For the Love of Rickshaws

Anyone visiting India quickly discovers it would take a lifetime (probably several, although I believe that can be arranged) to fully understand the endless intricacies that make up the country’s social hierarchies.
But there is one social group you quickly learn to place at the lowest of the low. At least, you do if your friends and acquaintances are to be believed.
‘Oh, god, they’re such bastards.’
‘Scumbags.’
‘Dishonest nonsense fellows.’
‘Arak-drinking, gutka-chewing cockroaches.’
Ah, yes, cockroaches. And yet a strange breed of cockroach: a bright yellow one with wheels that endlessly farts its way around Bangalore.
We’re talking about rickshaw drivers, of course. So maligned, and so casually, that a newspaper article recently began with something along the lines of ‘While we all agree that rickshaw drivers are the very lowest of the low…’ as if their abjectness were a done deal in the collective consciousness.
Alas the poor rickshaw driver. Being a bleeding heart, I instantly took exception to this and collected vignettes that showed the humanity of my four-wheeled, farting friends. I watched them in their unnatural habitat of smog and pulsing metal, deities swinging from their rear-view mirrors, paintings of fabulously mustached film stars on the backs of their vehicles. I watched bloodshot-eyed, unshaven drivers drop their heads into their hands in gridlocked traffic. I saw them give directions to 4×4 drivers and receive not a word of thanks.
Yes, I was beginning to amass quite a collection of sympathetic vignettes of rickshaw drivers. In my mind, they were fast becoming four-wheeled saints, ascetics, carrying the great burden of affluent Bangalore’s sins – carting passengers’ fat arses around on lavish shopping trips, or bringing them home from late-night barroom debaucheries.
I always tipped well.
(‘There you go, my poor, misunderstood fellow.’)
I felt benevolent and well adjusted.
But these were early days, you see. India has a remarkable ability to assimilate you into its hierarchy. You will not float above, with your feint smile, forever.

The change came quite abruptly. One day, Kaveri flagged a driver and told him our destination. He turned away and drove off without a word. There seemed to be contempt in his reaction. As if the words Cox Town, Brigade Road or Malleswaram were the gibbering nonsense of the insane.
It happened again and again. On one occasion, outside our apartment, we attempted to solicit the attention of a whole line of drivers, yet each turned or drove away without a word.
‘Cockroaches,’ said Kaveri. (She likes winding me up.)
‘Outrageous!’ I replied, desperately hailing rickshaws at the roadside, my arms flinging and saluting like a man indeed gone quite mad.
Other things happened. Things I soon learned were the usual things.
‘Brigade Road,’ I said.
‘100 rupees,’ said the driver. An outrageous price.
‘Put it on the metre,’ I said.
The driver grinned at this and looked me up and down. I had said something impossibly silly, even for a gorah.
‘No sir,’ he said, still grinning.
I might as well have ordered him to climb the rigging and hoist the mainsail.
I was getting the idea.
‘Cox Town, please.’
They drove away.
‘Meter,’
They drove away.
Rickshaws always drove away. But never with me in them.

So my attitude changed. For a short period, a prissy tone entered my pleases and thank yous, as if I was showing the cads how to correctly behave. I began to tip with aggressive extravagance. They took the money. And the thank you.
And drove away.
I began to understand there was not the merest hint of insult in their attitude to me. Just a complete indifference to my existence if it was unlikely to furnish them with the necessary rupees.
If the distance was too short, they drove away. If the traffic was likely to be too heavy at a given time on a given route, they drove away.
I began to accept this. I began to see them not as men, but as yellow shiny things on two wheels. They drove me or they drove away. I felt not a hint of thanks or resentment either way.
I even learned to raise my voice and abuse them. On one occasion, late at night returning from a train station, a driver argued with Kaveri over a fare. It was some trifling matter of a few rupees. I bellowed at him. I read out his serial number – it is printed clearly in the back of all rickshaws – and threatened him with the police. I was carried away and thought I was doing a wonderful job defending Kaveri’s honour.
She looked shocked.
‘It’s just a game,’ she said. ‘You should relax a little bit.’
I paid the rickshaw driver. He drove away.
All was beginning to be as it should be. I was no longer bending the ears of dinner party hosts about the noble, deep humanity of rickshaw drivers. Our friends breathed a collective sigh of relief. I settled into being a passenger, a commodity, and accepted the rickshaw driver as the provider of a service.
To put it in another way, perhaps in Indian terms it was his dharma to drive and mine to be his passenger.
Rickshaw drivers never spoke to me and I never wondered about their lives.

