I have a theory. Rickshawallahs are like potatoes. You can find them everywhere, at every hour and each city has practically its own version. Hop in.
They all have whacky tyre-curtains. They all still continue being loyal customers for Bollywood illustrations. Whether it’s Jimmy aka Mithun’s peeping at you from the bumper thingamajig or Salman’s bully look freezing you in your tracks, it doesn’t matter.
If you are inside a rickshaw, you will see why this genre does not need any social network to follow someone and stamp one’s loyalty. If he espouses a celebrity, it’s there on the seat, behind the seat, around the seat, on the rear-view mirror, everywhere. In fact, the interiors of a rickshaw are the only place (except a serendipitious encounter at some barber shop of course) where you get to randomly bump into a Madhubala poster or a Sridevi smiling in a Urvashi attire.
They all feel at home inside their rickshaw.
They all have a funny hand-pole as a kickstarting contraption.
And they all have some God’s idol or picture at the very centre of their lives, their rickshaw.
But, pause before you paint them with the same brush. Because, every Rickshawallah is a crayon box to explore. In their world, there is no Xerox machine.
Some sing, some spit, some argue, some plead, some fleece your wallet, some pay back the 25 paisa change, some help you as a free GPS and some come back driving one hour 15 minutes to return a bag you thought you had lost forever.
Let’s start with the edgy ones first.
I met this one in Pune. I was new to the city and though I had a bike I always preferred to take a rickshaw when I had to reach a new venue for a conference. There’s no navigation software better than this species who knows his city like the back of his hand, I had learnt.
I shouted the usual ‘Rickshaw?’ in a tone of authority and ten steps ahead, he pulled over.
I got in, apprised him of my pursuit and handed him the co-ordinates, throwing my head back in relief and started digging for my headphones.
But I guess Enrique had to wait that day.
Sonu (as I will name him here for now) chirruped with a Horlicks-charged torrent of questions.
After satisfying himself with his interrogation about ‘what I do’, ‘where am I from’, ‘what’s the meeting about’ to which I concocted fake answers and was hoping to get back to some music, he poured out his drawing-board models.
“Madam ji, I don’t want to be a Rickshawallah all my life. Do you think I can try Mumbai for modeling?”
I gave him a proper look. Yellow shades, Baazigar-Shahrukh hair-cut, funky-silver collared, come-to-battle-Govinda type of shirt and a skull-hanging bracelet. Before I could finish hemming-and-hawing, he chimed in again and told about his well-chalked-out vision.
“I have told Aai that I will save some of this money for my salon. She’s a good woman, I know. Father will disapprove as always insulting my intelligence and will yell every morning as usual. But I will start this salon you see. Even if I need to run away, I will make sure it happens. It will be different. New styles, new freebies, new music systems inside. One day I will be known as personal hair-stylist of Akshay, no matter what.”
I got curious and asked him how much formal education he had covered. Turned out he had dropped out pretty early, but hadn’t bunked the school of life for sure.
The anecdotes he kept telling, the plans he had been hatching, the way he described the city, he was certainly making quick notes everyday.
He knew all the youth-hang-outs, all the malls, all the IT parks, all the Crossword points, all the multiplexes. He could only enjoy it from outside but still hadn’t missed any new movie any Friday since 14. He had some very strong opinions about some latest songs and cursed one or two RJs for playing crap everyday.
When the rickshaw screeched to an action-halt at the venue, I was full of energy that he had rubbed off unconsciously. I didn’t miss that twinkle in his eyes and lots of dreams in his head as he quickly whistled away for another sawari.
I am sure that even if he is still honking a naughty horn and working hard for that breakthrough salon, he is very much tuned in to Imran Khan’s new look.
But, Radheshyam (another alias of course) was his exact opposite.
I got to spend 15 minutes in the holy air of his intensive silence.
I literally jumped in this rickshaw after an exhausting walk out of the Airport. Some kind passengers directed me to get out of the taxi-zone to escape the vanity-show and find a transport with reasonable fare.
His was the first one that drew up, and I didn’t mind paying him double after lugging my suitcase this far.
But Radheshyam didn’t bother about the fare too much either.
We drove in silence all the way till Andheri. He had a Dilip Kumar frown on his face, and his condescending ‘don’t waste your energy on this petty stuff, you mortals’ look that he gave to the cockfighting fellowmen at traffic signals, really filled me with awe.
At one point, I mustered courage and asked, “How has the weather been? Has it started raining here?”
“Hmm.” Came the informative response.
“How far would BKC be at this hour from here?”
“Not much.” Came the very enlightening answer.
My bowl of knowledge brimming and content, I veered off to watching the city in its usual hustle, indifference and chaos.
Breaking my reverie on the quality-of-life and ‘where to is everyone always running here’ chain of thoughts, the phone rang. My cousin filled me in about passing her exams and we discussed her bright and sunny future-plans.
By the time I finished the conversation, we reached the apartment gate.
