A story from nine years ago, in Lucknow.
I was enrolled at Aptech for a computer course and had shifted location to Lucknow during the summer vacations (for the record, I dropped out of the course, after the ignominy of flunking miserably in the programming module; in the instructor’s words, my efforts to write a computer program had ‘gone for a six... gone for a toss.’).
My old and mostly immobile grandparents lived in Gomtinagar; I had to attend classes in Halwasiya. It is a long commute, involving a ride over a bridge over the river Gomti, usually in a rickety six-seater called a ‘Vikram’, though I obstinately insist on calling it ‘tempoo’. It used to cost me ten rupees everyday.
One day, a tempo strike had been announced. In solidarity, all the auto-wallahs were also staying off the roads.
All of a sudden? Not all of a sudden - the tempo-walas must have given out a date and time when the strike would begin, which I didn’t know about.
After my classes, I stepped out and found that there was no way of getting back home, except a cab. I emptied out my purse – only thirty-three rupees left. Rs 33 will not get you a taxi ride to anywhere, not in Lucknow…not even round-n-round, in your own garden.
To add insult to injury, the clouds broke water and the rain came pouring down. All of a sudden… this was June. No umbrella, no raincoat, because monsoon was a month away.
No umbrella, no raincoat, no money for a taxi.
A very young and very clueless me, drenched in the rain, walking down Hazratgunj, getting stared at by loafers who had nothing better to do. It wasn’t pleasant.
And then, I saw a cycle-rickshaw. Not one, but many cycle-rickshaws. But the point was… would they agree? Hazratgunj to Gomtinagar takes half an hour even in a nonrenewableenergysource-guzzling tempo. No cycle-rickshaw would go that far.
Even if they did agree to, with this tempo-strike on, they’d want to make a killing. Anybody would ask for a hundred rupees. Even an auto-wala would have asked. But that day, I didn’t have that hundred; I had only Rs 33.
But the rain was pouring. And men were staring. So finally, I went up to an old rickshaw-wala, “Tees rupaye mein kahaan tak chhodenge, bhaiya? (How far can you take me, for thirty rupees?”)
He peered at me, surprised at the question. “Kahaan tak jaogi? (How far do you have to go?)”
I said, “Gomtinagar.”
He thought this over, then, agreed to take me as far as the petrol pump, just before Gomtinagar starts.
I agreed. The petrol pump was about a kilometer and a half, from my grandparents’ place. I could walk the rest, and hopefully, the rain would have stopped by that time.
The old rickshaw-wala put up the hood to offer me whatever little protection and privacy he could offer, and pedalled away. Through the rain, against the wind.
It was bitterly cold, and I can’t imagine how difficult this trip must have been for that old man.
Near the petrol pump, I got off, gave him all the money I had. Each paisa in my purse, and started to walk. It was still drizzling.
The old man called out to me. “Kahaan tak jaogi, bitiya (How much further, little daughter)?”
I told him, pointing, - the colony on the left.
He asked me to get back on the rickshaw. I protested, said I hadn’t have any more money.
He just said, “Ladkiyon ke liye theek nahin hain. Hum kone tak chhod aate hain. Phir chali jaana. (It isn’t safe for girls. I’ll drop you at the corner. Then you can walk.)”
And he did.
I can’t quite describe the feeling as he dropped me off at the corner of our lane. Partly, it was being eaten up by guilt at not paying him as much as he deserved… how much did he deserve anyway?
But mostly, it was the knowledge, that I could not pay him as much as he deserved. Even if I had a hundred rupees, two hundred rupees, five hundred rupees to give him - it would not be enough to repay him, now.
Because now, he was the bada aadmi; the big man.
He had done his good deed, and in my eyes, developed a stature that prevents me from monetizing the value of the service. He left me spiritually bankrupt.
Today, people ask why cycle-rickshaws should stay – in a city that is crawling with cars, autos, taxis and cows – where is the place for these shabby, skinny men who bring nothing to this city except their sweat and sinew?
I have the standard arguments - the ‘cycles are easy on the environment’ argument. The ‘need for cheap modes of transportation in smaller geographical units’ argument. The ‘right to livelihood’ argument. The ‘who are you to decide who stays and who goes’ argument.
But those are not real arguments.
My real argument is that memory – of an old man who took pity on a hard-up young girl in the rain and pedalled and pedalled, all the way to a distant suburb, when he could have made five time as much money, if he’d hung around in the market-centre, to take advantage of an auto/tempo strike.
My argument is not his sweat and sinew, or his right to life. It is his calling me ‘bitiya’ and taking me that extra mile, that had not been agreed upon.
