Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why I Became a Rickshaw-walla & What I Discovered...

(I wrote this article originally for BBC Hindi, published on their website on 17th November 2012. This is a translated version, not verbatim, but as close as possible to the essence and meaning of the Hindi Article for my friends who couldn't read the Hindi one, because of language barrier.)

Well,to be honest, I have always been a bit crazy and trust me, that’s a complete answer in itself to the question – Why I became a rickshaw-walla. However, if you are not fully satisfied with that, let’s try to find out the reasons together because even I never mulled about it earlier.

Whenever a new policy or law is enacted by the Government, the critics say that “the Government doesn't know the ground realities”, that these Ministers and Bureaucrats, sitting in AC chambers don’t know the needs of their own people. And the kind of controversial policies the govt. And the Planning Commission  has come up with in the past few years only fans this fire of argument.

So in my heart of hearts, I felt that if I have to know my people in a better way; if I want to understand what poverty really means; understanding it as a spectator would be a bit difficult and superficial. I will have to live that life.

But poverty has many avatars, and probably scarier than a Rickshaw-walla. But to become a rickshaw-walla seemed most practical to me. That’s because cycling is one of my passions. Last Diwali, I cycled 1000 KM in 12 days across Maharashtra. Therefore, I was at least physically more prepared for the job, if not mentally!

The decision was made but the dark clouds of doubt were still looming large, even at 8 AM on 10th September when I left my home for North Campus. Ignoring that inner squeak, I somehow reached Raja Rickshaw Garage. After a brief interview (which stretched around 40 min), Rickshaw no. 70 was handed over to me against my Driving licence! I was officially a rickshaw-walla now.

Generosity as well as trickery

However, the problem was I barely knew the area of North Campus; no idea about the fare or the way from Hindu college to Shakti Nagar and various other such routes.

I sought help from veteran Rickshaw-wallas at my garage who suggested me to leave it on the passenger.  I was told that “8 out of 10 people will pay you appropriately and those who won’t will teach you how much to quote the next time.”

8 out of 10 wasn't a bad deal at all. During my ‘training’ I met such sly people who took me for a ride (quite literally) till Chandni Chowk for a meager 25 rupees and such generous people as well who paid me 100 bucks instead of 20, leaving me stupefied.

Waiting for hours in the serpentine queues for a single sawari (passenger) was indeed a very humbling experience. After all waiting in lines is just not in a Delhiite’s DNA.

But this discipline of rickshaw-wallas is not quite visible at Delhi University’s Metro Station. It’s utter chaos out there. Cut each other’s customers, enter deep inside the metro station, pounce upon unaware people, especially girls, from all sides to woo them in their rickshaw, everything is fair there. The more sly and shameless you act, the more you earn and the ‘gentleman’ who waited patiently at his rickshaw for the elusive passenger, waited endlessly.

Amidst all this chaos, when somebody used to hand over his hard-earned customer to me so that I could earn the first money of the day (called ‘boni’), it used to leave me dumbfounded.

However, I used to get even more amazed and excited listening to the stories of my new friends.

Hope and Courage

Sanjay Turi from Banka district of Bihar, who is now one of my best friends, believes that in today’s world “Education is the biggest asset”. He himself may be illiterate but ensures that his two daughters and one son go to school. When asked, he not only tells their age but their date of birth as well!

“I still don’t know when I was born or what my exact age is. When my kids were born, I promised myself that I won’t let that happen with them,” he said.

For Mr Ramesh yadav, pulling rickshaw is a child’s play; something which can be handled by his left hand alone. He never misses his right hand! He is pulling rickshaw for the past 10-12 years. With the combined income from rickshaw and the 3-4 beegha farmland in his village, he educated his children and arranged for the marriage of his two daughters!

I wasn't able to maintain an eye-contact with him when he said “इंसान को हौसला नहीं खोना चाहिए” (one should never lose courage) because I had tears in my eyes.

It’s not that I only slog the entire day. There are enough opportunities to have fun and fool around. While waiting for passengers everybody share their spiced up stories, loaded with profanities!

However, among all this fun and gossip, sometimes the worry of having not earned anything since morning also surfaces. It’s ironic that the prices of virtually everything are going up while the fares of rickshaw are going down!

People are smart now. They know that if one won’t go, the other will be more than eager to deign to their price and therefore they haggle. Pay only Rs 20 for a distance deserving at least 30.

But what irks them the most is not the lack of money, food, home or adequate rest; it’s the lack of Respect. And nobody does the job of salting this wound better than the Police.

