India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
Carnbeg, Perthshire, Scotland
Ramanujam V. Raman, cub reporter, was taking his green Balmoral to get his chain repaired at the bicycle shop when someone stopped him. It was a mechanic from the garage, in an oily overall, carrying his lunch in a paper bag.
“I’ll see to that chain for you, pal.”
R.V. had seen the man on his bike quite often, and they would acknowledge each other as fellow pedal-pushers.
At the Clock Garage they got talking. Shuggy, as he introduced himself, was amazed to hear about the number of cycles clogging the streets of R.V.’s hometown, Mahbapur—and fascinated when he told him about the cycle-rickshaws. R.V. drew one for him on a page of his spiral notepad.
“Hey, can I keep this?”
“If you really want it. Of course you can.”
“We’ll do an exchange?”
“Your drawing for the bike chain.”
“But I have to pay you.”
Shuggy wouldn’t hear of it. R.V. thanked him, thanked him again, and took his bike. From the entrance to the forecourt he looked back and saw Shuggy staring at the drawing.
More questions followed over the next few weeks, about the structure of those machines: Shuggy wanted to know their dimensions, how they were put together, types of wheel, suspension, technical queries which R.V. couldn’t answer with any degree of authority, although he tried. It was easier describing what it was like to travel in a bike-drawn jinricksha, remembering the different kinds of upholstery and fringed canopies.
* * * *
For a couple of months he didn’t see the mechanic to talk to, although they still waved as they passed on the streets. But even those encounters were fewer, and confined to the mornings.
One day at the newspaper office someone called upstairs.
“Taxi for R.V.!”
“No, not for me. I didn’t order a taxi.”
“Definitely for you. And it’s waiting.”
Outside the building R.V. found Shuggy, in summer shorts and t-shirt, straddling the saddle of a cycle-rickshaw drawn up at the kerb.
R.V.’s jaw dropped.
“What d’you think?”
“I … I’m amazed.”
The passenger seat had a tartan cover. An orange hood, with green tassles. As vividly coloured as any Indian rickshaw.
“Dream machine!” Shuggy laughed.
“Your transport of delight.”
“You can be my first customer.”
As they passed along the streets, Shuggy talked over his shoulder.
He explained. He had found some photographs of rickshaws in the library. A mate of his worked at a foundry in Perth, and they had worked out the design between them, and got the work on it done at the weekends. His mate’s girlfriend had helped with the problematic passenger seat (the cover was plastic, with a choice of fabrics on top for variety). Someone else had assembled a hood for them, which needed to be waterproof and to pull up like a pram hood; that had been the big headache, getting it to go up and down smoothly without the supports buckling.
But it was a very passable version of a rickshaw to R.V.’s eye.
“All the soldering underneath is good,” Shuggy told him. “I know I’m not going to leave my passengers standing anywhere.”
Now he had given up his job at the garage, he said. This was to be his job henceforth.
Without prompting he called out the rickshavalas’ warning to pedestrians ahead, just as his colleagues still did in Mahbapur.
“bachke, bachao, khabardar.”
* * * *
Shuggy did well. In 1978 such vehicles were a rarity in Great Britain. Most folk had never seen one. His passengers weren’t just visitors but also locals who cottoned on that the rickshaw could get to places where motor taxis weren’t allowed, through the narrow wynds and vennels—back-lanes—of the Old Town.
Conventional taxis didn’t quite suit the Presbyterian mentality of Carnbeg natives: not (as yet) on environmental grounds, but because of the expense and their ostentation. Shuggy wildly undercut the car drivers, by at least 60 percent. Americans staying at the hotels thought the rickshaw was the wackiest thing (or the cutest), and Shuggy realized he could probably operate two or three rickshaws in the high season, a proper telephone-to-order service, and not need to go touting for any more business.
Meanwhile, on his single rickshaw, they were long days. Even without a phone (what was the point, he would have been out of contact with base), he didn’t need to keep an eye open for a fare: he just drew up somewhere reasonably central, and waited for customers to alight on him. Nobody could miss the vehicle with its bright orange hood. (Only a whinnying horse instead of a cycle at the front might have made him any more visible.) He had been building up his muscles and his stamina with the hard work; he might have benefited from more rest periods (for that he took himself somewhere quieter, pedalling off to the riverbank), but because his journeys tended to be short he opted to keep in motion—and to fill his money belt with his modest takings.
“You could raise your charges,” R.V. suggested, anticipating the response he would get.
“I should have made them higher at the beginning in that case. But Carnbeg people have good memories, and they’ll say I’m profiteering. What difference does it make? I would still have more business than I can manage.”
“Don’t you need another rickshaw?”
“And a driver for it. And then that’ll turn me into a company, won’t it?”
When R.V. asked him, Shuggy confessed that he didn’t have a licence.
“There’s no point.”
He said that he realised the three competing taxi outfits—two in Carnbeg, one in Kinreevie—would do everything in their power to ensure he didn’t get a permit. Already, did his friend know, his tyres had been let down—not once, or twice, but three times.
* * * *
Then the authorities acted.
• He couldn’t operate a taxi service without a licence, and several objections had been lodged with the Council.
• Places at the ranks were fully accounted for.
• Even if he wasn’t using those, he did regularly pick up at his own selected spots—which meant he was flouting the regulations.
