Once a gangster, this Kerala auto driver transformed into a social worker

“Are you looking for Sagar alias Aji?” asked a driver at the auto stand in Venjavodu, which is about 12 kilometers away from Thiruvananthapuram. This reporter’s enquiries about Aji, an autorickshaw was met with laughter from others at the stand.

A few minutes later, an autorickshaw arrived, with plants on the front of the vehicle and an endearing text emblazoned behind it — “Free trip for cancer patients”.

The auto driver introduced himself as Sajikumar, adding that loved ones call him Aji.

The three-wheeler is full of surprises inside — potted plants, toy vehicles, dolls hanging from the roof and a plastic bag housing two fish. It looks like a tiny garden. There were also rosaries, images of Hindu goddesses and a taqiyah (skull cap used by Muslims) placed on the dashboard.

A class 2 dropout, Aji says people call him crazy and that he became a laughing stock. “A few of my colleagues said that I bring a bad name to them,” he adds. But 40-year-old Aji says he has reasons for keeping these plants and toys in the auto, and even helping poor patients.

A changed man

Aji, his elder brother and a younger sister lost their parents when they were young. “We struggled for food those days. Poverty and loneliness, that’s all I can remember of my childhood,” he says, recounting the days when he turned into a goonda or goon at the age of 13.

“I joined a local gang and started harassing many people. I was even hired by powerful people, on whose direction I would attack others. I did that for more than 20 years,” he recalls.

Aji landed in jail multiple times, until he turned 35. “When I came out of jail five years ago, a few police officers advised me to lead a meaningful life. I introspected on the purpose of my life. That is when I decided to stop my hooliganism and start doing some work. I started working as a coconut plucker and even did other daily wage works,” he says.

By then, Aji had become homeless as he and his brother gave their family house to his sister when she was married off. “My brother lived at his wife’s house. Since I neither own a house nor property, I decided to stay single,” he says.

Life in an auto rickshaw

During his work as a coconut climber, he met a former army doctor and his family, who encouraged him to buy an autorickshaw and earn a better living.

“I bought this vehicle three years ago. Since then, I have been living inside this vehicle,” says Aji, pointing to his autorickshaw. He continues to engage in daily wage work occasionally.

“I have kept a few of my belongings inside the auto and rest in the houses I go to for daily wage work. I sleep in the auto, freshen up in the neighbourhood temple pond and go to work. That is how I live,” he smiles.

“I remember my father used to plant flowering plants and vegetables in the courtyard of our house. That greenery made our home complete. And since this auto is my home now, I keep plants here,” he says.

To add more meaning to his life, he started ferrying patients to Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in Thiruvananthapuram, free of cost. He even offers food, water and other necessities to those patients who struggle to meet the treatment expenses.

But it has also caused some painful moments for him. “Many children with illness take my auto to go to RCC. They might have cancer or other severe illness. I have seen them crying out in severe pain,” he says.

That is why he bought a few toys and hung them in the auto. “I was happy that the crying children would look at those toys and smile, at least during the journey,” he adds.

Given his current financial situation, Aji says he can afford only a free trip or a meal, though he wants to do more. “I limit my own expenses and give the rest to others. Some people donate money, which I give to the needy,” he says.

Aji hopes to one day own at least two cents (870 square feet) of land, build a small house and park his auto on his own land. “Even if am not able to own land or house, that is okay. I am not going to earn money without giving others a share of it,” he adds.

After Aji’s life story was mentioned in a radio programme, his colleagues prefixed ‘Sagar Alias’ to his name, a reference to Mohanlal’s film Sagar Alias Jackie. He is, to many of his colleagues, a hero in their eyes. Aji, being a Mohanlal fan, accepted the name.