“This short story is dedicated to all rickshaw drivers in India who lead their everyday life with an attitude for gratitude.”
How many of us in our lives feel the need to give? Many quiet often and few sadly, never. For those who get a chance to share something with the needy, the feeling of sharing comforts them with heartwarming blissful smiles. Smiles, which can sooth any suffering, smiles, which can make them forget the hardships of the past, current, or future life. For some this blissful feeling is a daily occurrence.
This story is about a self-respecting rickshaw driver named Manju who lives in the city of Bangalore, India. During a trip to Bangalore in the year 2012, I met Manju and was interested to know more about his life experiences as a rickshaw driver.
Manju continues to be committed to his profession and is determined to make a good living from it. The three life events depicted in this short story are highly contrasting past experiences of his. Experiences which would leave you with a feeling of gratitude for fellow strangers, display the constant harassment of society and one which would outrage the demon inside you. In short, this story is about the good, bad, and ugly side of a rickshaw driver’s life.
Bangalore, an ever growing south Indian city has seen rapid growth in the last few decades. However, this city for years has faced serious limitation in mass transportation. This situation has fueled demand for the infamous three wheelers of Indian streets, locally known as the rickshaws. Rickshaws provide residents of Bangalore a quick mode of private transport to get around one part of the city to another. Hence, in the recent years the numbers of rental rickshaws have transcended far beyond the government estimates.
As the city grew, the need for rickshaw drivers increased. Some chose the profession since it provided for all the basic life necessities, while others chose it as a stepping-stone to jobs with better rewards. Even with increasing number of rickshaws, the outskirts of the city lacked reliable and quick transport modes.
Manju was one such rickshaw driver who saw this opportunity as a stepping-stone. His life during the initially years in the city was harsh. He was not comfortable with the city lifestyle.
Adding to his uneasiness the rash and cold emotions of city dwellers did not help either. His childhood and youth years were spent at his family farm in the calm country-town of Mandya. Soon after moving to the city of Bangalore, Manju realized that he was not able to make ends meet for his family. Manju was only able to study till class 10 after which he helped his father in cultivating the farm. This was also one of the reasons that why Manju was not able to find a stable job in the city. Keshav, a close aide and a friend of Manju from the city had earlier discussed the growing demographic of Bangalore and that his boss was looking to lease a rickshaw to someone who was trustworthy.
“Manju, why don’t you try this line of work? You can earn enough to sustain your family. If you want to work as a rickshaw driver, I can recommend you to my boss.” Keshav said. Manju in the following weeks contemplated on both the opportunities and challenges his decision would bring in the future. His determination to make a good living was rock solid, he could not let go, but give this opportunity a try. That is how he decided to work as a rickshaw driver. Quietly he murmured to himself. “Someday, I do not have to ask people for directions!” Manju sure knew how to make a scuttle humor of such situations!
Compulsive yet cautious, that is how Manju was brought up. His father, Chinappa once told him, “If you are ever going to succeed in life you have to take tough decisions, but never forget the importance of cautious thinking.” Perhaps, Manju still remembered his father’s wise words and had developed these traits into his personality. Manju was a quick learner and was therefore able to adjust to his new occupation. As days turned to months and months to years, he grew confident and content with his choice to work as rickshaw driver. After three years of being an ideal rickshaw driver he had seen both the good and bad things the city had to offer. Or so he thought. The city had more surprises to offer him.
Manju remembers one night shift vividly. It was a night in November 2007. Bangalore’s early winter chill was starting to be felt by late evenings. Manju had leased a new rickshaw and to pay back the loan, he worked night shifts. The night fares usually earned him a profit of one and half times the normal hours. That evening was no different.
At around 10:30 P.M. on his way to Shivajinagar, he spotted a customer. The customer asked Manju if he could drop him to Hebbal; a city outskirt during those years. Manju complied but soon realized that he was running low on petrol. As a display of honesty, Manju informed the customer that he is running low on fuel and that he would need to stop at the fuel station on route to Hebbal. The customer agreed on the condition.
Unfortunately for Manju, the rickshaw ran out of petrol and came to a complete stop six to seven kilometers from the passenger’s destination. Manju was forced into a dilemma. He either had to leave the vehicle and get some petrol or had to sleep in the rickshaw for the night. He was also unsure what to tell the passenger. Meanwhile, the customer suddenly left the rickshaw without any notice. When the customer reached a few meters away from the rickshaw he shouted, “I will be back”.
The passenger found a passing by vehicle and requested a lift. Manju was happy that the customer found a transport to reach home. Manju tried to figure out a solution to the situation. After thinking for twenty minutes, he decided to park the rickshaw in the shoulders of the sub-urban road and planned to spend the night in the vehicle. As he slowly dozed to sleep, Manju heard a feeble noise of a two-wheeler from some distance away. He woke up and to his astonishment it was the customer who left earlier. Manju was not sure why the customer came back. The customer removed a bottle full of petrol from his bag-pack and said, “Here you go, and I hope this would be sufficient for you to reach the petrol station, but perhaps, it is not enough to reach your home” Manju was awestruck after experiencing the generosity of the customer. The customer told him. “I found a petrol station just about four kilometers away.”
An emotional Manju continued saying “I think he was surely one with a golden soul.” According to Manju, this incident is an epitome of warm friendly gesture from a total stranger. It is not often that we get to meet people who can understand others pain. Some, who understand, fail by not making an effort to involve their selves to be a solution. Manju continued to say, “To see someone be this supportive was entirely one in a million!”
“Next time you see someone in need of a helping hand, do not think twice just get involved. Helping out a stranger always feels great.”
As we passed through busy city streets, we witnessed a makeshift office of a traffic inspector. Manju for some reason turned red in anger. In the little time I spent with Manju, I had not noticed such strong feeling of contempt. Seeing him in anger I wondered, someone must have wronged him in a very personal way. My wait to know the reason for his anger was very short-lived.