Law in my Pocket

Whenever they feel like, they start chasing away the rickshaw-wallas standing at the Metro station, not with words but with profanities, sticks, slaps and kicks. And even if that doesn't satiate them, they bring out their ‘celestial weapon’. In local parlance it’s known as ‘Sooan’ – a thick, 4 inches long iron nail fitted into a wooden handle, usually used for breaking ice-blocks.

I was barely 2 weeks old in the ‘industry’ when I was stealthily attacked with this weapon. First, the traffic cop (Vinod Kumar) punctured my rickshaw and when I asked why, answered me with two slaps. And to add insult to injury, SHO Ms Alka Azad summarily refused to register my FIR (First Information Report, which is the first step to any legal proceeding).

Then about a month later, I was felicitated with slaps, punches and kicks by Constable Ram Naresh. Why? Probably because I was standing near the Metro station (and chose not to flee unlike my colleagues when he arrived). On my complaint, I was taken to the nearby government Hospital for Medical examination in which the Doctor mentioned about my swollen lip. Yet, no FIR was registered this time around as well. (On the pretext that my injury doesn't come under ‘grievous hurt’ hence no criminal offence!)

What worries me though is, when they treat this “Post-Graduate Rickshaw-walla” with such disdain, making him go in infinite loops of procedure and frustration, what level of help can a real rickshaw-walla, (or a street vendor, a rag-picker, a beggar) and other weaker sections of the society can expect from them who may not be as educated and aware as I am? When the custodians of law discard the concept of equality and don’t consider human a human, Hope dies a slow death. But seems like I am crossing my limits here, a Rickshaw-walla is not supposed philosophize! So I shall stop now.

I am not sure what am I gonna achieve out of this ‘experiment’. The purpose, when I started, was to know what it means to be a rickshaw-walla. I do write my experience on my blog but I don’t know if I would ever write a book on it (I haven't even started yet, such a lazy b*m I am!) or make a Documentary (I couldn't  except for a 30 min short docu shot by Rajya Sabha TV, which I could never saw!). But I sincerely hope that I would be able to see some changes, at least, in myself if not in the society, after this experience. (And you are a better judge to comment on that, not me!)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Sacrifice of a Rickshaw-walla

Today is Martyr's Day. This day in 1931, the 23 year old Bhagat Singh along with his friends Rajguru and Sukhdev, sacrificed his life for his (and mine as well) country. Rarely does it happen that you get such an opportunity in your life. Or maybe one does get a lot of such opportunities but rarely does it happen that one has enough courage to grab it.

But are all sacrifices great? What makes one sacrifice appear paramount while for others you sing the legendary song of Elton John - 'its no sacrifice at all'.

Of course, sacrificing one's life for his country is one extreme and there's hardly anything that can transcend that. But usually, it's the proximity of that sacrifice which changes the perspective how you look at it, after all, everything is relative.

In Media, Proximity is a very important factor in determining the importance and impact of the News (except if the incident has happened in the US!). The heinous rape and the subsequent death of the 23 year old paramedic (now famous as Nirbhaya after the official stamp of Chidambaram during his Budget Speech)  which has sent shudders of horror, grief and rage down the spine of our entire nation, especially youth, got blanket-coverage in the national main-stream media, wasn't very high in the priority list of CNN or Fox News!

However, while the entire country was mourning the death of 'Nirbhaya', my best friend - Sanjay Turi - was mourning the death of his Cousin. afterall, just like sacrifice, grief is also relative. (I earlier used to write 'best rickshaw-friend' for him but I guess, now I can do away with the redundant adjective)

Munna - his cousin - was suffering from TB. This was his second encounter with the disease. The first time he left the medication mid-way when he 'felt' healthy. This time he promised the doctors that he would stick to the course without fail but he didn't get the chance this time. At 20, he is now survived by his wife and a 6 month old daughter whom he never saw!

But I hardly knew Munna, except for 2 days - one, when I accompanied him with Sanjay to get him admitted to the TB hospital and the other day I went to see him in the Hospital. I know him because he was the distant cousin of my best friend.

And the reason why I felt deeply sad about the death of Munna is because I could almost visualize the grief of Sanjay! If he would have recovered from the disease, the man behind his resurrection (apart from doctors and nurses) would be Sanjay! echoed almost similarly by Munna to his mother few days before his demise.

I must emphasize on the fact that Munna was his distant cousin, not his saga-bhai. And in the ghetto where he lived, were people more closely related to Munna than Sanjay was. Also, Sanjay is not a sarkari-babu (government employee) with bundles of black-money stashed under his bed and can take as many leaves as he wants because whether he goes to office or not, nobody cares.

