Growing up in a Rickshaw


Andrea Badgley has it absolutely right when she says:

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to writing I often find myself in one of two places: 1) I can’t think of anything to write about, or 2) I am flooded with ideas, so many ideas that I am swept away in a riptide of ideas, and I can’t find a stick to grab onto; I can’t get my bearings to begin, so I don’t begin at all.

Admittedly even though at this time, I am not being swept away in a riptide of ideas , I found my Object. It came to me rather suddenly after I read her post on rolling pins. Every object tells a story. For me, rolling pins remind me of the kitchen in my grandaparents’ home which when thronged by cousins would eventually result in rotis getting stuck to pans, or burned and eventually hysterical cries for either help to “unstick” them, or peels of laughter at whatever ridiculous shape they resulted in. Rolling pins also conjure up for me, the mental image of my neighbor teaching Hindi (“tutions”) to kids after school. She would sit on the sofa, armed with a rolling pin, ready to strike at the first grammar lapse or giggle. Don’t worry, she never ever really hurt anyone, which is why it was so hilarious – watching her, trying to be threatening to the Hindi grammar ruining, giggling gremlins,  with this rolling pin.

Stories from home. Stories of childhood. Stories that make us who we are. Rickshaws give birth to relationships. They mold personalities and that is why today, my object is the Rickshaw (yeah, it’s not the rolling pin- that was just me being talkative!). Not just any Rickshaw. But one that you use day in and day out for 13 years of your school life.

Ours was mostly an “all girls” Rickshaw in the morning. The afternoons for me varied based on where I needed to go after school. Except Thursdays. On Thursdays I went home because my Dad was home. It was my favorite day of the week for this reason even though I had to endure those boys (eww) on the way home. You see our “all girls” school had a neighboring “all boys” school that let off at the same time and I disliked all of those boys – they were loud, obnoxious and encompassed everything that was annoying. I used to read my Enid Blyton books on the way home to block them out.

I was a small kid. (Chubby, but small and still am). So I was always made to sit on the upper level. I didn’t mind really, unless one of the boys sat near me. That, I hated! So the mornings were ok. I distinctly remember all the larger girls begging us little people to polish our shoes the night before so that their behinds wouldn’t be starkly white due to our freshly polished PT shoes. I would take care to sit behind one of the particularly evil girls if I had forgotten to pay heed to this request.

There were two older girls I loved and we are still friends. They lived in the building neighboring mine. We shared this one rickshaw for over a decade. They were cousins. I was the youngest and they were a year apart. So they helped me with my schoolwork and shared their exam papers for the year that I had just got into, that they had just cleared. They were model students. I think I owe a lot of my schoolhood success to them!

We were usually first along the route and so got our seats of choice. I would begin by getting a lower level seat but when the rickshaw filled up, I’d be expected to go get my little people’s seat. I thought that someday I’d outgrow this. That never happened. I bet I can still fit there. But when I grew older, in that same rickshaw, I had the power to veto a lot of things. Rickshaw veterans have a strong vote you know, no matter how small.

Wait let me back up! It usually began by flinging our school bags at the “Rickshaw-wala”, or “uncle” – different Rickshaws had different ways of addressing the “Uncle”. I don’t think I actually called him anything. Next, we’d hand him our “water-byag”. A million times we told him “It’s a water bottle, not byag!”. He didn’t care. He’d hang them wherever he found space, and pull the rickshaw lever to start it.

There was so much consistency in our lives that for years together we’d make the same stops, pick up the same people, go the exact same route through the same slums, see the same people do their daily ablutions openly on the roadside, see the same dog chase the same motorcycles and end up at the pearly white and blue gates of St. Mary’s School. (Those gates are now double their size and black,  resembling a central jail for reasons of rowdies trying to climb in during the annual school fete to meet the ‘hot’  girls. ). This route was such a big part of our lives that if someone moved homes, we’d be disoriented because we didn’t stop at that gate anymore. If we had a new kid ‘join our rickshaw’, that changed our rhythm too.

There were always some kids who were disliked. Because they delayed us. They weren’t ever ready on time and when they did make their very opportune arrival, their mothers would stage a very Bollywood goodbye complete with tears being wiped by Saree paloos. Like they were never going to see them again. Then there were kids like me and the two older girls who’d try and squeeze in a game of hopscotch before the ‘Rickshaw came’. Or if one of us had a test, they’d be pacing, trying to commit the textbook contents to memory.

Monsoons always posed something of an obstacle. This is where the little people seat came in handy. You see, with the abundance of potholes and heavy rain, splashing was inevitable. Rickshaws are open. Kids on the sides were prone to having dirty, brown slushy water all over their uniforms and shoes. That also meant, in our school, that you’d be kicked out of the morning assembly and be made to stand in a special line outside where the whole school would see you. God forbid you get a reputation for always being in that line. The little people seat offered protection from the splashing. Some rickshaw drivers also would fasten a thick tarpe to one side to try and counter this problem. But the other side, the one where you’d enter and exit the rickshaw, was always open. They’d also keep a ‘kapda’ (cloth) to wipe down the lower level seat when the little people made little slushy footprints in their journey to the upper level seats.

Every Indian school rickshaw is mechanically similar to the flying Ford Anglia in the second Harry Potter book. They seem small from the outside, but are magically spacious. They can even fly. A highly populated rickshaw with kids hanging off the sides like a barrel of monkeys used a common sight on the roads in my hometown. The kids had developed a talent for staying in the Rickshaw no matter what the undulation – speed bump, pot hole or future road kill.

My rickshaw relationships are a huge part of what I am today. Those were simpler times but I only know that now. Gone are the days where the fact that you were the youngest of a group of three and that for a whole year you’d have to travel without your friends, was an actual worry in your life. Forgotten classwork books, complaint remarks in your diary, unpolished shoes, you forgetting to get your returned exam paper signed and a forgotten tube of glue for the day’s craft class, were worries which plagued our morning rickshaw rides. I wish those were reasons to agonize today 🙂

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