Saad Sultan meets a rickshaw wala of a different sort
Rickshaw passengers will testify to the fact that these lethal vehicles treat all roads equally: as though they were still under construction. If they had been a species of aeroplanes, rickshaws would undoubtedly have treated the air as if it were under construction as well.
Rickshaw wala’s speak to their passengers as though they were all short of hearing. I put this down to their vocal chords being accustomed to competing with their rickshaw’s engines to be heard. One has to wonder if that horrendous buzzing ever stops ringing in their ears. From how they speak, it would appear not.
Shakeel Massey, the rickshaw wala whom I interviewed, assured me that he knew no colleague who would not prefer driving any vehicle other than a rickshaw. After giving that contention some thought, he drifted off for a while into a world of his own, his brows knit together, fore-finger and thumb ponderously squeezing his chin, as though carefully shaping his next words, which he spoke with the confidence of a man who had thought up the aptest analogy. “For instance, a rickshaw is no BMW!”
Having made this observation, the profundity of which lay in the way it was said rather than in its content, he paused again, and subjected his mind to another massive exertion, before continuing, “A rickshaw is no more to a BMW than a beggar in rags is to a businessman in a suit.” Getting into the flow, his pause on this occasion was shorter, “but the man in rags and the man in a suit remain men. Just so, the BMW and the rickshaw remain transport vehicles, and will carry the man in rags and the man in a suit alike .And just as the man in rags may carry himself differently from the man in a suit and the man in a suit may likewise carry himself differently from the man in rags, the rickshaw will carry men in its own style, different from the BMW’s, and the BMW will likewise carry men in its own style, different from the rickshaw’s.” By now he was speaking as though it were impossible for his analogy to impart any matter but that of the greatest depth, “However, both will carry their passengers to the same location… unless rickshaws are banned there, or unless the man in rags and the man in a suit want to go to different places altogether, which is likely to be the case. I hope you understand.”
Having understood nothing (till I played it back, later) but being afraid that if I admitted to the fact, he might try and explain himself again, I told Shakeel that I understood perfectly, and that even a man in the smartest suit could not have said it better, to which a smile of satisfaction parted his lips, and he affectionately patted the rickshaw he had been disparaging a moment ago.
Not wanting to let such a singular fellow as this slip by, I, perhaps over zealously, posed my next question, “So when did you first want to be a rickshaw driver?” In retrospect, it wasn’t the wisest question to ask, since from what had just gone by it had been made perfectly clear that he would much rather have been a BMW wala than a rickshaw wala. In answer, biting his lower lip, and grinding it between his set of yellow teeth, he said, “Well, sir, there’s a first time for everything, but if the first time for my wanting to become a rickshaw wala has already come, it has also already gone, without bringing itself to my notice. But if it is yet to come, you’ll be the first to know when it does—perhaps even before me.”
I said with some sympathy that I took it he didn’t like his job.
“Of course I like my job! No, I love my job! What man doesn’t love that which puts food on his table and a roof over his head?
Following this, Shakeel opened up a little more and let me in on some information that you might consider using the next time you have to bargain with a rickshaw wala. For this reason, I have reproduced a verbatim account of the conversation:
Shakeel’s guide to interacting with customers:
SS: Do you have a set method of interacting with your passengers?
SA: That’s quite a complex business, sir. It depends on a variety of factors, too numerous to talk about here.
SS: Tell me a few.
SA: Well, there’s the weather, the traffic, the time of day, the nature of their destination, whether I’m headed there anyway or not, the nature of the passengers, how much of a hurry they’re in, what sort of clothes they’re wearing, the way they speak, and so on. But in general, the rule is, when they ask you how much you’ll charge, never give them a figure. Allow them to make the first offer. Tell them you’ll charge whatever they think is munasib (reasonable). And their stated idea of what is munasib, is the most important factor when it comes to how you deal with them. The offer they quote is the surest indicator of their character; that is to say, their exploitability.
SS: So what do you do when someone makes, say… a munasib offer?
SA: Well, you start by telling him something he can easily verify like ‘CNG prices have risen,’ or ‘flour prices have risen,’ or ‘all prices have risen,’ and if that doesn’t work, you shift ground. You move from the verifiable, to the believable.
