Monday, March 30, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Hey Rickshaw!

2. Hey, Rickshaw!
I am Dinesh. I come from a village about two hundred kilometers east of Patna, Bihar which shall remain unnamed because I don’t want to remember its name. Actually telling you that the village is two-hundred kilometers from Patna itself is a falsehood because I had no sense of distance before I left – I only remember that it took a day and a half to get back home from the state capital on the occasions when I would periodically run away from the intransigence of being a fatherless debtor with a complaining and useless old mother to look after. Anyway, at the age of sixteen, after a quick in and out at the Seth’s house during the afternoon siesta had netted me an unbelievable one thousand five hundred rupees I came as far away from the village as I believed I could, to the city of Mumbai. I am now twenty-two years old and an auto-rickshaw driver with a room in a Bhayander chawl and a keep next door. I have almost forgotten where I come from and that’s a nice feeling.
The other day, after a drop-off at Goregaon, near the bus terminus, a man with a girl entered my rickshaw and said, ‘Straight’. I made to go in the same direction I was traveling, when there was a dig at my shoulder and the command, ‘No, the other side.’ As I slowly negotiated the u-turn in the evening rush hour, a rickshaw from the opposite lane came rushing toward me and skidded to a stop about six inches from my headlight – the driver was posturing, I thought, and probably very young. I sighed and waited for him to drive around. He didn’t. A woman got out of the back and walked towards my rickshaw hurriedly. I have to tell you that she was beautiful in all the filmy ways you can think of – tall, with long wavy hair, gold thread bordered sari wrapped tightly around legs that bombed the imagination. I thought of Neha, my keep, and felt the rumbling in my groin. She leaned into the back of my rickshaw and grabbed the girl’s hair in a tight grip without saying a word and then the man started shouting. Until then, I really didn’t have a chance to look at either of my passengers. But now, with my rickshaw blocking the thoroughfare where the flyover construction work had allowed only one lane in this section of Linking Road, I switched off my engine and turned all the way back, in my seat. The woman was still holding on to the girl’s hair, the man was trying to release her grip on his companion’s hair by holding on to the woman’s arm and the girl was twisting her head in all directions and at the same time trying to get out of the rickshaw from her side. It was all very entertaining. I glanced quickly at the other rickshaw-wallah who had almost driven right into me and he was watching the fun too, through his windscreen. The traffic by now had turned maniacal, and the see-saw in the back wasn’t going in anyone’s favour. All passing heads were turned towards us as vehicles went everywhere, trying to get through the bottleneck. From behind me, a lone man sitting in the back seat of a very expensive car, looked disinterestedly at the commotion in the back of my rickshaw and then glanced at me and held the gaze. I tried to look away, but couldn’t. There was a certain magnetism about him and I desperately tried to remember where I had seen his face before. As his car slowly passed me and by the time I turned back, all the occupants in my back seat had disappeared and so had the rickshaw that had brought the other woman, leaving nothing except the incessant noise of the horns and the curses coming from all directions, directed at me.

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