Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why I Became a Rickshaw-walla & What I Discovered...

(I wrote this article originally for BBC Hindi, published on their website on 17th November 2012. This is a translated version, not verbatim, but as close as possible to the essence and meaning of the Hindi Article for my friends who couldn't read the Hindi one, because of language barrier.)

Well,to be honest, I have always been a bit crazy and trust me, that’s a complete answer in itself to the question – Why I became a rickshaw-walla. However, if you are not fully satisfied with that, let’s try to find out the reasons together because even I never mulled about it earlier.

Whenever a new policy or law is enacted by the Government, the critics say that “the Government doesn't know the ground realities”, that these Ministers and Bureaucrats, sitting in AC chambers don’t know the needs of their own people. And the kind of controversial policies the govt. And the Planning Commission  has come up with in the past few years only fans this fire of argument.

So in my heart of hearts, I felt that if I have to know my people in a better way; if I want to understand what poverty really means; understanding it as a spectator would be a bit difficult and superficial. I will have to live that life.

But poverty has many avatars, and probably scarier than a Rickshaw-walla. But to become a rickshaw-walla seemed most practical to me. That’s because cycling is one of my passions. Last Diwali, I cycled 1000 KM in 12 days across Maharashtra. Therefore, I was at least physically more prepared for the job, if not mentally!

The decision was made but the dark clouds of doubt were still looming large, even at 8 AM on 10th September when I left my home for North Campus. Ignoring that inner squeak, I somehow reached Raja Rickshaw Garage. After a brief interview (which stretched around 40 min), Rickshaw no. 70 was handed over to me against my Driving licence! I was officially a rickshaw-walla now.

Generosity as well as trickery

However, the problem was I barely knew the area of North Campus; no idea about the fare or the way from Hindu college to Shakti Nagar and various other such routes.

I sought help from veteran Rickshaw-wallas at my garage who suggested me to leave it on the passenger.  I was told that “8 out of 10 people will pay you appropriately and those who won’t will teach you how much to quote the next time.”

8 out of 10 wasn't a bad deal at all. During my ‘training’ I met such sly people who took me for a ride (quite literally) till Chandni Chowk for a meager 25 rupees and such generous people as well who paid me 100 bucks instead of 20, leaving me stupefied.

Waiting for hours in the serpentine queues for a single sawari (passenger) was indeed a very humbling experience. After all waiting in lines is just not in a Delhiite’s DNA.

But this discipline of rickshaw-wallas is not quite visible at Delhi University’s Metro Station. It’s utter chaos out there. Cut each other’s customers, enter deep inside the metro station, pounce upon unaware people, especially girls, from all sides to woo them in their rickshaw, everything is fair there. The more sly and shameless you act, the more you earn and the ‘gentleman’ who waited patiently at his rickshaw for the elusive passenger, waited endlessly.

Amidst all this chaos, when somebody used to hand over his hard-earned customer to me so that I could earn the first money of the day (called ‘boni’), it used to leave me dumbfounded.

However, I used to get even more amazed and excited listening to the stories of my new friends.

Hope and Courage

Sanjay Turi from Banka district of Bihar, who is now one of my best friends, believes that in today’s world “Education is the biggest asset”. He himself may be illiterate but ensures that his two daughters and one son go to school. When asked, he not only tells their age but their date of birth as well!

“I still don’t know when I was born or what my exact age is. When my kids were born, I promised myself that I won’t let that happen with them,” he said.

For Mr Ramesh yadav, pulling rickshaw is a child’s play; something which can be handled by his left hand alone. He never misses his right hand! He is pulling rickshaw for the past 10-12 years. With the combined income from rickshaw and the 3-4 beegha farmland in his village, he educated his children and arranged for the marriage of his two daughters!

I wasn't able to maintain an eye-contact with him when he said “इंसान को हौसला नहीं खोना चाहिए” (one should never lose courage) because I had tears in my eyes.

It’s not that I only slog the entire day. There are enough opportunities to have fun and fool around. While waiting for passengers everybody share their spiced up stories, loaded with profanities!

However, among all this fun and gossip, sometimes the worry of having not earned anything since morning also surfaces. It’s ironic that the prices of virtually everything are going up while the fares of rickshaw are going down!

People are smart now. They know that if one won’t go, the other will be more than eager to deign to their price and therefore they haggle. Pay only Rs 20 for a distance deserving at least 30.

But what irks them the most is not the lack of money, food, home or adequate rest; it’s the lack of Respect. And nobody does the job of salting this wound better than the Police.

Law in my Pocket

Whenever they feel like, they start chasing away the rickshaw-wallas standing at the Metro station, not with words but with profanities, sticks, slaps and kicks. And even if that doesn't satiate them, they bring out their ‘celestial weapon’. In local parlance it’s known as ‘Sooan’ – a thick, 4 inches long iron nail fitted into a wooden handle, usually used for breaking ice-blocks.

I was barely 2 weeks old in the ‘industry’ when I was stealthily attacked with this weapon. First, the traffic cop (Vinod Kumar) punctured my rickshaw and when I asked why, answered me with two slaps. And to add insult to injury, SHO Ms Alka Azad summarily refused to register my FIR (First Information Report, which is the first step to any legal proceeding).

Then about a month later, I was felicitated with slaps, punches and kicks by Constable Ram Naresh. Why? Probably because I was standing near the Metro station (and chose not to flee unlike my colleagues when he arrived). On my complaint, I was taken to the nearby government Hospital for Medical examination in which the Doctor mentioned about my swollen lip. Yet, no FIR was registered this time around as well. (On the pretext that my injury doesn't come under ‘grievous hurt’ hence no criminal offence!)

What worries me though is, when they treat this “Post-Graduate Rickshaw-walla” with such disdain, making him go in infinite loops of procedure and frustration, what level of help can a real rickshaw-walla, (or a street vendor, a rag-picker, a beggar) and other weaker sections of the society can expect from them who may not be as educated and aware as I am? When the custodians of law discard the concept of equality and don’t consider human a human, Hope dies a slow death. But seems like I am crossing my limits here, a Rickshaw-walla is not supposed philosophize! So I shall stop now.

I am not sure what am I gonna achieve out of this ‘experiment’. The purpose, when I started, was to know what it means to be a rickshaw-walla. I do write my experience on my blog but I don’t know if I would ever write a book on it (I haven't even started yet, such a lazy b*m I am!) or make a Documentary (I couldn't  except for a 30 min short docu shot by Rajya Sabha TV, which I could never saw!). But I sincerely hope that I would be able to see some changes, at least, in myself if not in the society, after this experience. (And you are a better judge to comment on that, not me!)