Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Reality Check

Yesterday I stepped out of my home-office zone to head to Bandra to meet a couple of friends for a much-postponed cup of coffee and then head for a house-party. The distance on a good-traffic day in suburban Mumbai is about 45 minutes, we shall not talk about the woes of a bad-traffic day...It was sunny and summery and before I could crib about having to hunt for rickshaws, I got one as soon as I stepped out of my apartment building.

 I love engaging the rickshawallahs in conversation, if I sense that they are from Uttar Pradesh. For those, who aren't familiar with Mumbai, a large chunk of this city's rickshaw and taxi drivers are migrants from Uttar Pradesh. In fact, on eight out of ten trips that I undertake, I normally end up being driven by a UP-wala. The conversations normally need a trigger. I don't get into the rickshaw waiting to make conversation. There are many, who initiate a conversation themselves and then its just about joining in.

Today was a bit different. The salt and pepper haired Saam Parsad (as he introduced himself) was just taking a right turn when a car overtook another one from the left and came on a kind of collision course with our vehicle. He managed to sweve to safety, but received a great barrage of invectives from the overtaking driver.

Clearly discomfitted by the verbal abuse, he turned around and gave me a wry smile and told me in a distinct UP accent, " This is the fate of rickshaw driver, it doesn't matter that you are in the right, if you are on a smaller vehicle, you will be shouted upon. A pedestrian is shouted at by someone riding a rickety cycle, a Kinetic Honda driver thinks he has more right to the road than a cyclist and those with the big cars, well they think the road is only for them. Even the drivers of these cars think they are a status above us rickshawallahs".

 And the conversation went. " But you did no wrong, he on the other hand was overtaking from the left" " Madamji, if everyone went by the sense of right and not by their sense of what is right, this city would have been a better place to live"..

 "That's a valid point, incidentally, where are you from? Uttar Pradesh?" 

"Yes, yes I am a Ganga-Kinarewala. Kanpur is my home-town"

 "Have you been here long?"

 " I came to Mumbai in 1988, for a job interview. My friends had told me that if I get a toe-hold in Mumbai, my life will be made. Now I might not look it but I am a BSc First Class from Benaras Hindu University" " In what, aah, Agricultural Science. 78% I had" The last bit was said in English, to drive home the authenticity of his claim.

 "Waah impressive. How did this rickshaw happen?"

 " For four years after my BA, I waited for a government job. In UP, there were jobs, but then a chamaar's son who had 43 per cent got in on the scheduled quota and I was told to gather a deposit of 75,000 rupees for a job at a private company. Now Mayawatiji has made it difficult to even refer to a community by their profession like it has been done for generations. But in UP, chamaar is not an abuse, it is a community, just like carpenter or cobbler.  Now my father was a poor farmer, we have a small plot of land and four brothers and three sisters. Where do I get that money? So I came here to stay with my mama, who runs his own paan-shop in Goregaon- Close to the station. You see, by then I was married. I had the responsibility of another life too, unlike these days, where you young people say, I won't get married, we had no voice. I had not seen my Missus till the day of the marriage. All these are fixed very early in our parts. It's not like you have a choice to raise your voice against your father and question why you have to marry who you have been told to marry. "

"So you came with her to Mumbai to get a job?"

"No no, I am the second son, I left her at home, 'maa-baap ki seva' is also important. She lived there for the first ten years, it is not like I was doing anything great here. The struggle was the same. Just that it was not my village, it was a big big city where if you stand at the Chowpatty and shout and scream and cry aloud, no one would even turn and look. Do you know, I have done that once. For two years, my mama took care of my living and food and then mami started complaining about too many free mouths to feed. So I decided to become a head-load worker at the docks. I did it for three months, but its back-breaking work and Marathi unions make it difficult for migrants to get full employment. Also, that is when I realised being educated is a bane not a boon."

"So how did you get this rickshaw?"

"This rickshaw happened by coincidence. My uncle's neighbour, a Mussalmaan, ran a taxi service. In the first two years, I learnt to drive the taxi and did odd runs for him. You need a badge to drive the taxi during the day. But at night, it is alright. He would give me some of the money I made for him. When I was near-suicidal from staying away from home and not getting any job despite my degree here, his brother told me he will get me a badge, but of a rickshaw. I sold even my wife's nose-ring for the deposit needed. Its been twenty-five years. Now when I'm at home on odd days I don't take this rickshaw out, my spine feels uncomfortable. I need this rattling in this dibba to feel alive."

"You have kids, you are educating them?"

" I have three kids, though I was married early, I had them after my wife joined me here. I sent all of them to school. But my sons didn't show any inclination for studies. Now, by caste, we are Brahmins. Dwivedi. But if my sons don't want the vedas, who am I to say they must. My caste did me no good, so I decided I won't insist. You know, one day, when my older one was in eight standard and he failed his maths, his mother who isn't even fifth pass, told me to advise him. I didn't. I thought when my BSc degree is not even worth the paper it was written on, why advise my son to study? He is not even tenth pass. I put him at a mechanic garage. Told him to learn. Now he repairs my rickshaw and keeps it well-maintained. I save money on that. He wants to go to a poly-technic now and take a degree to go to the Gulf. I said you make your own money to go. I will give you a home and food till I am alive. "

" Daughters?"

