Under the neem shade, a sunburnt, wrinkled face takes rest in a hot afternoon in Calcutta. There is not much of breeze in this wet air; the heat is blood-sucking and the burning sun is playing hide and seek on the man’s body through gaps in the sharp, narrow neem leaves. He wears a white robin’s egg blue, half-sleeve vest and a lungi folded to above his knee. He makes use of his red striped cotton cloth, with which he wipes away his sweat, as his pillow. His right arm rests on his creased forehead, while the other arm lies on his stomach, up and down with his slow breath.
His vehicle is parked by the road. It is a 100-year-old hand-drawn rickshaw brought to British Calcutta by Chinese merchants more than a century ago. I do not wish to wake him up and would like to come in the evening for a talk, but eventually I do after considering my other appointments in the city. Clearly, he looks bewildered, and amused, when I ask him to share his life story with me. It sounded sarcastically romantic to my ears; a “fascinating” story for a journalist is a everyday struggle for someone to make ends meet in this scorching climate. Why would he pour his heart out to me? Who am I?
After a few minutes of talking and addressing him as tumi (used informally for friends, relatives of similar age-groups and acquaintances), instead of apni (formal use for senior persons and strangers), he starts to feel at ease and asks me if I would like to have chai. The chai comes in two cups of clay, from the shop on the other side of the road, and he begins to tell his tale.
Gopal Shah doesn’t remember his date of birth, but thinks he could be 60 years old or a little more, perhaps. He came to Calcutta with his father on a crowded train, most of the journey spent standing near the door, from the neighbouring district of Bihar when he was 17. His father was also a rickshaw puller. Because they had no major source of income at home, his father escorted him to Calcutta and took him to the rickshaw’s owner, a Marwari, for a helping hand to his family at home in a village near Deogarh, a town in Bihar.
Gopal has since spent his life traversing through the lanes, byways and streets of Kolkata, where elephant-sized buses, yellow taxis with foul-mouthed drivers and expensive cars with closed windows zip by him. While speaking, suddenly Gopal falls silent and his tranquil eyes and wrinkled cheeks start talking, as if they have more stories to tell than he carefully does, in front of an outsider.
Over so many years, the strange big city has grown familiar to him and he is a happy man on the days when he earns Rs 150-200 ($3.20). But there are days, frequent and unpredictable, when his income is as low as Rs 80. Whatever his wages are, he pays Rs 20 daily to the owner who found him and his likes for a makeshift place to sleep at night. Gopal and his brotherhood of rickshawallas – Bahadur Shah, Dibu Shah, Bundi Shah, all from the same village – huddle together and sleep on a floor covered in torn rugs. During the blazing summers, when warm winds stir the night air, he comes out of his fanless room, happily spreads a long plastic sheet on the pavement and sleeps in the open air.
Gearing up at dawn
He smiles unknowingly, for the first time, and reveals his yellow, broken teeth – what a respite from the sweltering heat, even if it is for a few hours. I smile back. Each morning at dawn, Gopal washes his clothes and takes a bath under the common tap outside, some hundred metres away from his room. After he is done washing and bathing, it’s time for the others – Bahadur and Dibu – to get geared up for another sultry day. He pays his owner his due, then sets off in the hope of earning a little more than yesterday. On the road, while he waits for passengers, Gopal eats his 15-rupee meal, consisting of rice, roti, dal and sabzi. Sometimes he cooks in the evening – roti and sabzi.
His sole assets in Calcutta are a few utensils, a small stove, a bucket, a mug and a few clothes in a plastic bag. His family – his wife, three sons and two daughters – lives in his village, which he visits twice a year. With moist eyes, Gopal says his sons no longer want to pull rickshaws because they feel it is not a respectable job. Two of them passed their 12th grade exams and are looking for jobs, while the youngest son studies in class 7. One daughter has been married off and the other one dropped out from school after class 8.
Gopal has no land of his own, so his sons work as labourers on other people’s land, growing corn, wheat, rice and a few vegetables. He sends a large part of his earnings home; these days, he is saving more because he hopes to find a good groom for his grown-up daughter and get her married soon. You never know when this worn-out body comes to an eternal rest. Before that happens, Gopal wishes to fulfil all his family responsibilities.
How many passengers does he carry every day? Sometimes four or five, on good days six and seven, but never more than 10. During the monsoon, when the streets get waterlogged and rainwater sometimes penetrates into people’s homes, Gopal ferries people barefoot through waist-deep water. Even if he were to go blind, he would still be able to carry passengers and loads in the area, he feels proud. After all these years of pulling his rickshaw along the same roads and lanes, manholes, cracks and fissures would be easily taken care of without being able to see.
Do the police trouble him? Yes, if he goes on the streets and the police confiscates his rickshaw because it is not registered. At the end of the day or the next day, his owner goes to the police station and pays a fine of Rs 100 as a fine and Gopal gets his rickshaw back. A day’s earnings are lost. The government stopped renewing all old licences long ago and will not issue new ones, because it now considers it is not right for a human being to pull and carry another human being.
Who can tell what is right and wrong? What about the livelihoods of Gopal, Dibu, Bahadur and Bundi? Who will feed their stomachs and their families’ back home? Is the government providing any alternative opportunity to them? No, they only promise they will provide, but it’s been years. All such promises have fallen empty and Gopal, and his likes continue to draw rickshaws in order to barely sustain themselves.
Gopal lost his licence more than ten years ago but to stay his hunger pangs and with no other employment opportunities at his age, he has been pulling the cart without one. Whatever journalists write, and governments promise, and unions demand, nobody thinks of them; nobody cares whether Gopal, Dibu, Bundi and Bahadur live or die. Gopal wipes the corners of his watery eyes with the red cloth. We both fall silent for a few minutes.
Gopal, Dibu, Bahadur, all the rickshaw pullers in Calcutta, have a union, All Bengal Rickshaw Association, which apparently speaks on their behalf. The working president of the union is Sultan Ahmed, a member of India’s parliament. His union has already asked the government, which is also Ahmed’s party, to create alternative opportunities for licensed rickshaw pullers but it would take a lot of time to see the fruits of that process on roads.
For those rickshaw-pullers who lost their licences, and who form a considerable number (only 4,000 rickshaws are licensed out of 17,000 rickshaws that ply everyday on the roads of Kolkata), the union and the government have empty hands. If the government has to offer something to everyone, how will it function? A real but an arbitrary question.
The communist government of Bengal passed a law, the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill 2006, banning the rickshaws, terming them degrading and inhuman. Although the ban was stayed in the high court amid protests and strikes, the licences were no longer renewed.
I do not tell Gopal of my chat with Sultan Ahmed. I do not have the courage. Scared of his reaction and fighting back my tears, I wish to change the course of our conversation to something else.
What does Gopal like to eat and drink? Does he like playing cards? He likes to eat rice and roti and sometimes he relaxes with few puffs of bidi at the end of the day. He likes playing cards with friends in his moholla but his fatigued body doesn’t allow it so he engages in conversation with other rickshaw-pullers on the weather, voting, strikes and their families at home.
Gopal is going home for five days during Durga Puja, and has already purchased new clothes for his family. He doesn’t bother to buy any for himself, he doesn’t need to. He has a happy face and his eyes are lit up.
Does he have any dreams and hopes? He only wants to pull his rickshaw till the end of his life. All he hopes for is that nobody should take his rickshaw from his hands.
On the other side of the road, we see an elderly, bespectacled man getting down from one of those blue government buses and walking towards us with the help of a stick.
He asks: “Gopal, will you go?”
Gopal gets up, folds his lungi and takes up his cart.
Photo (c) Jorge Royan @ Creative Commons