Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's not about the kaam, but the daam

I wonder if you travel by cycle-rickshaw. I wonder because recently, some friends mentioned that they suffer too much guilt on account of the fellow pulling the rickshaw.
I rarely feel guilty, except when I see three full-bodied adults pulled by an elderly man who looks like his lungs could do with a year in a sanatorium. But after a few years in Mumbai, I saw rickshaws as some of my friends (Mumbai-bred, or NRIs) do - an artefact in the museum of oppression.

I examined my feelings towards hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata and thought that I couldn’t bring myself to ride one. So, although I continued to hire cycle-rickshaws, I told myself that perhaps I’m blind to the oppression dangling from the handlebars. Perhaps I owed my lack of guilt to middle class antecedents. Most of my childhood memories are from Lucknow where cycle-rickshaws were the only affordable mode of transport... 

Then I visited the UK, where taxis were an indulgence I couldn’t afford. Besides, I wanted to walk around London. But I was wearing high heels that day, and so I ended up barefoot and ready to weep from exhaustion. And lo! What do I see?
A clutch of cycle-rickshaws wafting about. These bright rickshaws were clearly a tourist attraction and confined to a touristy part of town. I didn’t think I could afford them, but a puller - a six-foot-plus, beefy blonde - approached me.
I mentioned my destination; he whipped out a map; he quoted five pounds; I hopped on. Along the way, I asked questions - who he was, whether he made enough, did he eat well? He was a Polish immigrant. Yes, he made enough to eat well and sleep safe.
Suddenly, the penny dropped and the rickshaw guilt slid off my back. Once again, I saw the cycle-rickshaw as it was — a much-needed service, a healthy alternative to motor vehicles, a joyride.
But what we call the humble, besieged ricksha in Lucknow becomes a pedicab or ‘eco chariot’ in London. What I paid in London would cover a coffee and croissant in a nice sit-down cafe. Or it would buy a couple of sandwiches, muffins, and maybe some milk at the supermarket. For the same distance, a Lucknow puller gets paid Rs 15, not enough to buy one paratha at a dhaba.


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