SS: What’s the difference?
SA: The believable is that which does not demand verification in order to be believed. Now, I am an only child, but who won’t believe me if I said I wasn’t? I have no sisters, but who won’t believe me if I said I had six of them? All my sisters are married, but who won’t believe me if I said none of them were? I’m a bachelor, but who won’t believe me if I said I have four wives and ten kids to feed at home?
SS: Are you married?
SA: (protesting) I am! I was just giving you an example. Don’t take everything I say literally! Anyway, my point is, nobody is going to want to come to my home, and check that I have starving children there, or a starving wife, or unmarried sisters, or ailing parents. But hearing that I do just might make them pay me a little bit extra.
SS: Why can’t you simply be honest?
SA: Because no one will believe me then. For instance, when people read this interview, they won’t find it believable even though it’s true. Why? Because I’m a witty man, and rickshaw wala’s are not supposed to be witty. Even though it’s verifiable, and it’s honest, it is not believable.
SS: Do you have a preference for any particular kinds of passengers?
SA: Foreigners. You can afford to be most daring with foreigners. I once got one hundred US dollars just for taking a foreigner from Kamla Chowk to Liberty roundabout (a distance of slightly more than a kilometre). He made the offer himself. And I thought he meant a hundred rupees when he first said it. But he actually paid me in dollars when we got there. But yes, foreigners are my favourite. I think they’re taken aback by something; maybe the traffic, maybe the pollution, call it what you will. But they’ll pay anything just to get out of there.
SS: What do you really get by driving a rickshaw?
SA: That depends, sir, on what you mean by ‘get by’; if you mean to ask whether I earn enough to feed me and my family, then, besides that being none of your business, I definitely do. But if you mean by ‘get by’ whether I would get by any better if I were richer, then yes sir, I certainly would, as in my experience, the richer one is the better one gets by, and the poorer one is, the worse one gets by, and the worse one gets by, the poorer one is.
After this point, Shakeel sensed he had said a little more than he meant to, and quietened down, until I asked him, “Have you named your rickshaw anything? Like Dulhan or Rani or Pagli, the way truck drivers do?”
“Thing about truck drivers, you see,” said he, coming closer to me, lowering his voice and looking as though a group of truck drivers was hidden somewhere nearby, eavesdropping, ready to pounce on us if the slightest criticism were passed against men of their profession, “is that they are on drugs most of the time, besides which they rarely get to see their wives, if they have any. And a person in such a position has no choice but to make do with giving his truck a pretty feminine name.” Having said this, his voice returned so suddenly to its normal volume, that I was given quite a jolt by it, and for a moment thought that the truck drivers were upon us, “But I, sir, have a wife! And I also have children, so why do I need to go around calling my rickshaw anything except what it is: a rickshaw? Although I sometimes call it Sazgar, since that is what it says at the back.”
To wrap things up, I thought I’d unearth some of Shakeel’s childhood dreams, “What would you have chosen as a profession had you had the opportunity?”
“I wanted to be a doctor, sir, because of my mother. She cleaned up for a doctor, and no matter how badly he spoke to her, how much he abused her, or how terribly she was treated by him, she’d always behave towards him as though he was an angel! And she called him ‘sir’, and bowed her head in respect whenever he was in the same room, and asked him what he wanted to eat whenever he was hungry. But to me, no matter how nice I was, how respectful, how loving, how kind, how polite –no matter how good I was to her, she would do nothing but terrify me; call me rascal, fiend, savage. Even before I had had the opportunity to ask her who had brought me up that way, she herself would say that she couldn’t believe it was her. I know her disbelief made it no less true, but I never said it to her, though I think she knew it anyway. So that’s why I wanted to be a doctor. And I’m sure I’d have made a good one too; my son was telling me just the other day how terrible he thought I was to his mother,” he ended with a laugh.
I suppose the reifying of that dream is now an abandoned construction site. Having no further need for his time, I asked to be excused, and offered him a hundred rupees for his trouble. To my surprise, he refused.
First published in The Friday Times