Sanjay is a rickshaw-walla who has to work everyday to not only feed himself but to support his family back in the village with two small kids who go to school.

In this backdrop it would be easier to understand his predicament when one 'fine' day he got a call from his relatives that Munna's health is deteriorating alarmingly. He asked them to send him over. It's implicit that he will take take care of his food, lodging and hospital expenses.

Lets assume that Munna's family provided with some sort of financial help for his gesture. But for a rickshaw-walla Time is Money and not vice-versa.

I am not sure how many of you have ever visited a government hospital but if you have, you know how you have to stand in serpentine queues outside an OPD (Out Patients Department) to merely get that parchi (blank prescription form) which is the prerequisite for the treatment to even begin.

But he has to take him to the hospital and he has to pull rickshaw as well. And there is no "either-or" scenario here. He has to do both. So he started getting up at 5 AM. (we are talking December here!) from 6 to 8 he would ply on the majnu-ka-tila to ring-road route. Since the area is majorly inhabited by worker-class people, most leave for their office at that time.

"the fares are less (5 Rs/person so 20 rupees per round) but people keep coming so I don't have to stop or wait for passengers and in 2 hours I pocket around 100-120 rupees. If nothing else, this gives me a lot of courage and assurance that I would be able to pay back at least my rickshaw rent even if I end up earning nothing afterwards," he once enlightened me.

He would then take Munna to hospital in his rickshaw. get him back after the routine check-up and then get back to Gwyer Hall at Delhi University, his favourite adda to earn some more, if possible.

When Munna's health plummeted further, he was admitted to the hospital. for the initial few days, he would shunt between his work and hospital as frequently as we swap between the tabs of our official e-mail and Facebook! And unlike us (at least me) who get a serious hit productivity-wise he still managed to earn almost what he used to.

But it couldn't go on forever; he is a human after all. He had to give up pulling rickshaw to be with Munna all the time at the hospital. While Munna used to get food from the Hospital, Sanjay used to buy it from outside or sometimes his room-mates would get him some home-cooked food. Even his room-mates were missing him because 5 out of 7 times, he used to cook food for everyone. He cooks amazing fish-curry by the way!

He used to often discuss the constant dilemma he was facing - his own family or a distant cousin - but never once he backed down from his responsibilities, from what ought to be done. "I don't know, the moment I think about this kid, my legs automatically start moving towards the hospital," he said.

“If he gets better, I don’t think I need to worry about anything else; all my efforts would be paid for,” he said reassuringly but he was also worried that Munna’s health wasn't showing any improvement.

And one day, when I was in North campus for a Protest March for a stronger law against the increasing crime against Women, I met another rickshaw friend of mine who broke the tragic news of Munna’s death the previous day.

I immediately called Sanjay. He said, “Gaurav bhai, sorry, I couldn’t tell you about it.” When I went to his place where a lot of relatives, including Munna’s mother, were present, he appeared solemnly calm and composed. He said very apologetically, "meri lakh koshishon ke bavajood ladka haath se nikal gaya" (despite my several efforts he slipped out of my hands!)

Sadly, counter to his wishes, all his efforts went down the drain. His sacrifice didn’t fructify. But when in history has fruition been a criterion to evaluate sacrifice? Never has, never will be. For you, maybe he is just an ordinary rickshaw-walla but to me (maybe because of proximity) he is extraordinary and his sacrifice .... legendary.

Friday, March 22, 2013

We Can Change. Yes We Can!

My house is 2-3 KM away from Dwarka Sec-9 Metro station. Usually I cycle but it was punctured that day. so I took a cycle-rickshaw in the morning but while returning home in the night, I took the Battery-Rickshaw.

They generally run on sharing basis. It was around 10:30 PM so not many people were coming out of the station and very reluctantly, the rickshaw guy pressed the accelerator with just two people (instead of 4) - me and another young man -an MBA aspirant.

We struck a conversation and he told me that he would have walked off the rickshaw if he had to wait any longer. "Anyone of them (cycle-rickshaw guys) would have agreed to take me even for 10 bucks," he said.

I was stunned. "10 bucks??? Ok, maybe it's their majboori (compulsion) to agree for 10 bucks but would you have felt OK to pay them 10 bucks for a distance which clearly deserves 20, if not more?"

"yes" pat came the reply. "Cuz at times, they fleece me when it's my majboori."

"But don't you think you are punishing the wrong guy for someone else's wrongdoing?"

"World is like that only. It's unfair."

