They wanted to know how I’m so courageous. And I told them I have to be, because I’m very keen to succeed

In a quiet lane in Kilpauk, a lady who happens to eavesdrop on my conversation with Ambiga, asks her: “Is this your auto? Where is your husband?”

“Yes, this is my auto. And I’m ‘all in all’,” Ambiga tells her, cleverly deflecting the question regarding her husband with a smile. Ambiga is a single mother, who drives an auto, brings up two daughters, and also looks after her aged parents. This wasn’t the life she sought for herself, though. More than a decade ago in 1995, she was a 19-year-old bride, and had just moved from Vandavasi to Chennai. Just three years later, her husband deserted her. She had a two-year-old daughter, and was pregnant with her second child. And she didn’t know anyone in Chennai.

“But I didn’t want to return to Vandavasi,” Ambiga says. “The local church then came forward and helped me. Soon, I started working in three houses in Anna Nagar, as a domestic help.” Her days were long and hard. She would be up by 5 a.m, to cook. Then, she would drop the elder child in school, the younger one in a balwadi, and go to work. At 3 p.m, she would pick them up and return home.

In 2010, her life changed for the better. AIDWA put her in touch with the Naam Foundation, an organisation (headed by Suhasini Maniratnam) that helps empower single women. At one of the meetings, Ambiga expressed an interest in driving an auto. “And they got me an auto!” she says, this time with a big smile. Naam Foundation helped organise her driving lessons and license. They also arranged for the down payment. “The rest, I repaid during the course of three years. Now, the vehicle is mine!”

And that’s how Ambiga, who initially didn’t know her way around the city, became an auto driver. “I’m happy now. My daughters study well.” The elder one (Class XI) wants to be an engineer; the younger, in Class VIII, though, is yet to make up her mind. “One day, she says she wants to be a chef, another day, a beautician,” she laughs.

Both girls are very proud of their mother and share a close bond with her. “They don’t miss their father, because I do everything for them. I get them the best I can afford — be it clothes or food. After all, I live for them!” Ambiga’s responsibilities also stretch as far as Vandavasi where her parents still live. Her father lost his vision; and her mother recently met with an accident and was hospitalised. And Ambiga went home to look after them. “I’m like their son,” she says. “When I go home, I take the bus. I have taken the auto there only once — to show it to my parents. But it gets expensive, and takes four hours to reach!”

Driving around Chennai though, isn’t a problem. “No tension!” she smiles. “People are happy now that autos have meters. I stick to areas in and around Anna Nagar. I do a lot of school drops and pick-ups. In my area, everybody knows me. They even call me up and ask me to come… but every day, I make it a point to go home by 7 p.m.” The streets have largely been safe, says Ambiga, and she’s careful not to take drunken men as passengers.

Watching Ambiga drive an auto, some women in her area have also taken to it. “Five or six women in that part of the city now drive. They came and asked me for pointers. They wanted to know how I’m so courageous. And I told them I have to be, because I’m very keen to succeed!”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)