The Night watchmen: Rickshaw walla!
(This article was originally submitted to The Indian Economist, but remained unpublished. So here it is!)
night-watchman definition: a person whose job is to guard a building at night.
Living in the capital can sometimes feel like living in different cities altogether. From the leafy lanes of Lutyens’ Delhi to the definition of chaos that is Old Delhi, from the modern wonder that is the metro zipping through the city to the cows that prevent us from zipping on the roads, the extremes are not for the faint hearted observer. But it is these things that define this city, that make it what it is, and ultimately endear it to us.
The following article is, however, not about the obvious. It is about those hidden people who keep this city running, are (largely) uncared for, but always omnipresent, living and working in the very periphery of our vision, but who arguably contribute more to this city with their sweat and efforts than we do, all the time watching out for the city. This article is about knowing them, about knowing the people behind the faces and knowing their stories. To begin with, we bring you 3 cycle rickshaw wallas and their stories.
The first rickshaw walla I managed to accost was near the metro station, overlooking the new site for the metro line extension. Rakesh, aged 40 years, had been pedaling for about 20 years now, living on rent in a room in Patparganj. What brought him into this occupation? ”Well there wasn’t anything else I could do.” His views were particularly strong about the metro,” it’s taken our livelihood, the metro…you just watch, in some years it will go everywhere and even (gesturing at the nearby buildings) eat up these buildings.” On asking what was, in his opinion, the best thing he had seen, his reply provided a glimpse into his thoughts.” So many things have changed so much…Today young girls are driving on the roads…Man is even going to stay on the moon, isn’t he? You are much learned, you know the news better…so you see, nothing is impossible now.” He was pretty much resigned to his fate, saying this is what he will be doing for the future.” There are rich people everywhere, getting richer; no one bothers to look at us.” What is one thing he believes in?” “Be true to your mind, nothing else. If you go opposite to it, everything will go wrong”, “The most important things in life are: wealth (dhan), mind (mann), body ( tann), water(jal)…Look at what happened in Jammu; that’s what water can do.” As I thanked him, a smile lit up his features.” You are an educated person…if you can, would you please do something for us?”
Aap is line me aana chahte ho?
The next ones I managed to talk with were present in one of the lanes of our colony, cycling around aimlessly in the idle afternoon hours. While one identified himself as Abhishek, aged 30(‘father of two children’), the other, quite mysteriously, called himself Congress, aged 32 (the other vouching for his compatriot’s name being exactly that), both hailing from Bihar, and residing in rented quarters in Patparganj. ‘Congress’ revealed that he had studied till 6th,’and a few days of 7th standard, after which due to some family problems, he had to leave his education and start earning. After working for some time at a factory, he began pedaling passengers on the streets of Delhi, something which he has been doing for a decade now. Asked about his regrets, he says that mainly, it’s just that the fact that he left his education midway; he’s sure of the fact that he would have been much better off if he had completed his schooling at least. I ask him about schooling his children, something which he says, a bit non-commitally (it seems), he is taking care of. Here Abhishek chimed in “In today’s world, parents can even sell their land, but they will do their children’s schooling; they should, shouldn’t they?”
Abhishek admits to the fact that he started in this profession, something which he dates back to about 5 years ago, as he needed the money: “Almost all of us start in this as we need the money.”While he, along with his compatriot admits to being happy enough at the end of the day (”at least we are happier than those people driving in their cars. They have to worry about the car, the oil, the likes”) ‘ Congress’ reveals that they make after all the expenses, less than Rs 2000 in a month, even in the best of times, something which has to be sent to run their houses, back home. Both of them agreed that they did have a lot of things they could look back and think on; they just felt it wasn’t much help to sit and do just that. Philosophy wasn’t in any short supply either: while Abhishek felt that bad thoughts (buri nazar) was what brings down a person; as long as it isn’t there, man can live without fear while Congress related a (supposed) quote from Kabir “if you can conquer the feeling of uncontrollable passion, then you can have me beneath your foot”, emphasizing that ishq is something to be best avoided.” Besides” he continued,” if you start asking God for wishes, your list can only go on and on.” More intrigued than annoyed by my probing, Abhishek asked “Have you left studying?” On hearing my refusal to this, he then asked his main doubt,” To phir aap itni jaankari kyun le rahe ho? Kya aap is line mein aana chahte ho?”
Admittedly, hope isn’t in any short supply on the roads, even though it looks contrary to what we expect, though they are well aware of where they stand in the world. I will leave with you with one last observation from one of these men:” If I want, my mind can be on an airplane above, but my body is here, cycling a rickshaw.
(the cycle rickshaw wallas I talked to are mainly in the area of Mayur Vihar, Phase 1 ,Pocket 4, and in 2014. All the above accounts are real.)