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.
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. "
" 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".