He was not a blood brother. But human relations are created outside the bloodline too. My relation with Sunil Kumar was created neither at the college/university campus nor at any workplace. In fact, Sunil was a school dropout and didn’t learn any skill other than driving. Driving is what got him bread and butter. Driving is what brought us closer.
Barely in his late 30s, Sunil died in a road accident on Friday. He has gone to a place he will never return from. Nobody returns from there.
But let me begin with the beginning. In 2012 my in-laws bought a car, the sturdy Bolero fit for even bumpy roads of rural Bihar. Sunil who came from a neighbouring village of my sasural (in-laws’ place) in Muzaffarpur was drafted as a driver by my father-in-law’s younger brother, Neyaz Chacha, simply because he was the best among many he had screened. Sunil never gave a reason not to keep him in job. During the pandemic-induced lockdown when many drivers lost their jobs or suffered the salary cut, Sunil was paid full even when both he and the vehicle sat idle for a month or so.
The first time he came to pick me up from Patna airport, Sunil appeared a jovial young man. He was eager to take his family out of the grinding poverty that circumstances had brought it in. After his elder brother’s death in road accident, the responsibility to fend for the family (old parents, a disabled younger brother, wife and four children) fell on him. He never flinched from his duties.
He did what most boys from deprived families in Bihar do. He learnt driving. He went through apprenticeship with a senior driver even before he had turned 18. The poor have not many choices to choose a career. They swim along the tide, pickup survival skills while they face challenges life throws towards them. Given such a deprived background, Sunil had come up nicely. Nicely in the sense that, unlike urchins who are forced to fend for themselves early, he had not picked up vices like doing drugs, smoking or drinking. The only bad habit that I would reprimand him often for was chewing gutkha. He reasoned it kept him awake at the wheels. Not a valid argument. Nevertheless, it was less harmful than drunk driving.
With his amiable nature Sunil endeared himself with his employers. He became part of the family. Though he didn’t eat raw food at his employer’s place—an ancient taboo about food continues to plague corners of India—Sunil never gave an impression that he didn’t belong to us. On all occasions, happy and sad, he was there. There are several incidents that flood my mind as I write these words.
Once when my father was nursing the knee pain and was wheelchair-bound, Sunil visited my parents’ home, around 100 km in another district. It was Friday and my father desired to visit the village mosque to offer Friday prayers. We couldn’t have carried him there unless we drove him in a car. Always helpful, Sunil lifted my father and put him on the front seat, driving him to the mosque’s door, one km from our house. He brought my father back home the same way. This was the last time my father visited the village mosque which he had helped build. Tears welled up my father’s eyes as Sunil safely brought him back home from the mosque. Clean and devout souls get overwhelmed with little gestures of goodness and help.
Whether day or night, rain or sun, Sunil was always there to make us feel comfortable. Whenever I visited Bihar, he would be with me till he dropped me off to the airport for journey back to Mumbai. On the long journey from Patna airport to Muzaffarpur or Darbhanga (my home district), Sunil would stop at one particular petrol pump for refueling and a roadside dhaba for snacks and tea. I would joke if he got commission from the petrol pump and dhaba owners. Once while travelling to Patna from Muzaffarpur we foolishly spent an hour or so at a restaurant before Haji Pur and got delayed. The new bridge that connects Digha in Patna to Sonepur had not come up and the old Mahatma Gandhi Bridge on the massive Ganga was jammed with traffic. I feared I would miss the flight. But once we crossed the jam at the bridge, Sunil took it as a challenge to reach the airport in time. Swerving left and right, overtaking many other vehicles, he ensured I reached just in time and minutes before they stopped issuing boarding passes. That day I realized Sunil was an excellent driver and a dependable man.
Though not rich, he didn’t complain of his impoverishment. Every extra rupee in tips was a source to lessen his financial burden. An obedient son, he would never leave home without touching his old mother’s feet and kissing her forehead. His seven-year-old twin sons waited for him eagerly every evening outside their modest house. I am told the children have been told that their “Papa” has gone to another village to drop a passenger and will return home soon. For how long will they hide the unkind truth from these little angels? For how long will they be given the false promise that their father will return home?
Sunil didn’t meet with an accident while driving a car. He was on a motorcycle when a truck driver hit and fled. He died on the spot. The authorities have promised the bereaved family a compensation of Rs four lakh soon.
No monetary help will mitigate the pain of Sunil’s old parents, his young wife and little children. Death is an inevitable truth. But death at such a young age and so tragically leaves you numbed. It has shaken me to the bones. It is like death of a brother. I will miss you Sunil.
Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog.