Pedal Power and Metro Rail: the Great Integrators of the Indian Populace


A college student and a newlywed in the Metro

A college student and a newlywed in the Delhi Metro

By Jawahar Malhotra
NEW DELHI, India: You have to admire the fortitude of the cycle rickshaw drivers upon whose leg power, in all sorts of weather, Indian cities and their economies have prospered for decades. They have ferried people and materials short distances – upto 3 or 4 kilometers depending on the stamina of the driver – and provide a needed and affordable means of transportation. Some transport a bunch of tiny tykes to and fro from their schools, others add a cart to the back and lug much larger loads across town. The basic frame of the rickshaw hasn’t changed and they are ubiquitous, though each succeeding driver has run his machine for a few years before it has conquered his health and physique. Each year it seems their rates go up by 50 per cent, their informal network spreads the message of rate hikes across the city, and since they do not have meters, the price they quote for a ride is an estimate that you can haggle over a little, but you get better at second guessing them in time.

A family transports wedding sarees in the Metro

A family transports wedding sarees in the Delhi Metro

The cycle rickshaw driver pedals all day for a living, going all over his part of town, forming little bonds and alliances that help him eke out a living that often requires living 10 to a room, or if times are tough, sleeping on his rickshaw, all in the hopes of sending money back home to the family in a far off village. Most come from the poverty stricken areas of the eastern states of Bihar and Orissa and leave behind families to work in the large cities, often for years, while their wives grow distant and children grow up without knowing their them except through a short once a year visit to the ancestral village.

Boy meets girl in the Metro

Boy meets girl in the Delhi Metro

Ashok Kumar Rathord stopped me at a bank counter and without shame or hesitation, but with timid respect asked me to help him fill out the deposit slip to put Rs. 10,000 into his account. A skinny, dark skinned young man with the grimy slacks and shirt of a day laborer, he told me his cell number in Hindi numerals to put down on the slip, and adding “Sirji, rickshaw chalata hoon, to hum ne ghar pasise bhejne hain, na” (Sir, I drive a rickshaw, so we have to send money back home, you see).

In the past two years, these cycle rickshaw wallahs are being threatened by a new predator – the battery operated rickshaw, a cross between a golf cart and the cycle and scooter rickshaws. Rakesh, with a cap to shield his eyes – he could not remember his age, but his crinkled face made him look forty – said he was much easier to drive these. “Kharcha toh hai Sir, humain doh sauh roopayia to din ka dena hota hai malik ko aur uppar se satar roopayia lagta hai bijli ki charge ke liya” (Sure, it is expensive, Sir, we have to give 200 rupees per day to the owner and on top of that another 70 rupees for the electric charge), but the rates are the same, about ten rupees per 500 meters. But the battery powered ones can go further – about 100 km a day and can carry upto five people. Many drivers pick up passengers along the way and add to their route’s total revenue.

Hassling a Japanese tourist in the Metro

Hassling a Japanese tourist in the Delhi Metro

These modified, low cost versions of Filipino Jeepney’s – and their other minivan counterparts that ply a set route – are the great integrators of the Indian populace, along with the much vaunted Metro rail system, bringing together the middle class with the down trodden and the rural; the school and college students with the young and older professionals; the laborers and the house maids with the housewives and retired folks; the ignorant young men who assist in tiny shops with the shop keepers and small kiosk owners.

As I sat in a battery rickshaw on my way to Nizamuddin Railway Station to catch my 4:55 pm First Class Sleeper to Mumbai, I haggled with the driver who beckoned me with a price of forty rupees. “Kya” (What)? I said incredously. “Acha, acha, tees de dena” (Fine, fine, give thirty), he came down and I got in with my three bags, across from a young woman with a pearl necklace and sky blue salwar-kameez and her companion, a man in a striped shirt and impossibly pale brown hair, who paid her way, who were chatting office gossip. A ways down, the driver spied a stocky young man with greased black hair, a backpack and a square watch who got on and sat on the bench next to the him, quoting him thirty rupees for the same ride to the station. The couple got off, the young man moved into the seat I moved from and a short while later a young dehati (village) woman in pink salwar-kameez and a young boy in tow got on – she sat next to me and told the boy “pakad ke rehena” (hold on tight) as he sat next to the driver.

In the Metro rail, which carries an estimated 2.5 million passengers every day, the mingling of different segments of society are routine and fashions, mannerisms and behavior is molded by osmosis. Since its inception, there has been an emphasis on giving your seats to the elderly, disabled or women and most follow this simple courtesy, and should they forget, then a tap on the shoulder and an admonishment from a fellow passenger serves as a reminder to do so. School kids in uniforms and blazers, others in casual clothes, college students with backpacks and young adults are always plugged in to their phones – more and more are Smartphones – with the thin, long wires leading to earbuds and for those who have lost power, there are plugs to charge their batteries.

