Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pull your weight

Calcutta is a city of paradoxes. Some uncharitable critics would even accuse it of reeking double standards. On one hand, the city prides itself on its artistic history and a culture of humaneness and on the other hand, it is the only city in the world where hand-pulled rickshaws are even allowed to operate. To a certain extent it is understandable when the rickshaw-wallahs are taking little kids to school or old ladies to the market through Calcutta's serpentine lanes but what makes my blood boil is when I see perfectly healthy guys of my age sitting pretty on a rickshaw with an umbrella in their hands while a 40-50 year skeleton of a man pulls them along. It's a great relief to know that no more new licenses are being issued for hand pulled rickshaws by the West Bengal government and after this current generation of rickshaw pullers, the abominable practice of hitching a ride on the same road that is being walked by another guy dragging you along shall come to an end.

In my childhood, whenever I used to come to Calcutta for the summer holidays, the rickshaw-wallah with his little hand held brass bell (which he used as some kind of a horn), torn vest, sweaty face and the gamchaa (towel) thrown across his frail shoulders was one of the key defining images of Calcutta. I used to look forward to trips to New Market which is only a short walk from my house simply because I loved the precarious weightlessness and fragile balance that comes in a hand-pulled rickshaw ride as it negotiated the madness of Calcutta traffic. I saw nothing obscene about the idea of being rich enough to pay off a poor man to walk a distance which I could have walked by myself and then actually rely on that underprivileged man's legs to do the walking for me. My only consolation is that I was a kid back then and didn't weigh as much!

For most of people born and brought up in Central Calcutta, employing the hand-pulled rickshaw is a way of life as much as say devouring 'mishti doi' (sweetened curd) or riding the rickety old trams which add to the messy state of affairs on the roads. In a way, I do understand the logic behind their patronage of the rickshaw-wallahs too. Jug Suraiya, the famous columnist once wrote about how he had asked a rickshaw-wallah if he could pay him for the ride and walk alongside to interview him (as Jug was understandably queasy about taking a ride on one). The rickshaw-wallah replied with something to the effect of, "Saheb, we may only be rickshaw-wallahs but we are hard workers, not beggars. If you pay me, then I'll have to ask you to take your seat on the rickshaw."

That is indeed a very true assessment of the situation. Here are men desperately poor, who had left their villages years ago in the hope of finding a better life in the big city, a dream which was not to be. Today they still sleep in open tin sheds at night huddled together by the dozens, the meagre amounts of money that they make unable to provide for anything more luxurious. Come 5'o'clock in the morning and they are out on the street again waiting for their passengers. They could have so easily not chosen this path of inhuman hardship. Disgruntled by the horrifying unfairness of urban society, they could have easily opted for a life of crime instead where there was at least fear-induced respect from the masses, shady glamour and potloads of easy money. The honest, moral, humble, hard working ethic couldn't have found a better personification. Unfortunately all the attention always seem to be on the guys who cheat on government taxes and regulations for years, have crores of bad debt on bank loans but who still manage give their darling wives a personal jumbo jet on their birthdays. On bitter dark days when optimism is out on long leave, it does feel like the fate of the rickshaw-wallah is the fate of the honest man.

In an alternative take on the rickshaw-wallahs' life, is it likely that we are overthinking this? Do they feel as sorry for themselves as others feel for them? Is it at all possible that man is both poor and honest, but still happy within his limited universe? Are the rickshaw-wallahs deserving of our pity or is their simple, uncomplicated existence worthy of our respect?

I let the rain wash over all these thoughts as I watch the Hurricane Laila's remnants splash itself down on Calcutta from the safety of my verandah. The thunder is rumbling and the showers play a steady fast beat on nearby roofs as a hand-pulled rickshaw pulls up in front of the house across the lane from mine. I see that the tarpaulin roof and curtain have protected the passenger from the onslaught of water until now. Now that the destination is reached, the rickshaw-wallah slowly lowers the rickshaw and moves the curtain to reveal a 10-11 old boy returning from school. As the boy dashes for the cover of his house, looking thrilled at being caught in the rain, the rickshaw wallah picks his school bag and follows his little passenger towards his home. The boy is obviously a regular customer as a few seconds later, the rickshaw wallah returns having collected his fare from whoever it was who was waiting to receive the boy. I strain my eyes trying to decipher the expression on his face but it is difficult to define through the driving sheets of water. It is definitely not sadness but then again it is not happiness too. It does not look like pride but it is also not one of meek surrender too. Some questions in life will always remain difficult to answer. For all I could see, it was only a rickshaw in the rain.