Topic changed we talked some other stuff and our destination came. I put my hand in my back-pocket to pull out a 10 rupee note which is the standard shared-fare for that distance. But he...

he paid him 15 !!!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Business Model of a Rickshaw-Garage

Two and a half months after quitting the ‘job’, I wasn't still fully aware of how this whole Rickshaw-Lending System worked. On what faith does a garage-owner lends his rickshaw, permanently  to a guy who is forced to take up the detested job because he badly needs money to make his both ends meet and yet be confident that he will daily pay the rent and not sell it off and run away with the money. After all, there is no GPS on a rickshaw!

So last week, when I met with the owner of the garage where I rented my first rickshaw – Raja Rickshaw Garage – I decided to satiate my curiosity.

His reply had the flavor of a Management Guru’s discourse sans the jargons, finesse and accent of course! He said that he never lends rickshaw to a complete stranger. The guy needs to be a relative/acquaintance of an existing rickshaw-puller or someone he already knows. Just like Banks, they also work on Referral System. And just like banks ask for guarantor(s) before sanctioning a loan, so do they (though, not always)!

“But I was a complete stranger so why did you lend me a rickshaw?” I interjected. “We kept your Driving Licence as security, didn't we?” he retorted. All I could do was nod!

“But how do you retrieve the rickshaw or recover the cost, if, in the worst case scenario, someone succeeds in duping you?”
“If one runs away with the rickshaw, his guarantor has to pay back.”
As he was unraveling, I was getting even more amazed at how this system works without any legal framework.

“But a rickshaw costs somewhere around 8-9 thousand, how the guarantor will pay that amount when he himself finds it hard to pay back his own rent?”
“We know that, and that’s why he doesn't have to pay in lump-sum. He pays some amount daily, say 40-50 rupees along with his rent. And the amount depends upon the condition of the rickshaw stolen, gaurantor’s economical condition and our mutual understanding. So it’s never the full amount.”
“So how many rickshaws do you lose this way in a year?”
“Around 20-30.” (he was just saying ‘yes-yes’ to any figure I said but said louder yeses to the figure 20-30, so I assume that to be closer approximation!)
“But do you ever recover your stolen rickshaw b'cuz it’s really easy to paint, renovate and then sell it off to a distant garage owner.”
“We do, 50% of the times!”
I was so astonished at his confident reply. Just look at the probability he quoted!

“But how,” I asked like a kid eager to know a magic trick.
“Here comes the role of dalaals or informers.”
Are you kidding me? Informers, in this sector? Well, Carry on. I am all ears.
“These dalaals constantly monitor out rickshaw’s moving around in the area and when they notice our rickshaw plying in some distant place, they alert us.”
“But the rickshaw has been painted and modified!”
Doesn’t matter!!! A dalaal identifies”
(I don’t believe you but go ahead!)

“Also, since we are in the business for so long, almost all the garage owners in the adjoining area and a lot of owners far away know us and when they spot our rickshaw, they inform us. This network builds over time.”
It’s like the Star Alliance in the Aviation sector, where all the major airlines cooperate with each other to minimize losses on logistics and maximize profit.

Talking of Profit, exactly how much does a rickshaw-garage owner earns?
Let’s assume you are a garage owner. Now one rickshaw pays you Rs 50 in a day and if you are an average established Garage owner, your fleet could be as big as 100-200 rickshaws. Which means 5-10K in a day, 1.5-3 Lacs per month or 18-36 lacs per annum. That’s the scale of earning!

Are you suddenly seeing the worthlessness of your MBA degree from IIM? It’s just the beginning of despair because if you are a superstar garage owner, you could very well be sitting over an armada of 700-800 rickshaws. Please do the maths. OK don’t do it. There’s no point making yourself miserable.

Prima facie, a rickshaw garage looks a very lucrative business; so lucrative that you want to take a plunge in it right away. I used to make such off the hand calculations for rickshaw-wallas as well but I only released how tough it is to save even 100 Rupees a day let alone 500 or more. But many of my friends do save that much. As Mr Robert Schuller has rightly said, “tough time never last, but tough people do.”

But undoubtedly, it’s easier to start a rickshaw-garage business these days in Delhi than probably few years back. In Feb 2010, Delhi High Court declared impounding of Cycle-rickshaws by police or Municipal Authorities as illegal and virtually abolishing the need to have a license to pull a rickshaw. This Decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of India in April, 2012.

Earlier lakhs of rickshaws were confiscated every year and released only after extorting bribes; not any longer. “This has meant saving at least Rs.200 crore a year for rickshaw owners,” says Madhu Kishwar, the lady behind the NGO Manushi, which is behind the Court’s verdict.

