Annadurai spent the early hours of Friendship Day (August 4) answering hundreds of calls that kept his phone ringing incessantly. People from 35 (or more, he says) countries were trying to get in touch with him, to appreciate him and hear his story all over again.
A share-auto driver on the Thiruvanmiyur-Sholinganallur route, Annadurai’s auto is loaded with goodies — free WiFi, mobile charging point, 35 magazines, 10 newspapers, TV and a Samsung Galaxy tablet to access Internet (in case you don’t have a smartphone). When his story went viral on Facebook last weekend (posted by a group called Photos That Shook The World), with nearly 10,000 shares and 20,000 likes, it was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
'I was up all night answering those calls,' he says, shaking his head in disbelief. 'When I was on one call, another would keep popping up. I’ve got over 2,000 calls so far. It was overwhelming that so many people took time and spent whatever it cost just to call and appreciate me. I know only Tamil and I couldn’t even understand most of them! Dubai, Korea, Pakistan, the list just kept growing.'
How did he talk to them then? A typical conversation would go like this. 'They would call and ask, ‘Annadurai? Auto driver?’ I would say ‘yes’ and they would tell me that I’m doing a good job. Even if I didn’t exactly know what they were saying, I could understand what they were implying. I would say, ‘Thank you, sir. Sometime, you come to Chennai. You call and I will meet you.’ Whoever called on Sunday wished me a happy friendship day before they hung up.'
What sets him apart?
It isn’t just Annadurai's auto that sets him apart but what he symbolises through the services he offers. A native of Peravurani (Thanjavur District), Annadurai, now 29, came to Chennai when he was four years old and grew up with two brothers and a sister. He now lives in Injambakkam and has been a share-auto driver for four years. Two years ago, he had an idea. 'I don’t know why I started adding things to my auto. I just thought I must do something for my customers and stocked around 20 newspapers. But, it wasn’t enough,' he smiles. Now, of course, it has grown to include other things. 'After I installed WiFi a year back, I bought a tablet for Rs.7,000 but felt my customers deserved better (they were mostly from the IT sector). So I saved up for a couple of months and bought a more expensive one,' he adds, nonchalantly.
Annadurai’s list of services seems to be never ending. He provides free service to teachers and nurses who work in hospitals that treat those with HIV. And on eight days of the year (such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) he offers free or discounted services to some customers. He sponsors a child’s education and has inspired three of his customers to do so too. 'I do this because I need job satisfaction. Money may come and go, but the feeling you get when your customers choose to travel only in your auto is unmatched,' Annadurai says, 'I think teachers do the most honourable service in the world and for them, auto rides will always be for free. They make leaders and thinkers and must be recognised for their work.'
Contest for customers
There is also a customer relationship contest in which one has to answer five questions. A lucky winner could win Rs.1,000. Similarly, a token is given to every customer who boards Annadurai’s auto. If the customer collects 20 tokens, he gets Rs.250, 30 tokens would get him Rs.500 and so on. 'I wondered if my customers would participate in a quiz that I set and was surprised to get 80 entries in the first month. I’ve been holding these contests for over a year now.'
This auto driver, fondly called ‘Auto anna’ by his customers, hopes to sponsor 10 children next year and eventually plans to open an old-age home. 'I’ve already begun planning how to go about it. I want to provide a place where the elderly don’t feel they are a burden. Where they can be taught simple skills using which they can earn a little money and spend it the way they want to,' he says.
But how does he manage to do all this? 'It is tough, yes. I do have my problems but doing this makes me happy. I’m positive and I know I will be able to achieve my goals.'
Annadurai offers discounts on
Mother’s Day – Free rides for mothers with their children
Women’s Day – Free rides for women over the age of 50
Children’s Day – Free rides for school students
Father’s Day – Free for men over the age of 45
Abdul Kalam’s birthday – Rides at 50 per cent off for all customers
Independence Day – Free rides for anyone born before 1947
Annadurai’s birthday – 50 per cent off on rides for all customers
Valentine’s Day – Free rides for couples (Because I’m a bachelor too, smirks Annadurai). All customers will also get a chocolate on all these days