He ran away from home, did time in prison and won awards for his work. M. Chandrakumar keeps Akila Kannadasan on the edge of her seat as he recounts his stories

In his auto there is a duffel bag stuffed behind the driver's seat with piles of books and manuscripts. When he is not ferrying passengers, M. Chandrakumar alias ‘Auto' Chandran does what he does best – he writes.

The 49 year old has written six books in Tamil so far, in between being an auto driver. “I work on the move. Right now, I'm proofreading my next novel,” he smiles.

Life and writing

‘Auto' Chandran's love for writing stems from his life where he has come across many interesting people. “I was a wayward teenager,” he recalls. “Due to a conflict with my family, I ran away from home with nothing in hand. I travelled wherever my feet took me – to Chennai, Madurai, Tuticorin…. I did odd jobs to earn a living, slept on pavements and at bus stops. My life was that of a nomad.” It was a train journey to Hyderabad that changed the life of Chandran. “The train stopped at Vijayawada. That was the first time I clapped eyes on a river as vast as the Krishna. Smitten, I just hopped off the train to dive in.”

Adventures

Wandering about the villages of Andhra Pradesh, Chandran worked as a hotel server in a village 42km from Guntur. “Just when I thought life was alright, I was arrested by the police along with few others who were doing similar menial jobs. We were charged with a ‘case of doubt'. It was horrifying how vulnerable people living on the margins were, to police atrocities.”

Chandran spent two weeks in a police lockup.

“There I was, in a 10x10 room in the sweltering heat of March. I can never forget those 15 torturous days.” His experience there gave birth to Lock up, Chandran's first 160-page novel, describing the atrocities meted out by the police on the voiceless. “I published the novel in 2006, after my return to Coimbatore in 1984.” The book received the ‘Best document of human rights' award in June 2006 by a human rights body headed by Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer.

After the gruelling 15 days in the lock up, Chandran was jailed in Guntur for five and a half months.

Jail chronicles

Lock up-2, my next novel that's in print, describes my days in Guntur prison,” he says. Life in prison exposed Chandran to a whole new world. It was there that he heard the heart-wrenching stories behind many felonies.

“All of us kept away from ‘murder-case' Pullaiyan. He kept to himself and was intimidating. The man had hacked his wife and her lover to death. But when I got to know him, I realised how naïve he was. He spent every second repenting his deed,” recalls Chandran.

Another prisoner was an old man who was there because he had killed a neighbour's chicken that had strayed into his hut. Famished, he cooked the bird and ate it up. The bagavadhar who hummed alaaps all day, the Naxalite who loved to sing, the tribal who stole grains from a goods train to feed his family, remain fresh in his memory.

Chandran's other prominent works include Boomiyai kolaikalam aakkum America, a collection of essays on the history of terrorism and Kovaiyil Jeeva, a book on Communist leader P. Jeevanandam.

He is currently working on Eriyum pattatharasi, a documentation of the injustices meted out to Dalits in and around Coimbatore and Azhagu thodattuma, a book on the lives of women from marginalised communities.