So from a Garage owner’s perspective, entry barriers have been lowered. Because, if a rickshaw gets impounded, it’s the owner who coughs up the bribe to get it released and in the worst case scenario, if the rickshaw gets scrapped, that’s his loss. Although it depends how mafia-like he is and how much he can put the blame on the rickshaw-puller and extract a part of the moolah lost.

These Garage owners act as 'Banks' and 'lockers' as well for the rickshaw-wallas. My friends used to submit their daily earning with the owner in good faith and ask for it when they needed it. Of course they don’t get any interest on it.

The first time when I stayed at the garage overnight, they advised me to submit my phone at the small grocery shop they run lest it slips out of my pocket while I was sound asleep. I did. The next morning, the son of the garage owner was asking me, “why have you clicked photos of random signboards and who was that girl with you?” Apparently, I forgot to lock my phone!

There is no ledger that they maintain and there is no PHC to audit it. It’s all trust based accounting. Everything is maintained in a seemingly haphazard manner in a dirty notebook but makes perfect sense to them. But it has one drawback. They precisely know how much a rickshaw-walla is earning daily. Probably one of the reasons why they so easily raised the daily rent from Rs 40 to Rs 50!

But probably the toughest part of the business is to deal with rickshaw-wallas because most of them are not very educated and a lot of them are addicted to either hooch or ganja. You have to understand the psychology of your every rickshaw-puller and customize your approach.

You become too lenient with them and they take you for a ride, default on the rent, keep the rickshaw poorly maintained and if you become too strict (or abusive) with them you never know what extreme step they may take – junk or sell off the rickshaw, abuse you back or maybe even hit you. Going in their area to collect daily rent is even more risky for above mentioned reasons.

So if you have enough clout to encroach a road/pavement/govt. land and can arrange a mechanic (which is easy) and possess qualities of a psychologist, a lucrative business is awaiting you. It’s time to be an Entrepreneur!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Karmbhoomi Nostalgia - Revisiting North Campus

They say nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. Well, the idea to revist my Karmbhoomi (workplace is such an astronomically weak word comparatively!) was brewing in my mind for months but it's time came only yesterday.

It was International Students’ Cultural Fest (Arcus Iris 2013!) in the Girl’s Hostel at Indra Vihar on 19th to which I was invited by my friend. To put it succinctly, the fest was so-so and highly overpriced. Cumm'on, for a Delhi University Fest, 280 rupees is humongous! (of course, you can always argue that you won't mind paying even double to get only an entry in the girl's hostel, that too International, at night!)

The fest lasted till 11:30 and catching the last metro was out of question so I crashed at my friend's place in International Students House (ISH)! They don’t even ask me to sign the visitor’s register these days; my African looks also have advantages at certain places, you see!

Yesterday’s party, inadvertently  gave me this amazing opportunity to visit my erstwhile workplace again as an outsider of which I was an element just two months back. At 8 AM, While heading towards Gwyer hall for breakfast, I passed across the Delhi University Metro Station and found myself surrounded by profound memories, bright smiles and gleaming eyes; and also bombarded by the questions, “boho dino baad dikhe?” (Long time no see!) and "rickshaw chchod diya kya?" (have you left pulling rickshaw?) etc.

I stood there, right outside Gate no.4 for at least 45 minutes if not more and observed the periodic flood of students flowing out of it and getting trifurcated  – the left one flowing straight to Chchatra marg (a lot of students prefer walking), the right one into the Campus Special DTC bus (which wasn't abiding by the nationwide strike) and the middle one flowing into the Rickshaws. Of course there were some leakages to other buses, University Road and across the Ring Road!

I also observed nostalgically the ‘routines’ of my friends (and ex-colleagues) to placate their prospective customers in order to get their ‘bowl’ filled with the ‘stream water’ few minutes earlier than it would fill up naturally. After all, time is money for them.

Two months back, even I used to stand on those very same black marble stairs along with them and used to filter customers out of the crowd by reading the questions in their eyes and haste in their strides and used to throw random names likes ‘Kamla Nagar’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Miranda’ etc at them. However, I must confess that my search results were never as accurate as my friends’. I was probably Bing while they were all Googles!

When the hunger pangs overpowered nostalgia, I bade adieu to my friends – who for a moment took their eyes off the students to shake hands with me, the Metro Security Guard, and the Campus special DTC bus conductor and headed for Gwyer Hall where I would meet my best friend – Sanjay Turi, breakfast was secondary.

