“To C. R. Park,” I said to the old auto driver. I was waiting outside Hauz Khas village in Delhi looking for a way to get back to my apartment. But Ola cab’s servers were down. “80 rupees, madam?” the auto driver asked me, a trifle warily.
I hopped in and we sped off towards Chittaranjan Park. Had my father been alive, I would not have been allowed to gallivant in this old capital city on my own, not after the Delhi gang rape in 2012 that, in his view, only confirmed that Delhi was home to thugs, hooligans, dacoits, and murderers some of whom also happened to be politicians.
Contrary to my father’s beliefs, I found the people to be polite, hospitable and thoughtful. Still, Delhi didn’t put me at ease. In a ten-day trip to this sprawling capital once ruled by Mughal emperors, I saw affluence: gated homes with a fleet of luxury cars—one for every member of the household, as an Ola driver pointed out—western style malls, plush dining, diplomatic enclaves. I was troubled, however, by its other side. Penury speckled Delhi’s roads in the guise of beggars and throngs of load-bearing coolies all through town. En route to the terrace at Gharodia market on Khari Baoli, men crossed me on narrow stone stairs heaving sacks of almonds and spices on their backs. To me, the identifying quality of the coolie in India was haplessness.
The word “coolie” rose out of the term “koli,” the name of a community in India’s Gujarat whose members performed menial duties. In South India, I’ve often heard the word “kuli” used to refer to a hired servant. The word is believed to have some etymological link also with the Urdu “qul” which may have originated from the Turkish word for slave, also “qul.” In the history books I’d read, the life of a coolie was described as one of bondage and enslavement. When slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807, labor-intensive industries, such as cotton and sugar plantations, mines and railway construction in the colonies were left without a cheap source of manpower. Chinese and Indian indentured coolies began to fill the need.
In my personal dictionary of experiences, coolies were also the luggage porters in red uniforms at India’s railway stations. They guided us down railway platforms while balancing bags on their heads, shoulders and hands, their backs straight and proud as made their way through dizzying crowds. The sight had always made me feel guilty and uncomfortable: Their burdens were visible.
Delhi’s poverty too was visible, its loads many, its disparities so stark. It was dystopia depending on where I stood.
Ten feet beyond the filth and the mongrels and the inebriated men of Chandni Chowk station, lay the gleaming world of the Delhi metro, one of the best maintained that I had seen in the world. When I exited through the stiles back into the teeming city of 14 million, I was once again amid men hauling heavy loads down street corners.
And so there I was on many days, armed with Google and Google Maps, inside an auto-rickshaw in Delhi, being ferried around by young men from forgotten states who sought succor in the capital city where dreams could throb into life. On one of those cool evenings, five minutes before my auto was due to arrive at my apartment, something happened that made me wish my father were alive. This was a story that would put a glow in cheeks that saw utopia in India.
As we approached a sloping left turn onto a main road, the auto driver put out his left foot just so. He rested it on the back of the trailer that was being hand-pulled at the turn by the coolie on a cycle rickshaw. The man was now out of his seat and pulling the weight with all of his body. For a few minutes, my driver rode alongside the trailer pushing it with his foot just so the coolie would get a breather. We went over the hump together. The auto-driver took off his leg. I clapped. “The man was hauling tiles, madam,” my driver said, with a swift turn of his head.
“Yes, they must be very heavy,” I said. He nodded. Seconds later, I said, in English: “That was really kind of you.” The man laughed. “You know, madam, we’ve been born into this world as human beings. Old or rich, when we can offer a little help to someone, we must.” He paused to brake as a car swerved in front. “To such a man a little push is like being offered water when you’re dying of thirst.”
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.