Now that I have moved back to my hometown, here’s a short piece I wrote when I first moved to New Delhi, India. A lot has changed since (it’s been five years), but I still relate to at least some of these feelings:

Come Madam, Please! –Cycle rickshawalas in Delhi.

I am a Pune girl. When I first arrived in New Delhi a year ago, the ubiquitous, ‘cycle rickshaws’ of Delhi were quite a shock. An innocuous me asked my father if they were ‘real’. “Of course they are, child!”, he said with condescending mirth, secretly wondering how his poor little proper girl was going to survive big, old (and New) Delhi.

My first abode in Delhi was a twenty minute walk from my work place. My paranoid parents (especially my father) would entice me to hop into one of these rickshaws for an easy and a ‘safer’ ride home (for I complained endlessly about the stares and glares, smells and sounds of Delhi).

But I had something of a battle going on in my mind. I avoided looking at these rickshaws. I was aghast whenever I saw them for they represented everything that was wrong with our world. It was against my principles, you see. It represented our unequal society at its worst for me. A mostly thin, sometimes aged man literally ‘pulling’ along in the heat and muck of Delhi!

I noticed them gradually, however. My anger increased. For now I saw the passengers. I could forgive the old. But what were these young Delhi hipsters doing riding the rickshaw? Even worse were the portly ones! Wasn’t walking better? I was riding my high horse. After my education in what I imagined to be a Left-leaning school in England, this was certainly improper to say the least!

Anyway, months passed and these thoughts always crossed my mind (lazy Delhites, fat Delhites, disrespectful Delhites etc. ) I declared to my folks back home, “I have never ridden one of those and I never will. Watch me!”

However, one day it all changed. A friend of mine promptly beckoned one and the rickshawala happily obliged with a toothy smile. She leaped in and urged me to do so as well. Except I had the ‘vow’, the hatred, the promise etc. which she had clearly forgotten! She persisted and I refused. She issued me a warning. My heart began to race and my fear of confrontation took over. I relented. I did the worst. I should have run away or said a firm no. Instead I struggled and perched myself on to the seat next to her. She and I together easily exceeded the driver’s weight. I knew it. I kept wondering if he would be able to move forward at all. My doubts were soon assuaged. He moved and I was stupidly pleased. I consciously did not take cognizance of his physical trouble.

I am so very guilty but I must confess that I quite enjoyed our little ride. In the constant audio-visual of my life that I play in my head, I was transported to another time, another world- a rather romantic one. It was wonderful, the feeling (when I closed my eyes, of course- yikes!).

After this incident, things changed drastically. Soon word spread that I was riding rickshaws and enjoying it. A couple of other friends, to make sure they were hearing it right, rode the rickshaw with me. Life hasn’t been the same since. The guilt took a backseat and the feeling of wonder took over- How beautiful Delhi was when you’re perched on one of those brightly coloured seats of the rickshaw. How you don’t have to constantly dodge impetuous Delhi drivers and cars that look like human hating monsters!

After my friends had accompanied me for plenty of rides, I decided I would ride it again- alone. Again, fantastic. This wasn’t to last though. The nagging guilt found its way back. I decided to walk everywhere again and pretend this had never happened and only ride the rickshaws when I absolutely have to (too sunny, bags too heavy etc.)

I couldn’t ignore them now. They were calling out to me, I imagined. I once saw this rickshawala slapping his passenger seat vulgarly and crying in colloquial Delhi Hindi, “Nobody has ridden with me since morning. Ride, madam, please. Won’t you? Won’t you, madam?” His dramatized version of a plea for a passenger made me laugh. It made him laugh too. His desperation was funny in a cruel way.

There are a lot of rickshawalas waiting outside every Delhi metro station, eager for passengers to ferry. So they call, smile, laugh, shout, whistle, stare wistfully, try to catch your attention any which way. I avoid their gaze. I try to walk quickly. Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes it makes me laugh. But they always manage to remain in my head.

I recently read about someone carrying out an anthropological experiment of sorts. A college graduate lived with these rickshawalas and pretended to be another migrant to the city to learn about their lives. This made me curious. For the first time I thought beyond what was troubling me so much. I wanted to know the reason for the burgeoning numbers of these rickshaws.

I was determined. I was on the lookout for a chat with a rickshawala. I found an opportunity recently. He was sanguine looking and happily obliged when I asked him to stop at my house en-route to my destination. His speech was peppered generously with ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’, without the Delhi twang! I know most of these drivers are migrants but where was this particular one from and why was he here? I had to know!

I politely asked. He cheerfully said ‘West Bengal’ and even offered the name of his district. Of course there was no looking back then. He was more than happy to engage in a conversation with me. I started with the usual, “Delhi is such a horrible place for outsiders”. He took the cue and asked me where I was from. I proudly said, “Maharashtra” and he repeated it approvingly. I was curious about his English and so he confessed that he had been to school but due to financial constraints he decided to ride a rickshaw in Delhi. I gathered some courage and asked him if this was a profitable venture. The rickshaw obviously belonged to someone else and the rent for the day was Rs.50/-. This had to be paid every day, without fail. The maintenance is paid by the drivers and whatever remains is theirs for the day. Charges for rides are never more than Rs.30/- which is a little over half a dollar. Making money like this was harder than he had imagined. He informed me that he has applied for another job. All I could say was, “I really hope you get it”.

Whether it is an Auto rickshaw (Motorised three wheelers) driver using cycle rickshaws to quote higher prices, people exploiting them for a pittance, their antics outside the metro stations or their plain will to survive- Rickshawalas in Delhi have troubled my sensibilities, tickled my funny bone and transported me to a different time.

Beyond the pain and plain unfairness of it all (yes, even if I think of it as an ‘economic transaction’ and an opportunity to ‘respectably’ earn an income), I know I will miss this when I leave Delhi and when I want a quick ride home!