The Uncommon Man Series : The Absent-Minded Rickshawallah

Sir R.K. Laxman’s character of ‘the common man’ left a mark. That was an era when the common man was heard. With this series, it is an attempt to talk about the common men in the world who are a little ‘uncommon’ in their own way.

In the major metro cities of India, the green-yellow or black-yellow rickshaws are a common sight. When it comes to Mumbai, the city’s very important part is the ‘black and yellow three-wheeler’. While the Mumbaikars share a love-hate relationship with the ‘autos’ as they call it, even with the advent of Ubers and Olas, rickshaws are indispensable.

Here is an incident of a very normal day in the life of a girl wanting to get around in Mumbai with a mind that is prepared to deal with the number of potholes that makes one feel like they are travelling in a bullock cart.

I was waiting for an auto-rickshaw impatiently and for quite long (10mins is a very long time in Mumbai) to take me to my destination! While most of the auto drivers behaved like royal princes, there was one rickshawallah who called me from afar and asked me where I wanted to go. Now that’s rare. I was surprised. I ran towards it and he agreed to take me to my destination. I had no idea that this would become a ‘chance interview’.

It seemed like just another rickshaw ride in Mumbai, with some  repeated spitting, incessant honking and the casual peaking in the rear mirror to have a glimpse at the passenger. Some drivers enjoy their jobs. How do we know that? They hum tunes from songs that we haven’t heard of and smile. Some drive a rickshaw as if it is a curse thrust upon them. They whine, they don’t smile and are desperate to get rid of you exactly at your destination. But the driver who was ‘transporting’ me was different. He was lost in thought and seemed disturbed.

 I wondered if I should break the ice and talk to him as most auto drivers are chatty – I didn’t until he skipped a turn and drove in the wrong direction. Immediately I plugged out my earphones and told him. He gave out a huge sigh and panicked. He apologized a zillion times and explained his reason for forgetting to take that obvious turn and I lent him the ear of an eager listener.

He had a very bad start of the day. He said that he had applied for renewal of his rickshaw license and the new license came by post but it didn’t come to his residence and even if it had come to his residence, he wasn’t home when it did. Now, it was lying there at the post office. He went to collect it from the post office near to where he lived because this was an urgent matter.  After waiting for a good half an hour, the postman showed him his license after he procured the necessary documents to show that he was indeed himself. And then…started the drama that is the story of every government-process-scorned-Indian.

The postman accompanied this guy outside the post office and on the road. The rickshaw driver was puzzled at this. To those who are not familiar with the ‘system’, I would enlighten you that this was not a friendly gesture; it meant something else. That something else was obvious – a bribe. The rickshawallah thought he had come out for a ‘cutting chai’ whose expenditure was obviously on his head but no! The ‘smart’ postman wanted money, a straight ₹50 bribe. It would be too less an amount for most of us but for a guy who has to ply a passenger for a considerable distance to earn ₹50 – it is a big amount. The rickshawallah said he was a union member of the rickshawallah’s union and the postman started laughing stating that it made no difference, it didn’t make him some king.

 The postman couldn’t take the bribe inside the post office for two reasons. One, there were cctv cameras installed inside the post office to ensure ‘no corruption’ and ‘transparency’ and two, if his colleagues saw him accepting the bribe, he would have to share it or he would have to fall into the danger of being exposed. So there we go, the bribe of ₹50 was given to the postman. On asking the richshawallah as to why he surrendered to corruption he told me that in the past he had chose not to bribe and leave without the license, the result of which had been disastrous. He had to come to the post office for a whole month to procure that license and in that meantime, he had to drive his rickshaw without a license because he had to earn a living. In that one month, five times he was caught by the trafficpoliceman who also demanded bribe. In this case, the bribe was to be given to the nearby paanwallah because the citizens had become alert and photographed such corrupt trafficpolicemen. Phew! A vicious cycle from which he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to.

His story didn’t end there.  He vented out all his frustration. He said that last year his son wanted an admission in B.Pharm, he got in on merit but still the documents certifying his admission weren’t given to him. Why? Because the office clerk in charge of the paper work wanted a bribe of ₹5000! He said, “Madamji I don’t want to do corruption but the way the things are, they leave me no choice! What should I do?”  I took a deep sigh. I asked him certain personal question to get a glance of what a common man- a rickshawallah’s life would be.

He gets up at 6, his wife at 4 in the morning. She makes lunch for him as he takes a ‘dabba’ along; his home being far away and keeping in mind the nature of his work which was so unpredicatable about the place he would be at during lunch time, he had to carry lunch. He had lunch around 3-4-5pm or whenever he got sometime for himself.  He earned a gross ₹15,000 a month from which he took out expenses for the running and maintenance of the rickshaw. He told me he started driving an auto 15 years ago and at that time it was very difficult for him as he had a dream of securing a government job which obviously he couldn’t accomplish due to financial constraints. Whenever he passed by an Audi or Porsche showroom, he felt like he wanted to sit in one, one day because he knew he wouldn’t be able to own it. And co-incidentally we just passed across an Audi showroom  and he smiled knowing that it was unattainable dream. He said he used to feel very awkward when couples sat in his auto and kissed in the backseat. When he was young he felt very shy when something like that happens but now he chooses to ignore such incidents.

Then ended the half an hour long saga of the rickshawallah who chose to make the tag of ‘common man’ a weakness rather than his strength. It took me half an hour to travel a distance of 4kms, thanks to Mumbai traffic.  

When I paid him the money that was displayed on the rickshaw meter, he touched the note to his heart and forehead, saying it was his ‘boni’ (first earning of the day). He was a common man but he had an ire that was uncommon. Not very person in the country will be frustrated with the way things are because most of us have accepted it as a way of life. As I saw stood there watching him drive away, I wondered how many people like him where out there in the country who were frustrated with the way things were and felt helpless to do anything about it.

Can we do something about it? Or have accepted this as a way of life? Food for thought.

Heer Khant
Heer Khant

Traveller | Writer | Photographer | Maverick | Social Worker | Lawyer | A freedom-loving woman for whom words are like wings to her soul. She believes in aliens, hates boundaries and lives like the first human on Earth.

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