But when I reached there, I found only a single Rickshaw-walla whom I didn’t know. I was heartbroken.  Dejectedly, I went into the canteen and munched an Aloo-parantha at Panditji’s legendary canteen. The Parantha tasted still the same or may be since I was having them after so long, even tastier!

When I came out of the canteen the 'autumn' was over, 'spring' had arrived. Sanjay was there, so was Nageshwar and also my oldest friend – the 76 year old rickshaw puller whom I call Baba! Sanjay was chatting with the other two while sitting carelessly on his rickshaw when I emerged out of the canteen gates. A rickshaw-walla instinctively turns his head towards any human activity that happens within his field of vision even if he is not looking there actively and so did he! The moment he saw me, he exclaimed – “Gaurav bhai aap?” with a big surprise and an even bigger smile!

Though he is several years elder to me and despite repeated ‘warnings’, he refuses to be less formal than this. Anyways, we had our ‘Bharat-milaap’ moment, asked about each others’ well-being but soon he assumed my elder brother’s role. “So did you get a job somewhere?”, “this roaming around won’t serve you any purpose” were some of his questions and suggestions. His concern for me is heart-warming. We also talked about some other stuff before we were cut short by a student, apparently running late for his class. Sanjay responded to the call of duty. I couldn't meet him again in the day.

At the canteen gate, I met another rickshaw-friend, high on 'spirits', who dropped me at Law Faculty for just Rs 10; he refused to take more than that. From there, I walked till Hindu college meeting scores of Rickshaw-friends standing in the serpentine queues in front of St. Stephens and Hindu college. I should be publicly chastised for not being able to remember the names of such wonderful people who have their time, smiles and good wishes for me despite the fact that I have never done anything exceptional for them.

At Hindu college, I came to know that Dr Subramanyan Swamy, the President of Janta Party would be holding a seminar on “Policy Paralysis & corruption”. What else can a journalist ask for? But I still had one hour and so I went to meet the owner of the garage from where I rented my very first rickshaw – Raja Garage. Unfortunately he was on leave but his younger brother was there.

After the routine questions, the request of a friend of mine flashed my mind. She is a painter and expressed her interest to paint the back of rickshaws with art capturing the present zeitgeist – female foeticide, women equality, girl education and stuff like that. I shared her idea and expected him to agree and I wasn't expecting too much!

I asked him one more thing, a question that fascinated me all this while but never asked hitherto – how do you ensure that a person – especially the one who doesn't come back and park the rickshaw at the garage daily – doesn't run away or sell off the rickshaw? And if one does that in the worst case scenario, how do you retrieve the rickshaw or recover the cost, if ever? However, his answer was quite detailed and I think I should deal it in a separate blogpost.

I met the owner of my second garage as well – Gokul. He too enlightened me on his business model and also gave an NOC for the ‘Rickshaw-backside art’! Saying my goodbyes, I left the place, bought a newspaper, drank vegetable juice and took a rickshaw for Hindu college yet again.

Must say that Dr. Swamy is a great orator and entertainer. Though I didn't agree with a lot of things he spoke, I couldn't help but laugh and clap at his wit, sarcastic humor and clever jibes at the Gandhi Family, PM Manmohan Singh, A Raja and St. Stephens college!

The session was over and so was my extended stay at Delhi University. But one last thing was remaining – keema paranthas at Delhi School of Economics' canteen. I was told that they are awesome but never really got the chance to try them in those three months as a rickshaw-walla. In fact, despite working in the campus for decades, hardly any of friends has ever entered a college!

But sadly, I was misinformed. There was no keema parantha there and the next best thing available was Mutton Dosa for Rs 35! I had exactly 34 rupees in my pocket but the canteen-walla was generous enough to give me 1 rupee discount. I devoured it! Worth the money, certainly worth a try however not exceptionally good.

With not a single rupee left in my pocket I walked till the metro station. This artificial ‘bankruptcy’ acted as the ‘finishing touch’ to my nostalgic trip to North Campus. I recalled those days when I had to pull the rickshaw for a good 1-2 hours empty stomach to even earn enough for a modest breakfast. (it wasn't a regular feature though, just in case you are thinking I am trying to magnify my misery-ful experience)! I had my Debit card in my bag with a high probability of having few hundreds if not thousands in it but I chose not to withdraw any cash to savor that carefree lightness for as long as possible!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Happiest Day of My 'Career'

And you thought that the project was over! Well for me, yes but for you (if you care to read in the first place) it's not gonna end so soon. Because there are still a lot of experiences stored in my memory (surprising indeed!) and many more written in my little diary that I would like to share here.

