Swastika writes: Iconic hand-rickshaws pull Kolkata's weight, but who will pull them out of misery

First Published 31, Aug 2018, 7:43 PM IST
Swastika Mukherjee, Kolkata, Kolkata's hand-pulled rickshaw, Kounteya Sinha
Highlights

Not one passenger over these years had asked the rickshaw wala his name or wanted to find out where he came from, how he lives, why his children can’t go to school and what makes him love Kolkata

You could almost mistake him to be a maharaja of yesteryear as he stood there next to me, with his bushy moustache, his personality giving out a raw confidence that only comes from a very hard-working man.

I couldn’t help but notice the colour of his eyes — light — an uncanny similarity with my own.

I said to him “Aapki ankhen toh meri jaisi hain" (your eyes are just like mine).

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Lakkar along with his 42 friends who were standing around me broke out into a child-like laughter, almost bordering on a blush.

Lakkar is no royalty. He is just a humble rickshaw wala and has been so for the past three decades — his skin burnt from the endless hours of lugging people around through the streets of Kolkata in the scorching sun, the tear marks on his feet evident through his half torn sandals.

Not one passenger over these years had asked him his name or wanted to find out where he came from, how he lives, why his children can’t go to school and what makes him love Kolkata.

One fine Sunday, Lakkar couldn’t believe his luck.

For the first time in his life, Lakkar was being celebrated along with 41 other rickshaw walas as he stood in the extremely plush Harrington Street Arts Centre – thanks to journalist and renowned photographer Kounteya Sinha.

He and I both held a similar philosophy — that these rickshaw walas were Kolkata’s real heroes. Both of us therefore asked the people of Kolkata to come forward and meet these incredible human beings. We used social media, Facebook and word of mouth to spread the word.

Many told us that Sunday afternoon was a bad timing. People wouldn’t turn up as the customary Sunday afternoon siesta would be more important.

But we had faith in this city and its people.

Rickshaw walas are an integral part of this city. I have always shared a very close relationship with those who live in my locality — Golf Garden. My family is known to be a die-hard dog lover and I believe in taking care of street dogs.

My neighbours aren’t too happy about it. These rickshaw walas share a special bond with these street dogs. For many years therefore, they and my family have fought for these dogs together against the entire locality.

It is queer how we are always dependent on rickshaws but nobody spares a minute to think of the rickshaw walas' welfare.

In the past 35 years of my life, I have never heard anybody discussing them. We have used them in our films, in our promotions, in our photographs of Kolkata but we just don’t know anything about their lives.

Have you ever wondered how they are the only service providers in this city who have no ceiling over their heads? Cars, taxis, buses and trams are all enclosed spaces. The rickshaw is the only one which keeps plying irrespective of whether it is scorchingly hot or bitterly cold.

Think of the hoax called “the no refusal taxi”. I call them “the all-time refusal taxis”. But have you ever met a rickshaw wala who refused to carry you where you wanted to go?

I have never, even when they are sweating and panting from a previous trip. 

I am a mother and for me the safety of my daughter is of utmost importance. Kolkata is no more safe — not for a VIP and least of all for common people like us.

Even when we employ a new driver, my parents would always go to drop my daughter to school as they don’t want to leave her alone with a new driver.

But when it comes to rickshaw walas, faith comes naturally. I have no qualms in telling my daughter “take a rickshaw and come”.

Not even in our subconsciousness do we think of them as threats. You will never hear someone saying “don’t take a rickshaw alone”.

One of the things I most dislike is seeing people haggle with a rickshaw wala over their fare. You will often see this sight — riders trying to reduce the price by a meagre Rs 10 or Rs 15. Kolkata, these people take what is their minimal due. Let’s stop bargaining with them.

Giving Rs 10 extra won’t make you any poorer. They never misbehave with you and you will never see them complaining over the hard labour they do every day. Treat them therefore with compassion. Every sector of our society is making a demand. Some want a fare hike, others want better working conditions. It is the rickshaw walas who never have any demand. You will never see rickshaws going on strike.

What I find funny is that every time fare hikes happen for our public transport, the government is part of the decision-making. But why can’t they do the same for the rickshaw walas?   

Sunday for me was very special. I was happy to see their non-perspiring happy and excited faces. Not even in their wildest dreams had they thought that they would be sitting in an air-conditioned gallery with Kolkata’s crème de la crème coming out to honour them. They saw a different life for a few hours. They felt important for the first time. It was an evening they will talk about to their families till the last day of their lives. They now have a huge story to share. 

So I ask this of my fellow citizens. Rickshaw walas are Kolkata’s heritage. Give them the respect and the money they deserve. Smile at them sometimes. Sit and strike up a chat. Maybe share a cup of tea. Tell them that you care. Find out about their lives and help them if you can.

Because even if you don’t, they will still carry you on their backs and treat you with respect.

And all that with a broad warm smile even as sweat drowns their face.

They are my heroes. Make them yours too.

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