Exactly the doorway when voice flowed out from the front seat.
Radheshyam almost repeated the question twice before I could believe he had asked it.
“Madam, do you know what one can do after passing Secondary?”
I gave him the usual roster of options and he hesitantly continued.
“My brother is hopeless. He just doesn’t concentrate on education, and I don’t know what will he make out of his life? I don’t want him to end up doing what I do. Please tell me some direction I can push him towards. I will be as strict and as supportive as much as needed. But I will make him a better man.”
I offered all the information I could and he actually smiled when he said ‘Thanks’.
May be it was because he meant it from his heart.
I stood with my luggage, watching him roll ahead into the lanes of the city. My hands held a 25 paisa coin that Radheshyam had made sure to search out of his pocket and hand over.
Well, no body gives back exact change these days.
We are living in an era after all where Rs.6 is instantly rounded off to Rs.10.
As per Muthaiya’s arithmetic at least.
This one I bumped into, in Bangalore.
And I knew the very next second I got in this Rickshaw that I need an interpreter along in this city from now on.
Muthaiya (fictitious name again) did not understand Hindi, English or even sign language.
Or so he pretended.
But as flustered as I was left after ten minutes I knew he couldn’t be that good an actor.
For he was oscillating his head frantically and almost pulling his hair out in quite a convincing fashion.
His countenance was that of a man just out of some earthquake rubble.
I wanted to reach to Diamond district near old Airport Road and he stopped in utter confusion at Domlur. Believe me, he actually asked me to get out of the rickshaw.
My stern glance, angry words and all consumer-activism failed. Before he could push me out with devices like phalanges, I made a practically wise choice to surrender and step down the throne.
I mentally scribbled his ID and number when he mumbled some argument again and didn’t return a penny back for the note I handed over.
But when he whizzed by, I couldn’t help laughing. He was a sight to see - all perplexed, all insecure, all afraid and yet all greedy.
Well, greed is the way of the world now. It’s exactly the witch why the Hansels called trust and Gretels called fun can’t roam about without an-always-alert eye and a stony-rude face.
I was armored with the same don’t-mess-with-me face when I met George, after two days, in the same city.
He was happily cruising around in the nooks of Wheeler Road when I solicited his services.
Happy-as-a-sparrow but burly-as-a-Hippo, George had the same sitting-in-river-water-look of content. He talked like a man who just had a nice, sumptuous breakfast of hot idlis, bacon, eggs, cakes, tarts, and had gulped it down with a flask of Kodiakanal-kaapi.
It was tough not to drop the vain façade and break into a smile in five minutes.
George is a good raconteur if you want to know about the real Bangalore. He relayed his family history, stories of his forefathers, how they came, how they fell apart, how they reunited and how the city has been through tales of drama, change and times.
He asked about all the cities I could reciprocate with some entertainment on. His eyes had the curiosity of Columbus but his tummy and face had the contentment of a peasant’s wife. I have never met someone as happy in his world as this man.
But then it doesn’t take much to make people happy.
Even rude ones.
Like Kishan Uncle in Rajasthan.
I guess we both had a nerve-wracking day and it was easy to get into an argument even if it was a rather old man on the other side.
He was not really all-grey-haired but his face and eyes had that worn-out look of a man exhausted of life. Or cranky.
It was getting dark. The rain was catching force every minute and I was in a hurry to collect stuff from two shops before they started closing. I told him the directions but after a few minutes, he forked out on another route. I got disturbed, and told him strongly to stick by the earlier one.
He told me how he wanted to avoid water-logged spots and how he was doing it out of consideration for the time and comfort of both of us. We both were extremely waspish and stubborn, I chivvied him off with further stern words and soon we both were in a fierce argument.
There was a traffic cop nearby when he insisted on taking another rickshaw and that helped me win the duel.
But while I sat back relaxing on my own route, it dawned on me after five minutes that may be I had gone overboard.
Back here in this part of India, there’s no meter system and every spot has a fixed charge. May be he was worried about money?
I leaned forward and assured him that I would pay a reasonable amount for the waiting time and the detours if any.
He said. “No need Madam.” But his tone was different this time.
One small gentle word can calm a storm and that’s what happened when we both got polite again.
I felt the sincere touch of care when he explained me the safety issues about the routes I had insisted on at this hour.
He was mumbling how it was better if we reached our homes in time and everything when I started wondering about the cares and burdens he must be fraught with to be riding a rickshaw at this senile age.
I made sure I hurry with my chores and pay him reasonably well for his time and with gratitude.
He took only what he deserved and gave the rest back. But we both smiled and waved the white flag cheerfully before he left.
It’s hard to find such Uncles anymore.
No body cares as much. Not as much to come back from the other end of a big city to return a small bag. All the petty cash inside untouched. Suraj, Pune, 2009.
But that’s another story. Another Rickshaw. Some other day.
P.S: It's hard to believe, but some of these do exist in the mundane ones if one has some luck and time to spare. Have you met them somewhere?