My argument is that I have a debt to pay and I will go on arguing for cycle-rickshaws as long as there are men who want to pull rickshaws for a living.
Because transport is not just about fares or convenience. It is also about journeying. Low fares, quick modes, quality service and all that jazz… but what about lasting memories?
Transport and commutes are about stories.
You want to hear other stories? I have more. Many more.
One of my favourites is about my friend, G, who used to study at Allahabad university, and lived in Civil Lines; a cycle-rickshaw was appointed to take her there and to drop her back home, everyday.
As old men do in bhaiyya-land, this man used to call my friend, ‘bitiya’. Little girl or daughter.
This shabby old man who had nothing to offer but his scrawny muscles, but he didn’t just stop at calling her ‘bitiya’. You see, in north-India, according to tradition, you do not touch your daughter’s money. So he would not accept money from G’s hands.
She tried to explain, to protest. But it was no point arguing. He would accept money only on days when G’s parents paid him.
Silly traditional nonsense? I know.
Pointless sentiment injected into, what was essentially, a commercial transaction? I don’t know…. I don’t know about that.
Because, this man is another of my personal arguments. A man who knows how to treat you like a daughter, when he addresses you like one, is worth having in our cities, don’t you think?
I can also tell you about the young boy who helped me bring up mattresses to the third floor, when we didn’t have a lift. Yes, I paid him extra, but that’s not the point. He is not a loader, he is not a coolie, he is not a manual labourer – he pulls a rickshaw and his job only required him to drop me at my doorstep. But I asked for help, and he agreed to help.
I can tell you that some of my most beautiful childhood memories are from the time when six of us kids would be on one rickshaw, me standing on a narrow plank behind the wheels, holding onto the hood for support, the wind in my face, shrieking with delight.
I can tell you of the look on the faces of some of the rickshaw-walas, as they turn to look over their shoulders, meeting this delight with their own smiles.
I can tell you of the time in Ajmer, when six unruly college girls hailed a tonga, took the reins from the driver’s hands, and bullied him into letting them drive. I can tell you about all the crazy men who deck up their cycle/auto-rickshaws like new brides. I can tell you about boring flights too. You can see for yourself which is more fun, or worth holding on to.
Some day, maybe I will acquire and learn to drive a khataaraa piece of metal, and start navigating the roads myself. Some day, maybe I will not need the rickshaws. But if I ever forget that old man who left me spiritually bankrupt at the corner of a lane in Lucknow, may the gods strike me down, when I take the wheel... Because if I forget the things that make life worth living and fighting for, I might as well be dead.
When I began writing this, it was in an entirely different context – the context of anger, alienation and the difficulties of transportation in a western, modern society... Their clean, clean roads and their organised, rule-bound traffic. Cars and buses only. Bicycles being the only alternative.... If there is one thing I miss in this small Scottish town, it is the cycle-rickshaw… no, that's not entirely true: I miss seeing dogs and cows too, and the occasional horse or elephant or camel.
[Those who think they’re are a traffic menace, I’d like to point them in the direction of a certain busy road near Andrewsganj, Delhi; with mine own eyes I have seen a row of cows balancing delicately, all hoofed fours, atop a narrow road-divider, patiently waiting for the traffic to slow down before crossing. Which is more than you can say for half the speeding guys on speed, who treat narrow kuchha lanes like virtual superhighway]
Then, I began thinking of those people who actually believe that cycle-rickshaws are a menace!
I am writing this post, because too many people have been lobbying to allow fewer and fewer cycle-rickshaws in Delhi. First it was just the heart of New Delhi; now, there are moves afoot to keep them off the suburbs too. I could cite reports by way of counter-argument.
But the point is this - we talk about giving the public a choice.
So, I want that choice. Have low-cost airlines by all means; I want those too. But I also want buses. I want my tonga, I want my metro, AND I want the cycle-rickshaws. I see absolutely no reason why not.
The roads are public property.
The rickshaw-pullers are as much the public as the cabbies or pilots. If you want them out of the way, build separate tracks for rickshaws, and then talk about speed and safety issues. Delhi does have separate 'priority' bus lanes, in some suburbs. How difficult would it be to just plan for different sets of tracks, in different regions, starting right now?
Make it a part of the master plan. Listen to the experts. It is not undo-able.
And if it is undo-able, tough!
Learn to drive slow, and pay at least as much respect to the man pulling a rickshaw, as you do to the cows. Defer. Slow down. Wait to let them pass.
For the world-class wannabes, a reminder: out here, in the UK, cars wait, while a duck waddles across; those are the rules.