Then, one day, stuck in traffic on Mosque Road, a driver leaned over his shoulder, handed me his mobile and grinned.
‘Read this.’
It was a very, very poor joke, something about wives and mother’s in law.
‘Very, very funny,’ he said.
It was very, very not funny. And yet I was so delighted that this man, with spontaneous good will, had shared a brief moment of his life with me I wanted to get out, take the handlebars, put him in the back and take him for a ride.
I wouldn’t even put it on the meter.
I told Kaveri. She was underwhelmed. She was not in the least bit likely to open a bottle of Cava at this breakthrough in rickshaw driver/passenger relations.
And yet other things happened.
A young driver drove me to Cox Town. Quite suddenly, he began to sing in a very high voice, regularly looking over his shoulder – and blithely ignoring oncoming traffic – to see if I was enjoying the performance. I was. Enormously.
On another occasion, I tipped a driver as he dropped me at the corner of Commercial Street and he mumbled ‘thank you’. Usually drivers examined my tips with disgust, as if the notes in question had been put to the nefarious uses to which Westerners are known to put small squares of paper.
But he said thank you. And he smiled.
I was jubilant. I might have asked him if he wanted to hang out, you know, go to the cinema or grab a chai or chaat but he was gone, rattling off into the honking, smoking Bangalore maelstrom, never to be seen again.
Something was happening and I didn’t know what it was. I talked to Kaveri about it. I posited elaborate theories. One of these was rather good and had something to do with the Westerner, so oblivious to the intricacies of caste and class, helping break them down to the mutual benefit of all. Everyone behaved differently because of his naivety.
I believe the pressure cooker might have gone off just as I was summing up; in any case I  don’t think Kaveri got my drift.
‘Perhaps some people are nice and others are not so nice?’ she said, spooning Khitchdee on to plates as I held the pan.
It was a good point. A damned good one.
‘And perhaps it’s hard to be nice when you work all day and half the night in Bangalore traffic,’ she said.
Another good point.
‘But what about the fact that rickshaw drivers seemed nice at first, then unpleasant, then intermittently nice again?’
‘At first it was all new and rosy, then the scales fell from your eyes, then you found your balance. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed.’
Brilliant.

And so, as everyone knows, articles about rickshaw drivers by liberal-minded types must inevitably end with our four-wheeled hero triumphant, our cockroach on his back flipping himself onto his wheels, as it were, and farting off into the sunset (or yellow haze – we are in Bangalore, after all).
So it brings me great pleasure to inform the reader that the newspaper article that began with an aside about the general dastardliness of rickshaw drivers, went on to describe a heartwarming episode involving a gentleman leaving his laptop in a rickshaw and the driver doggedly tracking him down and returning it the next day.
And a good time was had by all. And they shared a drink and a few frames of billiards while the gentleman’s wife prepared a slap up dinner.
Well, not quite. But the grateful gentleman did reward the driver handsomely with 1,000 rupees.
And then the rickshaw drove away.

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Comments
5 Responses to “For the Love of Rickshaws”
  1. Scruff says:

    Oh Mr Philph I did laugh at your story. Like me you always seem to forget that most of the human race fall into the category of ‘don’t give a shit about you’. Just one little tip about your writing. You need to add the sentence ‘and then I fell over’ at the end of most stories. It will add a huge amount of comedy value and people will chuckle at your writings as if they are watching the funniest clown who ever lived.

    • gorah says:

      Thanks, Scruff. I’ll take that tip on board.

      As for slapstick I could try mis-typung, I mean mir-typinf, I mean mis-typing.

      Was that funny? It’s the nearest I can get to falling over at my computer.

      I await with that proverbial baited breath…

  2. David Christopher says:

    Delightful post — would love to see a picture of one of the rickshaws (couldn’t quite get the sense of what they looked like).

    Found your site through the support forums, by the way, regarding the rules about selling your book online. I plan on doing this myself… someday… lots of work left to do…

    DC ∞

    • gorah says:

      Thanks, David.

      I’ll try to put a better pic up. Good luck with the book. I’ve been hopelessly slack about online selling and it never suited me too much. The irony is that you write something you really believe in, and then, if you want to generate lots of hits and sales, you have to sell yourself with all the phoniness that can entail! (At least I find the feeling of phoniness unavoidable, but then I am perhaps not a subtle technician in such matters.) While marketing, you also find yourself having less time for the thing you really want to do – writing!
      My approach is now to build sales locally – word of mouth, friends, bookshops through a distributor, without bothering about online marketing too much. A ‘ground up’ approach, which, hopefully, one day, will lead to a larger audience.
      Just my thoughts. I have had a few online sales though and it’s fairly easy to set up actually.
      Well, you live in hope.
      Cheers

      Martin

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