But today, after a long long time (12 days to be precise) I would like to share a good news. In fact, I can easily anoint 12th Dec as the happiest day of my entire Ricikshaw-walla life, if not the entire life. I also realized that one must not give up the pursuit of happiness because some things have a habit of giving you a delayed gratification - in my case, the delay was by 12 days. And I was lucky to get it only when I egged on it.

I don't know how many times I have mentioned in my blogposts about the utter chaos one witnesses at the Vishwavidhyalaya Metro Station. Its an ideal place to make the worst opinion about a rickshaw-walla which sticks with you for a lifetime, tough to be overridden by any pleasant experience subsequently.

Ironically none of my rickshaw-friends like it, nor want to do this "aao-ji aao-ji" ritual but collectively they all are involved in it. Its like the current scenario of Indian Media. Ask any individual Media house about their  views on Paid News, Private treaties, Advertorials, Blackmailing, Editorial bias etc and they all banish it in the harshest possible manner but then it's also a mystery how a minister gets favorable coverage in Newspapers and TV channels before a major election despite embroiled in half a dozen corruption cases if not murder and rape, how some very pressing issues are suppressed while most other never make it to main-stream media!

As an ex-rickshaw-walla, I was catching up with all my friends and colleagues at my favorite adda - Gwyer Hall Hostel when this gentleman came. Its a shame that I don't know his name but taking into account his seniority and the profound knowledge, wisdom and experience he has, the name that comes to my mind is "Bhishma Pitamah". So let me call him Bhishma sir! :)

He enlightened me on the freak accident that happened two days back with a DU girl sitting in a rickshaw and the huge fuss in the morning between a Traffic Cop and the Metro Security Guard at the Station. But we soon digressed to our pet peeve - falling income and 'rule of the Jungle' at the Metro Station.

Its not that nothing has ever been done to bring some order among rickshaw pullers. Can't say much about the measures taken since the inception but a lot of attempts have been made during my own 'tenure'- by metro security guards, by traffic cops, by local Police (and once by me as well). But the status quo never changed and even if it did for a while under the force of a 'danda', it quickly regained its dubious equilibrium.

But today was a different day. There was no external force but and internal resolve to change. Championed by one of their own men - very sensible and highly respected! My presence, probably acted as a catalyst (if anything at all) for this 'endothermic' reaction. An endothermic reaction consumes heat and cools down its surrounding!

One of the most prominent feature (if not a cornerstone) of Democracy is - equal opportunity for everyone to do or aspire anything. In this respect, Metro station is not a very democratic place. The Campus-special buses are the first among equals. The entire width of the exit gate is panned by the bus while the rickshaws are relegated far away from the gates whenever line system is cracked down with brute force. Otherwise the rickshaws are simply juxtaposed with the buses creating the much-talked-about chaos and leaving almost no space for a person to go across the road.

So once 'Bhishma' sir sold the idea to his colleagues and got them on-board I went ahead and talked with the Bus Driver. It was one of the most sensible talks I ever had with a bus driver. We hardly disagreed with each other's opinions. He welcomed the idea of a disciplined line and agreed "in-principle" to my request to halt the bus only till middle of the exit gate and leaving the other half free for people. The deal was sealed when the Manger of this Special Bus service also agreed over the phone to my request! I gave a personal guarantee that the extra space thus created wont be cluttered by more rickshaws bringing everything back to square one.

The rickshaw line started from the other end of the gate giving them a fighting chance to be spotted along with the Bus and the Auto the moment a person comes out of the gate. Now it's the person's prerogative which one does he chooses. An equal opportunity to all.

The metro security guard also volunteered to assist in the implementation of the newly conceptualized discipline. He monitored that the proper sequence is followed, the free space remains free and nobody enters the metro station to woo a customer leaving his rickshaw unmanned.

It was going great. The rickshaw-wallas were happy because they were getting customers without belittling themselves, the bus-wallas weren't complaining either and the people were smiling too because nobody was pouncing on them. Everybody had a last laugh! :)

But is that sufficient reason for me to call it the happiest day? NO.

The reason why it's the happiest day is - the experiment survived the test of the time! It came into existence at around 3 PM. But when I returned to the Metro station at around 6 PM, the system was still in place WITHOUT THE SUPERVISION OF THE GUARD! 3 hrs might not see long enough to you but trust me, it takes them just 3 seconds to return to their old ways. After all, that's their comfort zone! But everybody was still following the line and peacefully taking 'sawaris' as per their order.

This was unprecedented. A truly WOW moment for me. And that's why it's the happiest day of my entire rickshaw-walla career. A long cherished happiness which came long after my "retirement" !

