wants to quit driving.) If you thought that I started sobbing, then you are…as wrong as us Kamal fans that thought that Anbe Sivam would be a commercial hit! I coolly replied, “Yes, Thatha. A new driver would be good for me too! Let Solai concentrate on the factory!” To this day, Solai and I pull each other’s leg about the restoration of his work-life balance back then! I would also like to think that he was the only thing that stood between me and my Wimbledon trophy. (Come to think of it, delusion could be another apt middle name.)
When my grandpa passed on in ’94, Solai was as inconsolable as some of our family members. Not surprising because Solai was family. But, as the pessimists say, all good things come to an end. So it did with Solai. A couple of years after my grandfather's death, he quit his job following an unfortunate rift. I would like to think that had my grandpa been alive, he would have never allowed Solai to quit. Truth to be told, I didn’t think much about it at the time. I was just glad that Solai continued to be a part of every major life event of the family, happy or sad. As delighted as I was when he attended my wedding, I was equally moved to see him at my grandma’s funeral this May. He inquired, with immense affection, about me and my family, while sharing his memories of my grandmother. And true to character, he said that I never bothered to invite him for my wedding. When I gently reminded him that he did indeed attend my wedding, he promptly retorted, "It was Amma (referring to my grandma) that invited me, not you!" In a strange way, the funeral felt quite complete when I witnessed Solai be one of the people that carried my grandma’s paadai (a stretcher, with bamboo stems, carrying the departed) out of the house. It was just nice to see that he was part of her final journey.
As I look back at my childhood days, I am glad that Solai was an integral part of it. In the US, we live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. We do all the cooking, cleaning, driving and so on. In a sense, it is wonderful that chauffeurs and maid services are a bit of a luxury that not everyone can afford. Some of them that I have met in the US lead much more comfortable lives than our domestic helpers back home. But most Indian kids that grow up in the US will never experience the warm, extended family vibes that trustworthy household staff provided some of us that grew up in India. Solai might have quit driving because of me. But thanks to his presence at my grandma’s funeral, he surely did drive me on a rather nostalgic trip down the alleys of Alwarpet!