Manju said, “Many things have hurt me as a rickshaw driver, but none can surpass the continuous harassment from the traffic police in this city.” He told me that once on his way to drop a customer he accidentally bumped into a white SUV. This incident had occurred very close from the area we were passing. Unluckily for Manju, the SUV was owned by a traffic inspector. Other than a small dent on the bumper, the hit did not damage the SUV badly, but Manju was unaware that he would have to pay heavily for his puny mistake.
The traffic inspector on duty summoned his subordinates to the scene and Manju was first booked for driving under the influence of alcohol, which Manju told me was a lie. Manju told me that he was a non-alcoholic; “It was his word against mine; A police inspector vs. a pity rickshaw driver.”
The high-handed police officer also stripped Manju of his driver’s license for two months. There were no courts, no witnesses. The sole intention of that police inspector was to make Manju’s life miserable. I doubt if he really thought for a second the suffering he was about to impose on poor man like Manju and not to forget his dependent family. “They say we are here to serve and protect. The day all this happened they did not serve me justice, nor did the other officers protect me from the inspector’s fury.”
At the end of it all, the owner of his rickshaw was the only person who came to Manju’s aid and negotiated with the police. Manju with a dry throat said, “When all this subsided, I was left with a five thousand rupee debt to my rickshaw’s owner. That is my one month’s salary bribed away to some police officer because his car accidentally got a dent from my rickshaw!”
Reflecting on what Manju said, I remembered some of my first hand experiences with the traffic police in Bangalore and I felt his pain and helplessness as the only breadwinner of his family. I can only imagine the tough times Manju has faced in his life as a rickshaw driver. Not everyone is strong enough to do what he does day in, day out.
“Bad things happen to everyone, but good friends will lift you back to your feet, each time, every time.”
After venting out his dire experiences with the traffic police, Manju continued to another grim tale of his life as a rickshaw driver. An experience, which made him contemplate the decision to continue to drive a rickshaw. The incident, which seeded in him a thought of suspicion and caution towards every customer he would serve in the future.
Like any other day, Manju was finishing his morning chores at his home. Helping his wife ready the kids to school, cleaning the rickshaw, making sure his mobile was charged etc. Manju planned to open a new bank account on that day, so he carried two thousand rupees with him. Manju left for work at 8:00 A.M. and decided to take few fares before going to the bank in the afternoon. It was around eleven in the morning when he came across three people waving for a pickup. Manju drove to the customers and asked where they would like to go.
The three men asked Manju to drive to a city outskirt. Manju politely told them that it was very far away for a usual fare and that he would have to return back without any customers from that area. As he was about to drive away, one of the men told Manju that it was an emergency at his house and they did not want to waste valuable time waiting for another rickshaw. They requested Manju to increase the fare to two times the normal charge.
Manju thought for a moment and decided that he would like to serve the men and would drop them as quickly as he could. The rickshaw slowly passed the outskirt of the city, soon the traffic density on the roads decreased drastically. The roads in the area were entirely alien to Manju and he was depending on the three customers to give him directions.
As they reached a long stretch of road, one of the men asked Manju to turn left at the next junction and said, “I know a shortcut.” Manju complied and started driving on a narrow undeveloped road. After a kilometer into the narrow road, one of the men asked Manju to stop the rickshaw for a minute, “I have a cramp in my leg; I want to stretch my muscles.” Manju did what the customer requested and stopped at the road shoulder. Meanwhile, a second passenger also left for his toilet break. There was only one passenger left in the rickshaw along with Manju.
As the two men returned somewhat in a rush, Manju felt some-thing was wrong. The three men shouted at him in unison. “GET OUT OF THE RICKSHAW, NOW.”
Manju saw three sharp knives in their hands. That is when he realized that the three men were not genuine passengers rather they were seasoned thieves. It was one of Manju’s worst nightmares coming true; being robbed while working.
They ordered Manju to give them all the money he had. Two thousand rupees, which was destined to be saved in the bank, were now in the pockets of those thieves. The looters also took his mobile phone, the only communication device Manju owned. They bagged his radio in the rickshaw as well. During all this time the only thing Manju was afraid was that the burglars might also rob his rickshaw. He said to me “That day if those thieves had done anything to my rickshaw or robbed it, I do not know how I would have sustained my life. They only took things, which I can replace.”
When he ended his talk, I felt that this man has seen it all; the good, the bad, and the ugly that this world had to offer. But impressively one thing he continued embracing from all these experiences was his attitude for gratitude. He was grateful for whatever little he had left with him.
“What you have with you, a million people do not. Appreciate whatever you have, treasure it and believe more will follow with this attitude.”
Next time you see a rickshaw driver or any hardworking human remember that as you he too has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly side of this world. The perception you make about him may not be mutual. You are his customer and you are his breadwinner. My simple message to the reader is to be open and think about your worst nightmare. My guess is that the people around you have experienced worse situations and live to tell a story if you ever asked them.
We Indians are well known for our tolerating culture, but sadly the discrimination sect within the society in the form of personal stature keeps provoking this innate culture. “Kaliyug” as the Vedas say, are the times of evil. When I asked Manju how it feels after all these experiences, Manju replied with a content smile, “What experience are you talking about; this auto is my life and my family’s only security.”
I thought to myself, that this undoubtedly was an epitome for an attitude for gratitude. Not everyone can say I am happy even during the worst of their adversities. The best we can do as commuters is to be happy and sport a smile on our face and quit the nature to judge a book by its cover.
“Next time you hire a rickshaw, remember; the rickshaw driver too lives in this earth to get by his time. Share the time with mutual respect and admiration. He is also one in a billion like you!”