KOLKATA, India — After a day of wandering from the oasis that is the Fairlawn Hotel and meandering across Kolkata on foot, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore the rickshaw wallahs hoofing it along the city’s dusty streets or awaiting their next fares.
There was an element to the practice that carried an air of exploitation, engaging the muscle, sinew and breath of man to travel from Point A to Point B. City officials, hoping to eliminate a relic of Kolkata’s colonial past, have attempted to outlaw the occupation but with significant opposition. I thought of pedicabs I had hired in Manhattan and in Austin, Texas. Perhaps it was no more morally suspect than hiring a bike taxi, and it could be argued that a rickshaw puller depended more on the wages than an enterprising hipster.
Leaving the Mother House, I came across a gentleman that might have been in his 50s, sinewy and small, barefoot, dressed in a white t-shirt and blue sarong. The open-air chariot he led sported a retractable canopy, along with the most minimalist of suspensions; a pair of scrawny, metal leaf springs cushioning the ride from the two wooden-spoked wheels shod with solid rubber.
I asked the rickshaw wallah his name but did not understand his reply. Or maybe he was unused to such queries. Not wanting to take up more of his time than he had bargained for, I nodded, gave him my destination and climbed aboard.
Unaccustomed to two-wheeled vehicles that tilt fore and aft so freely, I found myself grabbing for the side handles. There are no seat belts, no passenger-side airbags and precious little separating the rickshaw’s human cargo from the pavement below, or any speeding vehicle that may intrude upon its path — worries that are more appropriate at highway speeds than at the slow, pulsating flow of Kolkata street traffic, comprising pedestrians, families on motorbikes, Bajaj cabs, three-wheeled bicycle taxis Hindustan Ambassadors or even a lumbering steamroller.
The rickshaw wallah deftly weaved through the streets’ ever-shifting obstacle courses, salmon spawning against a stream of more salmon spawning in the opposite direction. A rickshaw that stopped short almost caused a rear-end collision — his head nearly punching into its folded-down canopy. Brief pauses in the flow of traffic offered a man to squeeze in front of the rickshaw as he crossed the street, or they offered my puller a moment to exchange words with passing colleagues (I think).
The awareness of one’s surroundings that it would take to successfully guide passengers through Kolkata’s bustling streets resembles the work of an air-traffic controller — in a world where pilots need not file flight plans and multiple types of aircraft were in play, even UFOs.
The entire trip would take no more than six or seven minutes, most likely more efficient than walking or taking an automobile over the same distance, especially given Kolkata’s notoriously fickle sewer system and its tendency to flood even when monsoon season is not upon it.
Hopping out of the rickshaw, in one piece though slightly more rattled than I had expected, I handed over a 100-rupee bill, 40 percent more than the agreed-upon fare. I paused to see if the puller offered change, although making change isn’t an expected service; he did not, and I quickly insisted on defining the overage as a tip. I felt an icy stare, as if I had made some sort of transgression.
Maybe it was my imagination, or perhaps it was another unexpected lesson I was to learn in India. Yet I knew my rickshaw-riding days were behind me.