At 70, nothing seems to faze Mohan Raj. He has a smile and a nod for everyone passing by. If he were in England in the 1920s he would’ve even taken his hat off for the ladies.
Mohan Raj works as a taxi driver in New York. While this may seem normal to anyone, Mohan Raj, in truth, has had quite an interesting life. He ran away from his village when he was 14 to come to Chennai and act in films. It is not always that luck favours everyone, and Mohan was hence, restricted to doing odd jobs in studios.
“That was a turning point in my life”, recalled Mohan wistfully. “I met many great actors – Sivaji Ganesan was one of them.”
Finding the studios not as exciting as he’d imagined them to be, Mohan took to taxi driving. He claims his taxi was quite popular in Madras, as it was called then, an easily believable claim, given his cultured and courteous demeanor. He was in his late twenties then, and had to take care of a large num ber of dependents in his family. He managed to educate his siblings and find them good jobs, largely through the wide network of friends he had built through his taxi driving.
At one point, Mohan started driving for Shanta and V. P. Dhananjayan on a regular basis. The dancer-couple treated him as a member of the family and it is a friendship that has lasted all of four decades or more. It was with the help of the husband of a singer in the Dhananjayans’ troupe that he found employment in the American Consulate.
“They (The Dhananjayans) still treat me as a part of the family”, said Mohan, with a smile. “When I came back from the US this December, I met them and offered to drive for them. They flatly refused saying that I was family and they couldn’t employ me”.
Mohan worked for more than fifteen years at the Consulate where he earned a reputation for devotion to duty and services rendered beyond the call of duty. The egalitarian atmosphere of the workplace helped him blossom as a personality in his own right. Over the years, he developed a keen interest in contemporary Tamil literature and American bestsellers and became a devout reader of the Kamba Ramayanam. Through his association with the Dhananjayans, he also became a keen follower of classical dance and music.
Mohan comes back to India every year for about three months during the December “season” to listen to Carnatic concerts and watch dance recitals. “I did not know much about music until I started driving”, claimed Mohan. “When I worked for the Dhananjayans, I would take them to all the concerts they wanted to attend. They would buy a ticket for me as well and I learned all that I know about music from these concerts.”
Through his friends across social barriers and spanning a variety of professions and occupations, Mohan has been able to help many people find jobs, some of them senior positions in the private and public sectors, and quite a few in the American Consulate. “People would not believe it when I said I could get them very good jobs”, stated Mohan, chuckling. “I would then go about asking my friends for jobs and when these non-believers actually got job offers, they would be astounded.”
Mohan is also a cricket fanatic. His favourite cricket memory was listening to the Prudential World Cup finals in 1983 on a transistor radio. “We’d go to the Woodlands Drive-in opposite the Consulate during breaks so we could listen to the commentary in peace. I was ecstastic that day.” When he lived in Chennai, he has never missed a single match that has taken place here.
Mohan’s years of sincere work in the Consulate won him the “Sustained Superior Service Award” there, and paved the way for him to get a green card. After much agonising over the decision to transplant himself from familiar surroundings to an alien environment, Mohan finally took the plunge after his retirement a few years ago, to seek greener pastures in the US, where he now lives.
He started off in the US doing odd jobs again, and finally took to taxi driving. “I drive because it simply makes me happy”, said Mohan firmly. “There’s nothing else I would rather do.”
After initial doubts and misgivings, he has settled down happily there, working in the service industry with dignity and financial security. Home on a holiday, he could be seen everywhere during the December music and dance festival. Soon he should be on his way back to his new home abroad, a happy man who watched every ball of every Chennai Test from the pavilion terrace enclosure.