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When we were children, my brother always wanted to ride the bus rather than the cycle rickshaw. He had nothing against rickshaws; it was just that he was obsessed with buses. Everything about a bus fascinated him; its red color, its conductor wearing a leather strap with tickets of various denominations and colors jutting out from under its tabs, its driver honking at passersby, its steel rod with the passengers dangling as it traversed the city, exuding fumes.
I wanted to take the bus for another reason; ever since I was a little girl, I felt guilty about sitting in a cycle rickshaw passively and being pulled by, not a machine, but a live human being. The socialist in me—even though at the time I hadn’t heard the word and didn’t know what it meant—was repelled by what such a gesture implied about the rider, namely idleness, and a desire to exploit those in the lower echelons of society. I also abhorred what it implied about the driver, namely servitude and victimization. Watching the grotesque green veins on the shins of the rickshawala, struggling to push pedals on a diet of bhakri and mirchi, made me cringe. There were no auto rickshaws in Nagpur back then, so that option was not available. So my brother and I insisted on a bus, until, one day, my father lost his temper.
I had pretty much avoided riding cycle rickshaws until a couple of years ago, when I was visiting my dying mother in India and had to run quick errands to the bank, the store, and the pharmacy. The auto rickshaw drivers at the corner had taken to drinking and quoting exorbitant prices so, one day, I reluctantly took the human-powered vehicle. The poor man waited while I conducted my transactions at the bank, and afterwards, turned around and brought me home.
“How is your mother doing?” he asked. I raised my eyebrows. My mother must be sick, he said, because he hadn’t seen her standing at the gate, peering down the road searching for the bhajiwali to come along.
Choking with tears, I told him that she had had a stroke and was ailing in bed. He asked me about my father, whom he used to take to the local post office at the round, about every month, to collect his government pension. No one had officially informed the rickshawala of my father’s passing, but he had deduced as much after not seeing him for all these years. I informed him of how my father had broken his hip and become somewhat immobile for the last few years of his life.
“I haven’t seen little baba in a while,” he said after a pause.
“Baba?” I wasn’t sure who he was talking about.
“The little baba, he must be grown by now,” he said. I realized he was talking of my nephew, who had long grown up and flown the nest and was now a hotshot with the carmaker Mahindra and Mahindra.
The rickshawala, it turned out, had known me before I had gone abroad; had watched me every time I came to visit; he had in fact known me all his life because he was the son of our maidservant.
And I hadn’t even recognized him. To me, he had been a faceless man, invisible except for his rickshaw. But he knew me and my family so well that he could have written their histories.
Something pulled at my heartstrings at this realization. The invisible rickshaw driver I had been avoiding all my life was a man who had been watching me as I went to school and college and then abroad. I had been a part of his life. Yet, in my political correctness, I had perhaps caused him greater harm by shunning him than I would have by simply hiring him and paying him twice the wage he expected.
From that day, as I walked the streets, I began to observe the rickshawalas with renewed interest. There they were, carrying up to eight small children dressed in spiffy uniforms to their schools, asking them to mind their daptars, and their dabbas, reminding them to eat lunch on time, even tending to their schoolyard injuries, on occasion. The rickshawala was not just a driver of a vehicle, he was a babysitter, a nurse, and a guardian, all combined in one. Generation after generation of parents implicitly trusted this invisible man, because he had never failed them.
India is full of such invisible people, I realized. The maidservants and the street cleaners, the peons and the laborers, the gardeners and the raddiwalas (sellers of used newspapers) whose lives we scarcely bothered to know. Where did this indifference come from? At work in California, the custodian who comes to empty my waste basket at the end of the day, gazes at the pictures of my sons, asking me questions about their day-to-day lives. But in India, a custodian would not start such chitchat; it would imply a familiarity he or she would not dare to adopt.
Is the long history of the caste system responsible for such difference in attitudes, I wondered. I realized that Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger is one of my favorite books precisely because it is about a faceless servant.
The day I talked to the rickshawala, I admired anew my late father, who, with his loyalty to Gandhi’s teachings, had always gone out of his way to help such folk. My mother on the other hand, had mistrusted the very woman who had come to bathe her and dress her in the last few months of her life.
The invisible man—and woman—are what keeps Indian ticking, I thought. Like Mother’s Day and Bhaubij, what if we created a day to pay homage to the invisible man (and woman)? Would such a day make up for centuries of oppression and indifference? Perhaps not, but it might help raise awareness about the divided society that is India.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com