" I have one. I married her off when she was eighteen. She was very good at studies. But then my mama, who took care of me when I first came to Mumbai found a nice boy. LIC agent. No demand of dowry either. I told her I am sorry, but if I had succeeded in bucking the trend, I would have fought for your rights. I failed and I can't teach you to take risks. Also, when in our bad times we turn to our families, we must acknowledge their opinions too."

"So you think your being born a Brahmin worked against you?"

" Think of it, it did."

" But then again, the inequality in the society created by your forefathers is also in a way responsible for the lower castes now demanding reservations and wanting to re-dress the disparities that have existed for generations".

" I agree, it is true. Like they say, we pay for the sins of our generations past. I just hope we don't have to wait for another ten generations for my successors to be treated on par. We are now as much the kshudra. If there are no social changes that are made, there will be a new kind of gadar (revolution). I have told my kids. You marry whoever, live however. As your father, all I can promise is to help you how I can. I had little voice in how my life evolved. If you want more control, take it. "

"But your daughter did not get that opportunity?"

" Haha, I know what you are trying to say. Change is good, but the clever man is one who tries to bring about changes while staying within the system. My daughter knows my limitations and why I got her married early. She has a son and daughter now. She told me one day that even if I can't educate my son much, my daughter will get to study till she wants to. Now isn't that a change I also contributed to?"

Two traffic bottlenecks later, we were in Bandra. And as I paid him the fare, I told him to keep the change.

Saam Parsaadji smiled and said " the remaining for the conversation then. Hahaha...Shukriya".


  1. Gosh! what a story!! I feel so sad for him but at the same time I am glad he made his own living..sometimes life gets so unfair na

    Here is my encounter with a rick guy from the North :)

    1. Very very interesting R! What intrigues me most is how we chose similar styles..I guess its also because they are such lovely raconteurs cum philosophers. You don't really need to do much..I found it so easy to pen it down..Its clean copy, clear lines of thinking and rationale why they do what they do..:) Thanks for sharing your story too...

  2. Wow. You have put the conversation well on the post Deepathy. To tell you something, my uncle who is a BA LLB ran the auto for a year before he became a medical rep. Now he is very well settled and owns a medical store, but he did that too. But it was his education which helped him in the end.

    I feel the rick driver did well. He has a good income, and his daughter is married. But I only wish he send his son for the polytechnic degree. What happened to him, may not happen to neccessarily happen to his sons. Education is always imp.

    1. Wow, that's a great interesting vignette...In our conversation you know what I was tickled by, when I asked him about daughters, the way he said Mujhe pata tha yeh sawal aap toh karoge hi! You know I think his way of thinking is like the average uneducated dad in the US/UK. Education is kind of your responsibility. Ensuring you are never left to fend for yourself for food or shelter is the continued parental responsibility. I have had this discussion with so many of my international friends. They are amazed how our post-graduation, PhD and post-doctoral study too often gets sponsored by parents, they leave a fund-pool aside for just this..:)

  3. I must thank you for sharing his story. It touched on so many things.... Amazing. Thank you!

    1. Choco, so true. That's why I decided to blog it, other conversations usually veer on politics or caste-based talks or even who is ruling UP, should Rahul Gandhi come! This man, for one was in the mood to talk and he tied everything up so well...After getting home, when I ruminated over the conversation we had, that's when I realised I know so much about him..So much so that I wanted to go hunting in Goregaon to find his paan-wari mama..:D

  4. Choco sent me your way. I loved your story, it is powerful. I did not understand all the terms but only because I do not live in your culture; the gist came through strongly. I loved reading about your driver and I feel like I got to know much about the way he handles life and how he thinks. You shared great insight into his struggle, showing us his strength of spirit, and even some of the saddness of his life. Your story of the rickshaw driver also gave me an insight into your culture that I rarely get so peek into. Thank you - What an honor to read this first hand experince. You did great!

    1. Grayquill, wonderful to hear from you. I'd be happy to put a glossary for readers like you, so that there is no word that goes without you understanding the context. This rickshaw driver's tale is that of a number of educated but unemployed young men struggling to strike out in a society that has few social security blankets. If you don't earn, your family will starve with no help from any side. But this man appeared to be of a different mettle. Left me impressed by the way, he worked his way around the reverses he suffered.

  5. That was a humbling story. And since I am both a Brahmin and a UP-walla, you'd think I am biased, but the bitter truth is out there for everyone to see: Brahmins are now the chamaars of the new world order! And do you think the vicious circle is ever going to stop? The Brahmin-Chamaar, Marathi-U.P.ite,Nariman Point-Virar conflict? As for his story, it is similar to what a Gheesu or a Budhiya (characters from Premchand's story 'Kafan')would have told you few decades back. Yet those who believe they are cleansing the society by reckless reservations, continued till date -and I am sure it will be carried to the 22nd Century as well, i.e., if India survives at all!- are probably too dense to be humans. They are spawning a race who doesn't believe in hard work any more. Plum and premium jobs fit for only the best of intellects are being served on a platter to them for free. No wonder we have slipped to the bottom of the pole of nations. Those days are not far when we'll have only only sick banana republics for company.

    1. Hmmm...I think our social development policies are skewed and corruption adds a totally different dimension to social ills. So while casteism was the bane of the society, the tool chosen to fight it is leading to the creation of other ills in the society. Robbing Peter to pay Jack method is kind of like simple justice, isn't it? Not a well thought out method.