The same group leads the charge in fashions, with most women favoring the tight, skinny pants or colorful leggings that are the current rage from Istanbul to Manila, with short tops or kurtis and the men in low-cut skinny jeans and tight shirts, usually with rolled-up sleeves, though some with better physiques sport the Star Trek look of Captain Kirk with tight pants and tight full sleeved top, a style that many predict will rule the future generations. On one morning, Bikram, who prefers to go by Biki, stood at the connecting slider between carriages, hair brushed high and back, past his neckline, a two-day dark stubble on his face, aviator sunglasses on and keeping pace with the music in his ears with his fingers tapping against his jeans-clad legs, all the way to his stop. College kids returning from classes huddled noisily together, speaking excitedly in Hindi about their day and joked with one another. Young couples found refuge in a corner, or a seat for two, to share their tenderness’s and flirt, some girls using beguiling looks and words to make endearing demands of their sweethearts, as the young men tried to put up a chivalrous front and their best debonair and fashionable airs.

A family of peasants joins in from a platform in the tail end of the Yellow Line; five adults and four little kids, two in their laps, and I nudge the young office boys to give up their seats for them. Rather than let the older man with bad, stained teeth, a large white moustache-less beard, purple lungi and soiled white kurta sit, the two excited short women jumped on the seats with three tykes between them and one at glued to the window. The younger man in pants and a green shirt sat on his bag on the floor – hanging onto a tiny boy – obviously settled in the city and excitedly, in Orissi spoke loudly to the others, as if explaining the ride in the Metro, while his wife, in a blazing red dupatta with the silver brocaded border across her head and behind the ears like a frame, stood by, adding to the description.

On another line, as the doors opened and the incoming jostled for space, a young woman in a salwar-kameez rushed to drag in eight huge white bags bulging with boxes of sarees, and helped the middle-aged man and woman who passed her even more bags, emblazoned with the name of the store, Arun, in Hindi, with “No Return. No Exchange. No Guarantee of Cloth, Color and Zari” in English printed prominently below its name. The sale obviously had to be final, apparently in preparation of a wedding, and the bags took up the space around the center post.

Young newlywed women in brilliantly colored outfits and with shiny, sequined, colorful bangles worn from their wrists to the elbows – and some with rings on each toe – ride the Metro, sharing space and seats with the college kids who pay them no attention.
On most of the Metro rides, there are very few foreign faces – and mine got its share of stares – other than the rare students from Africa, notably Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana, who travel to the western suburbs. More get on near the New Delhi Railway Station platform and some dare to dive into the heavily traveled central Rajiv Chowk junction which is teeming with people at most hours. A few venture further out to the see the sights, but for the most part, the foreign faces congregate comfortably in the southern satellite city of Gurgaon at the numerous BPO and IT companies nestled there.
On one morning, as the carriages were still fairly empty, two young men were badgering a young Japanese tourist, who they had apparently accosted. They spoke in accented English to him, trying to impress with their knowledge of Japan, Sumo wrestling and other places and then asked about his opinion of Indian girls and where he wanted to go, all loud enough for the rest of the wagon to hear. I interjected, “Oye, kuan satate ho bachare ko” (Hey, why are you hazzling the poor guy)? They just chuckled at the fun they were having. Finally a man across from them told them to stop confusing the tourist, and the young man in the white shirt erupted against him, telling him in the offensive impolite tense to mind his own business. “Tera kya lagta hai? Tu meri baat mein dakhle na de, sumje” (What is it to you? Don’t you meddle in my business, you get it)? An older man with a stern voice admonished the white shirt and his skinny cohort to stop, that this was not the impression to give tourist and that he would call the security. The white shirt at first shot back at him, then recoiled, sat down and at the next stop, sensing that fun time was over, got off with his skinny friend in tow.

On most rides, Metro or rickshaw, passengers never make eye contact or never exchange a word with strangers. So imagine my surprise when the man in the dark grey safari suit to my right suddenly turned to me and asked, “Yeh kya likha hai? Aap purd sakhte hai – bohot bariq hai” (What’s written here? Can you read it – its such small type). Sure enough it was, so I told him I’d take a picture on my iPhone and blow it up. “Haan, yeh ache idea hai” (Yes, that’s a good idea), he exclaimed. I did and we could read that the roll of candy he was holding was made by Silvassa, an Italian company and he offered me and his older companion a piece, then went on to explain how the candy was made, as he had seen it on the Discovery Channel, which he watched almost religiously every night along with the news.

He then related other episodes which showed how the tiny country of Denmark made so much cheese that it exported it worldwide and how another farmer – a Sikh in the Punjab – charged thousands of rupees to allow his prize bull to inseminate cows so that they would produce calves which would give huge quantities of milk. “I have watched Discovery Channel for the past twenty years”, he said, as he got up to take his stop., and said “Challo toh” (Okay then), with a slight nod of his head. A first, I thought, making contact with an Indian who didn’t turn away and minded his own business.