“I stepped out on the curb from my office building, after exhausting myself with trying to start my car, seems its on the conk again. I looked up and immediately started to sweat as i saw the blazing 43C bone burning sunshine beat down on me. Gingerly i made my way through the midway traffic trying to spot a rickshaw for my ride home”
These could have been my famous last words. Karachi’s rickshaws for anyone who has been near them or sat in them provide a terrifying and thrilling experience to the people who use them for their daily transport. These colorfully painted merchants of cardiac failure, our version of the roller coaster sans the binding harness and gleeful screaming (its usually in terror when riding one) are the only mass transit system available to millions of people who dare defy death everyday in them.
The rickshaw transaction as i refer to it is a series of questions and sign language from the driver to the passenger. It usually starts with one asking an empty rickshaw driver “is this rickshaw empty” Hilarious i know since it is empty in the first place but dare sit in one without the drivers express permission could see one being threatened with almost anything under the blazing sun. If so inclined the driver will swing his head to the passenger area usually with a jerk of his neck. Once inside one starts to bargain gingerly on where he wants to go and what price he will have to pay for it. Once this is done the driver reaches down to the floor and pulls a winding lever resulting in the two stroke monster beneath the passenger to come to life with a sound like a motorcycle on crack cocaine.
My journey in these rickshaws has been up till now a pleasant though terrifying experience. Terrifying because the drivers tend to jerk and maneuver their way through traffic, incoming donkey carts, cars, buses and humans of every variety with one golden rule in mind, â€œno braking allowedâ€ Yesterday, while halfway through the trip the driver started spouting words of wisdom as is normal with a local passenger in place. As we all know everything under the sun is discussed in our rickshaws while hurtling at scary speeds through narrow streets and lanes (rickshaw drivers love taking shortcuts through brain defying spaces instead of proper roads) the first questions are tentative as though the driver is trying to ascertain whether you are worth the 20 mins or so of conversation between your screams to slow down. Obviously the first is a political oneâ€¦mine began like this â€œso when ya think the generals going to go?â€ Obviously to someone not familiar with the in your face style of conversation we Karichite’s tend to indulge in every minute, this sort of quandary could prove bizarre. My reply was off course, â€œtill the mullahs get to him?â€ Normally this is a safe avenue as most of our famous rickshaw drivers are pan chewing tea sipping daredevils not interested in the least in religion or mullahs, quite evident by the colorful poetry they engage the backs of their rickshaws with. Back to the conversation at hand, as the driver cackled in glee and narrowly missed a motorcycle and remarked â€œthat General has 13 lives man, so what do you think of the filth on the roads todayâ€ nodding his head to the left as a young and nicely clad streetwalker sauntered on the side laneâ€ I replied â€œwell they serve a purpose donâ€™t you thinkâ€ another loud snort of laughter followed as he drove right over a speed breaker at 40kph making my head hit the roof as I flew up â€œ yeah sometimes they will sit in and tell me to take them someplace, offering a favor in return without fare, I tell em i am running a rickshaw not a hotel sisterâ€
By now off course my head is swimming with the pain of the constant noise of the two stroke demon under my derriere and the blur of vehicles passing as the driver weaves in and out of traffic and I fall mute..until he gets to a signal with three other rickshaws in the front row. He then proceeds to look right and left and smile a beetle leaf stained set of teeth at his fellow drivers and scream Raaace!!!!!! I answer with a loud â€œNOOOOOOâ€ but to no avail as they take off at the green light, all three dodging and weaving between pushcarts and cars to get to the next signal first. In between my screams I hear him say â€œthink of it as an India vs Pakistan matchâ€. Suffice to say, we made it to the next signal second in place and I gave him a stream of verbal abuse to which he replies â€œwill you calm down, it was only a race not suicideâ€
I guess when you drive a rickshaw in the heat all day chewing various varieties of beetle leaf (pan) and deal with traffic at its worst under 43-46 C sunshine one does tend to get immune to things like, danger, risk and death. These gents earn upwards of 8000 rps a month depending on the fare situation which in these parts amounts to 4000 rs above the national pay scale. They are off course very very colorful individuals and experts at telling all kinds of dirty jokes and sordid tales, if you could keep your wits about you while in the back seat that is. One does tend to feel a little lightheaded when you step out, people have been known to forget all sorts of things after this experience, sometimes perilous as left behind wallets and items of any value are never to be found again. What is interesting to observe though is the fact that although quite mental these rickshaws are reasonable and almost always get the customer to their destination, whether the mind or heart can sustain the ride is another matter altogether. I once humbly asked a driver why they take the silencers out of their two stroke engines which make terrible racket without them, he just laughed at me and said patting his rickshaw â€œ it runs faster, I like it when it runs fasterâ€
Some saying spotted by me on the back of our rickshaws
â€œWhen I grow up I will be a truckâ€
â€œ look at me but with loveâ€
â€œin search of the dollar (spelled dallar)â€
â€œPass me or take the noiseâ€
(Published in the Oct 2007 Issue of AAGAHEE with “The News”)