Not So Easy Rider

My brief career as a rickshaw wallah

By Richard McGuire

Stepping off a packed Indian train, a traveler is confronted by swarms of people. Tea sellers shuffle up and down the platform carrying large urns and disposable hand-made clay cups. "Chai chai chaieeeeeeeeeeeee!" they call out in uniformly hardened voices. Behind them, other vendors hawk deep-fried puris. "Puri puri pureeeeeeeeeeeeee!" they shout in a tone one or two pitches lower than the tea sellers. Red uniformed porters help chubby wealthy Indians haul large trunks onto train cars. Men in white cotton pajamas and women in long colorful saris move up and down the platforms, looking for train cars with space. White humped cows saunter along the platform, mingling with the people, oblivious to the commotion. Young boys dash along the platform, avoiding guards, begging for a few paisa from whoever will notice them.

Outside the station the traveler is pounced upon by hoards of scrawny, but muscular men. "Rickshaw! Rickshaw! Sahib! Sahib! Rickshaw! Hotel! Rickshaw!" Amid the rumble of traffic and the roaring of motor scooters these men wheel their livelihoods, their cycle rickshaws. In the blazing hot sun and dripping humidity, the traveler, often not knowing where to go and carrying a heavy backpack, is tempted to hire a rickshaw wallah. But before going anywhere, it is necessary to negotiate a price. The more naïve looking the traveler, the more inflated the price is likely to be. Sometimes another rickshaw wallah will butt in and offer a lower price if the first driver's price is too high. More often than not, they observe an unwritten code of conduct, staying out of negotiations between a traveler and another rickshaw wallah.

Often they wear only a thin cotton cloth wrapped around their waists, and if their feet aren't bare, they wear worn-out hand-made sandals. The rickshaw will seat two in the back, or three with a bit of squeezing. The front is built like a bicycle, with hand brakes that may or may not work properly, and with only one speed. As the rickshaw wallah slowly builds up momentum, the muscles of his thin calves bulge outwards. His bell rings incessantly as he dodges other rickshaws, swarms of pedestrians, cattle, motor vehicles, sidewalk and street vendors, puddles, holes in the road, and whatever other obstacles may be thrown in the way.

I had ridden a number of rickshaws as a passenger, but I wondered what it would be like to drive one. One particular rickshaw wallah, an old man, seemed to be particularly tired as he pedaled me through the streets of Varanasi. "You go back and sit," I told him. "I'll drive." His English was almost as poor as my Hindi, but with sign language I got the idea across. At first he refused, but I insisted. Very well, he shrugged, and got in the back. I climbed onto the driver's seat. The rickshaw was cumbersome - much more so than a bicycle. I wobbled back and forth as I built up speed. People jumped out of the way, and then glanced back in astonishment and amusement to see this fair-skinned young sahib pedaling the rickshaw, and an old Indian rickshaw wallah seated nonchalantly in the back. As I build up speed, the rickshaw stopped weaving, but its momentum seemed to carry me forward. It was hard to brake and stay in control, so I pedaled harder and did my best to dodge pedestrians, cattle, vehicles, and obstacles. Sometimes I came within a few inches of hitting someone or something, causing the rickshaw wallah to shout nervously at me.

At the end of the journey, I paid the old man his agreed fare. He thanked me, struggling to contain his laughter. As I made my way into yet another cheap Indian hotel, the old rickshaw wallah trudged off, walking his rickshaw. From then on, I had a new respect for these men, who scrape out a bare living with their cycle contraptions.

© 1996 Richard McGuire

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