Being from Mumbai, I have been fascinated by Bengal. The revolutions that have happened in the streets of Kolkata have shaped the history of India and the cultural ethos of our youth. But these resolutions are born from the poverty that plagues the state. This is true since the 18th century when the Englishman was so powerful, that the people of Kolkata were left with nothing, but mere scraps to build a living. An average household income in early 1900’s was less than ₹4 a month, which was not sufficient to even buy oil back then. Most people lived on a diet of boiled rice and fish from the nearby rivers. Today the situation is not as desperate as was back then. Yet, one finds poverty entrenched deep in the streets of Kolkata. The face of this abject poverty is the Rickshaw puller.
Today the rickshaw pullers, especially those who pull by hands have been wiped off from most Indian cities. But in Bengal, you find them everywhere. Places outside Kolkata do employ Tum-Tum or the electric rickshaw. And in most places, there are more cycle rickshaw pullers than those who pull by hand. Yet one cannot help but wonder the moral implications of the using the services of a Rickshaw puller.
Here in Shantiniketan, as soon as we got out of the station in Bolpur, we were inundated by the many rickshaw drivers offering their services. We, who would never employ the services of a rickshaw puller, thought that they were the Tum-Tum or Auto Rickshaw drivers. So we negotiated and brought down the price to ₹50 for a ride to our hotel in Shantiniketan.
Rickshaw Puller, Kolkata
The driver asked us to wait while he brought the vehicle. We stood there open-mouthed as we saw him arrive with his cycle drawn Rickshaw. Do we take the rickshaw or do we not ? Should we deny the man his daily living by going with a Tum-Tum ? Would it be wrong to not take the rickshaw especially once we had decided to go with him ? Several questions ran through my mind, and in the end, the decision was to go with him.
We placed our heavy backpacks behind his cycle rickshaw. Feeling guilty of all the weight that he would have to pull my heart cringed. He slowly set the rickshaw in motion, and the muscles in his legs strained as he pushed the pedal. I wondered how does he not have a cartilage tear in the knee ? If he has to replace his knee at some point will the government provide the necessary support ? Not sure of the answers above, we sat ridden in guilt.
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Soon the road elevation favored us. The cycle moved faster, and the rickshaw puller did not have to strain much. I was relieved. But just then a car drove in from the adjoining road, and without a hint of acknowledgment pulled in from of our rickshaw. The rickshaw had to break. The cycle came to a halt. He had to get down and push to get the cycle back in motion. Once again we resumed our journey to the hotel.
A short journey of 3 Kms seemed like an eternity. Finally, we reached and paid the rickshaw puller more than the agreed fare to compensate for our guilt in some way. We swore to not sit in a cycle rickshaw again.
After spending a day or so in Shantiniketan, we realized that the rickshaw puller had duped us. The fare to the hotel should not have been more than 30/- and my feelings towards him changed. My guilt subsided. I felt foolish to have fallen prey to a tourist trap. Nonetheless, I can still visualize the strain his calves took while pulling the rickshaw for us. I wonder if he will have sufficient to fix his knees, if god forbid, they go bad some day. I hope that extra 20/- helps him in some way.