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Final Day (hopefully not!)

Justin Timberlake's famous song from the album "Future Sex" - what goes around...comes around - is playing in my head right now which is occasionally shuffled with an equally awesome "Life in a Metro" song - Alvida.

Because, if everything goes according to the plan and promise, 30th November should be my last day of being a Rickshaw-walla! Its a very emotional moment in many respects and as it happens with most of the things in life, the wave of emotions are often very weak on the 'D day' but hit much harder and make you nostalgic long after the day has gone.

The only silver lining is that I am a horrible planner but the dark cloud is that I am not a good ditcher! I promised my mom on the day of my homecoming (21 Nov) that I will end this project by November end and now it would be very difficult to give up on her. I guess I need to talk about my plans with my parents. If they understand, I hope to write a similar blogpost without the bracketed words on the new year day. Inshallah!

Its very easy to tender resignation for a job which you do only for money, a job in which you complain burnouts despite sitting in an AC chamber the entire day, a job in which you celebrate weekends more than weekdays ... oh wait, i guess it's not easy, else 90% of India (if not world) would be jobless!

But its very hard to bid adieu a job which you took up because you wanted to do it. Where there was no external pressure but internal motivation. Where you even worked on Diwali because that's the best way you could find to celebrate the festival of lights!

Just like Diwali, I tried to make my final day special in all possible ways and to the extent my job allowed. Which means I couldn't hug or at least thank from the bottom of my heart each an every rickshaw-friend of mine for giving me these awesome three month because it would seem so weird. But I did make it a point to meet as many of my friends as possible and shake hands with them or at least do that patented salute - raising the right hand partially with a gentle nod of the head and ear-to-ear smile - from a distance while crisscrossing each-other while pulling the rickshaw.

I tried to reach early. This is exams season in DU, and the exams start by 9:30. Hence there is a mad rush of students from 8:45 to 9:15. I arrived at the metro station at 9 AM - like a drop in the ocean of students. But by the time I reached the garage, picked my rickshaw and reached the station again, it was 9:25 already. The ocean had dried up. The Metro station is very unforgiving - if you are late you are late. Aren't there pleasant ways to learn lessons on punctuality?

There was an Indo-German conference on semiconductors going on in 'Faculty of Arts'! Goes without saying that I wanted to attend it despite the grave risk involved of dying due to boredom! The security guard of Arts Faculty has some special regards for me so when he saw me, he shook hands with me, talked for a while and asked me to park my rickshaw in the vacant space next to the main gate. Of course it's not allowed. So I asked him, "would this put you in trouble?" To which he replied quirkily, "I will sort it out. If somebody will object, I will say, 'sahab aaye hain seminar attend karne'! (A gentleman has come to attend the seminar!)

Hours passed by. Light gave way to darkness and warmth gave in to unfriendly cold. My friends who still pull rickshaw in a shirt start feeling the chill by 5ish in the evening; more if they have to wait for a sawari because standing idle cools them down further. But something warm was also brewing alongside - a plan to celebrate my last day !

My best friend, Sanjay, knew that it was probably my last day, and hence readily agreed to this impromptu party plan. But before we could crystallize it, he had to leave for Indira Vihar (girls Hostel canteen) with a box of oranges for a meager sum of 30 Rupees. I was so infuriated that I thought I would slap that 'Honda city b**tard' for paying so low and Sanjay as well for accepting that money. He deserved Rs 50!

In the meantime I talked with Tomas - an exchange student from France, once my sawari and now a very good friend. It didn't took him long to offer me a beer when he learned that it was my last day. His hostel-mate Kishan from Bangladesh also joined us and an awesome 'threesome' was on!

But Sanjay hadn't dropped the plan and neither had I. So like a witch hopping clubs on Halloween night, I was hopping my own farewell parties on my last working day! But I wasn't complaining. I reached my friend's 'villa' at around 9 PM and he was already done with cooking rice. I must tell you that he is a very nice cook. Once I even asked him why doesn't he work in one of the hostel messes and he said, "the life there is very restricted, much like a prisoner!" Wow, I never thought rickshaw-pulling had that huge an advantage over a regular job. 'Freedom to work' should be made a fundamental right, I guess!

Not prolonging the climax further, I should tell you that we bought 1kg fish and had a sumptuous dinner. I simply love fish and to have it on my last day with my special rickshaw-friends was certainly a memorable experience.

Talking of climax, I recall that there are few condoms available in the market that come with the promise of giving you 'extra time'. I wonder if there is something available out there for me to prolong this 'climax' and give me some extra time!