At 2:30 in the morning, I staggered out of a suburban club after attending a friend’s ‘Goodbye bitches, I am flying off to France’ bash. I got into a rickshaw and the fellow agreed to take me home. Soon, he struck up a conversation. I wasn’t too eager to chatter, but I decided to humour him.
He asked me if I was married. I said no. He probed further. Did I have a girlfriend? I said no. Cheekily, he wondered what I did to get laid. I explained ‘casual hook-ups’ to him. It took him some time to understand the concept. Finally, he tut-tutted disapprovingly and commented, “Ek ke saath settle down karo. Nahi toh, yaad karke condom use karna. Jawaan ho, masti maar rahe ho, achhi baat hai.Par, yeh AIDS ka zamaana hai. Mar jaaoge.”
About two lakh taxis and four lakh auto rickshaws ply in Mumbai every day. The drivers are mostly migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand and UP, as well as from villages in Maharashtra. While they protectively guard their identities, Mumbai has steadily seeped into their personalities and embraced them into the folds of its madness. There is a sharp difference in character between the old boys and the younger lot. Most of the ‘oldies’ have been in the city for over a decade. They are street smart, pragmatic and more aware of the ways of the world.
“Jaldi mein ho kya?”
I was impatiently tapping my foot and checking my mobile phone every minute. A certain someone was flying out of the country for a month, and I was on my way to the airport to see her off. I nodded.
“100 rupaiye extra doge tohhar signal todenge…”
I smiled and asked him not to do so. He asked whether I was seeing someone off.
“Ek mahine akela rahoge?”
When we halted at the next traffic signal, he turned around and asked, “Koi chahiye? Badhiyamaalhai. Main per head sirf 500 lunga, bas.”
The new lot are hesitant, and perpetually afraid of the city. Some of them are still village kids, who talk about saving up for sisters’ weddings and helping ailing parents. I remember how scandalised one of them was when a gay friend of mine started asking about cruising spots. The poor fellow did not know what being gay was. When we explained the orientation, he was horrified at the physics of it. The oldies are unperturbed. Some suggest Juhu Chowpatty or Lokhandwala, while others offer to do the job themselves. Loneliness, and a dearth of human contact, often make the straightest of them look for a helping hand.
The kabootar wallahs of Haji Ali are more systematic with the way they go about their business. Sometimes, you will find a man walking round Haji Ali Juice Centre with two birds in a cage. He is the guy you are looking for. Walk up to him and ask for his price. Strike a deal. He will then lead you to his taxi, parked far away.
“Ghante ka kitna?”
Ramesh is from Darbhanga in Bihar, and has an ailing mother and two sisters back home. He visits them every six months and is eager to get his sisters married. He isn’t earning much from driving a cab, and is desperately looking for something on the side.
“Zyaadatar bachhe log aate hain… jiske paas koi jagah nahi haina? Waise log… thoda private walla jagah chahiye hota hai unko”
And how much does he charge for an hour? Anything between Rs 500 and a thou, he says, depending on how well-off he thinks the customers are. And anyway, they all haggle. “Tata-Ambani hoga toh woh bhi bolega kamti karo, kamti karo.”
Munger Lal hails from, well, Munger. His father’s name was Mungeri Lal and his grandfather’s was Munger Lal Chand. Clearly, his is not a very creative family. Munger Lal is 55, widowered, loves his rickshaw and does not have a worry in the world. We are discussing NarendraModi, and MungerLal does not like him.
“Jitna bhi paisa kamaa lo, agar tum riot-shiot karke logon ko daraatey rahoge toh tum koi kaamke nahi.”
I play the devil’s advocate and explain how the accusations have never stuck to Modi.
MungerLal smiles. “Darr rehta hai. Shivaji Park mein rehta hai, aisa kisi Musalman ko poocho ki darr kya hota hai. Kal agar, bhagwaan na kare, kuch ho gaya phir se, woh log toh sabse pehle marenge. Wohi darr leke woh log jeetey hain roz…”
Politics and religion are two subjects Indians love to discuss. And when you slog at a job where having a conversation is a rarity for most parts of the day, you crave to be heard. During Ramzan, once a week, Ahmed Ali plies for free. I get into his rickshaw on one such day and notice that he has not pushed the meter’s lever down. On my pointing this out, he laughs and tells me that this is his way of doing charity during the holy month. What is he praying for this year?
“Education,” he says.
So is he praying for better schools and colleges for his children?
“Sirf woh nahi… sabko thoda knowledge mile ek doosreki. Hum log yeh-woh sun ke ek idea banalete hai ki yeh banda aisa-aisahai. Thoda aur jaan-ne ki koshish kare… jaise aap itna pooch rahe ho.”
He laughed. “Arrey babu, hum chota aadmi hain. Din mein do baar roti mil jaye toh bahut hai. Khush rehne se humko kya lena dena?”
One morning, a rickshaw pulls up next to mine and I notice a pretty woman, in a loose tee and skimpy hot pants, sitting in the passenger seat. Instinctively, I want to see how my driver reacts. He notices her bare legs and drops his gaze. Then we see the driver of a car on the other side, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the girl. My driver scowls at him.
“Kya dekh raha hai? Taang dekhna hai?Dekh! Dekh!” And he pulls his trousers up and sticks a leg out. I start roaring with laughter. Then he turns around and says, “Yeh mat sochna ki kam kapde pehne hai isiliye yeh jhaank raha hai. Poora burqa bhi pehno, tab bhi aise hi karenge.”
I don’t know what makes a man, but fancy schooling and money definitely aren’t the only criteria.
Education always features in my conversations. While returning from work one evening, I settled into a rickshaw and opened up a book I was trying to finish reading. When I got home and paid the driver, he read the book’s title out loud. I asked him if he knew English, and opened the book to the first page and asked him to read. He had some trouble, but managed to get through the first paragraph. I asked him if he wanted the book. Like a friend, he replied “Aap mera number le lo. Aapka ho jaaye toh mujhe call kardena. Main leke jaaunga.”
His name was Pratap. On finishing the book, after three weeks, I gave him a call, not expecting him to remember me. Surprisingly he did, and the next day, he came over to pick the book up. In a week I got another call from him. He could not understand many parts of the book, and wanted me to help him out. He came over to my place on a Sunday, with two other young chaps. They used to be his juniors from school, he said, and they wanted to get back to studying English too.
Within a week, I was teaching English to a group of ten rickshaw drivers every Saturday morning, in a shanty in Vile Parle, in Mumbai. They maintained their notebooks immaculately and pestered me for ‘homework’. Some of them have joined computer classes, others pore through Railway entrance exam question papers. Being a rickshaw driver is not what they want out of life.
The book that Pratap had borrowed was Neel Mukherjee’s Booker shortlisted The Lives of Others. There are notes on the sides, spellings of difficult words in Hindi to get the pronunciation right and random doodles. The copy is tattered and well-thumbed now.
Arnesh Ghose is the resident staff writer for MW. He rants and raves on his blog, the lazy critic, by day and runs a theatre group by night. His undying love for chocolates and cumberbatch is quite well-known.