Rickshaws are one of the best thing about small-town India.
I love rickshaws (cycle-rickshaws, that is. When we north-Indians say rickshaa, we mean the ones pulled by a man on a cycle).
It must be related to childhood memories of Lucknow (why do we spell the damn city as 'luck-now'? It should be Lakhnau!)... Lucknow meant holidays, ice-cream treats, laughing aunts, riotous cousins, a noisier grandmaternal home-away-from-home.
Lucknow also meant rickshaws.
Bombay unfortunately has none. I missed them terribly for the last five years.
Delhi has them, but they're only allowed to move in small, restricted areas - like old Delhi, Pahargunj, Jamia, etc. (and now, the government wants to introduce licenses for the poor guys. Sheesh!)
What is nice about rickshaws is that they are indicative of a city's spirit and mannerisms, to a large extent...
Spirit and mannerisms? Okay, maybe not 'spirit and mannerisms'. But at any rate, the cycle-rickshaws in each town are different from each other, and I'm sure this difference is reflective of the town itself. Has to be, na?
Lukhnavi (I am going to spell it any which way I want to, ok?) rickshaws are... well, basic. A cycle, a seat, and often, a collapsible hood which you can put up to ward off too much sun, rain, or, simply a makeshift 'zenana', for those who're still in purdah.
Looks-wise, they're respectably ordinary. The seats are bound with plain plastic. The hood is mostly plain, painted wood. They're fairly comfortable, with enough leg-room. Three slim girls or two fat ones can easily sit on one. Four little/slim ones can be accomodated if two of them sit on the backrest of the seat. If there are more children, some of them them can be asked to stand on an iron strip, behind the seat (This is how we travelled when the whole extended family went to the zoo).
The rickshaws in Hyderabad are different.
The seat is low. So that you have to sit with your legs politely folded to the side (like we do, when we sit at Dastarkhaans) or with your knees drawn up to your chest (for reference, recall the publicity posters of the film Hyderabad Blues).
The ones in Jaipur are slightly higher. I have to struggle to haul myself up. Oftentimes, the poor, skinny puller has had to lend me a hand.
In (lower) Assam, your rump keeps sliding off the seat. The seats are, strangely, slightly forward-tilting. So, every hundred metres, you have to push your rump further backwards against the back of the plastic seats.
As a bonus, the Assamese rickshaw ride will have you seated in the lap of a film star. The seats are imprinted with the images of all the popular Bollywood stars. You can take your pick, and ride along happily with the illusion that your backside is being warmed by the arms/lips/torso/shoulders (depending on the size of the image blow-up) of your favourite matinee idol.
In Bharatpur, the rickshaws that move inside the bird sanctuary (only cycles are allowed inside, or rickshaws; no motor vehicles) speak of a neat geometrical mind. There is a square look to them. No hoods (you'e supposed to look at the birds, silly!), but a kind of iron grid, so you can stand up straight in them, to get a better look through your binoculors.
The best thing is, these rickshaw-pullers have been trained in some basic ornithology, so they can double up as guides, getting extra tips in the bargain. All of them wear a small pair of binuculors too, which you can borrow, when needed.
In Raipur, there's a plank of wood attached to the back of the puller's seat. This can serve as a luggage-rack if you need it to, but my guess is that it was put there to accomodate six school-kids, three on each side, facing each other.
The more prosperous of Delhi's rickshaw-pullers have a little radio tied to their handlebars. It helps keep boredom at bay if the pull is a long one.
But my new favourite is the Patna (and other parts of small-town Bihar) lot.
The rickshaws in Bihar are the prettiest I've ever seen. Each little vehicle is dressed up like a blossoming bride! The seats are of bright cloth, the handlebars are decorated with golden frills or pompoms or tassells. In fact, even the auto-rickshaw exteriors in Patna are glittery and decorative.
The hood and other parts of the wood-iron structure are covered in unabashedly gaudy, bridal finery - faux-silk cloth, criss-crossed with gold trimmings, and edged with gotaa lace and kiran.
These pullers really take pride in obtaining a rickshaw and they love dressing up their little mistress. The trimmings fade gradually, but not one rickshaw-puller will settle for a less glitzy exterior, or a simple hood-cloth.
It is almost as if these men were holding on to a semblance of beauty, some form of celebratory colour, in an otherwise starkly desperate life. And I love them for it.
(C) Annie Zaidi, Feb 2005