Shuggy put up a fight. His argument was that he didn’t park the vehicle, he was simply taking a breather as other cyclists did, and anyhow it wasn’t for long. (True enough in this respect: he seldom had to wait more than a few minutes before the next customer found him.) He tried to suggest that he was helping not to further pollute the Highlands air on which Carnbeg sold itself as a tourist destination, and so he was contributing to the general economy.
As he guessed, it was no use at all.
Kicked out of court.
R.V. took him off afterwards to the Clachan, then to the Howff, and both men drowned their sorrows.
* * * *
Shuggy disappeared from the streets. He got work, thanks to his mate at the foundry in Perth. Then he moved further off.
R.V. was sorry not to see him, pedalling the rickshaw and its passengers past bemused bystanders. He wanted to discuss his friend’s woes with him. After all he felt in part responsible for what had happened. Shuggy wouldn’t have known anything about the rickshaws of Mahbapur if he hadn’t mentioned them; and he must have made a very good case to get Shuggy so excited at the prospect.
R.V. had a sense of nature’s bloody methods of resolution, a species turning on one of its own: say, wild cats or hyenas ganging up against the solitary who goes it alone. He pitied the man instinctively.
* * * *
Two things happened. R.V. saw something, then he learned something.
Three months after the debacle with the Council, the transport of delight was reinstated: the vehicle in question was back on the streets, hood now turquoise and the seat garden-chintz, awaiting the public’s bidding. Resplendent across the yellow back panel, to face oncoming traffic, was the word RICKSHAW, writ very large in scrolled black print.
“Well,” R.V. ventured, “no one will have an excuse to forget what this is.”
“Excuse me …?”
“A rickshaw!” R.V. pointed to the word.
He thought it a foolhardy move on Shuggy’s part—but extremely courageous of him at the same time.
“No, that’s my name.”
“Your name? What d’you mean?”
“I’ve changed it. By deed pool. I’m not Shuggy any more.”
“What are you, then?”
“Richard Shaw. Contracted, naturally, to Rick.”
R.V. found himself looking into a gap-toothed smile.
“Smart move, huh?”
R.V. shrugged, smiled. He nodded his head.
“And now you’ve got a licence?” R.V. asked.
(Wasn’t that self-evident?)
“To drive about with,” R.V. said.
“Anyone who gets into my rickshaw is at liberty to make a donation to charity.”
“In the tin box thingy.”
“That’s the cat and dog home?”
“Run by those two lesb… “
Shuggy, or Richard Shaw, cut in.
“Yes, my sister and her friend.”
“Your sister?” Blood rushed to R.V.’s face. “Oh, I didn’t …”
“I’m living there now. You should come and see the place. You could write it up, couldn’t you?”
“I could. Certainly.”
“Or write about this cycle service I operate for my friends. Like to jump on board, R.V.?”
“Yes. All right.”
“The Days office, please.”
R.V. climbed up on to the step.
“I go on the principle, I’ll treat whoever I meet as my potential friend. Be nice to people, and most of them will be nice back to you.”
Shuggy, or Rick Shaw as he now was, rang his bell—and off they sped.
* * * *
R.V. did write his articles.
One was on the cat-and-dog sanctuary, which he visited. That was published, alongside two photographs (a sick moggy, an abandoned pooch) which might have drawn tears even from those conniving taxi drivers who had earlier put Shuggy out of business and were now—because he was in an easier, more elevated frame of mind—forgiven by him.
The other article concerned an eccentric vehicle to be seen currently in the streets and lanes of Carnbeg. At any minute of the day it was likely to contain one or two or three of the owner’s “friends,” sheltered beneath its fringed (and weather-sealed) turquoise canopy.
The ending of the article puzzled R.V. Where did he go with it? He was at a loss to know how to conclude, what his final paragraph and very last sentence should say. As he sat at his table in The Sheiling tea-room he felt he was waiting for the rickshaw to appear round the bend on the road, to a surprising but somehow apt apotheosis.
He waited for Shuggy to pass the window—a window misted with condensation, admittedly—but for some reason he didn’t come. He wondered, what if a lorry were now to turn the corner, and Shuggy— waving across at him as was his wont—should fail to notice in time and duly slammed into said pantechnicon …
Too obvious surely, if unlikely—and in very bad taste.
He thought again. This time he envisaged the rickshaw’s seat occupied by an unlikely pairing, the maharishi who’d been ensconced on one of the big estates ten years ago, now sitting beside the self-styled maharani of a few years later, who put herself up in a suite at the Sgian Palace Hotel and acted the role to perfection.
No? No, maybe not. The memory of those two infamous interlopers was too fresh for Carnbeg, and too embarrassing.
A tap fell on to his shoulder, and made R.V. jump.
“If you’re waiting to take the rickshaw back to work, sorry, I can’t oblige you.”
“Why not?” R.V. decided to play along. “Too busy now for your old friends?’
“I’ve decided to call it a day.”
“You’re off home now?’
Back to the pets’ sanctuary and his bed-sit in the house, he meant.
“No. I’m pulling out the plug. Bringing the curtain down.”
“End of show, finito.”
“Have the drivers been up to something again?”
“I could make a very nice living taking all my nice new friends round Carnbeg.”
“So why on earth …”
“Because I’ve made my point. There’s a moment to stop, when you’re winning. I did it, I achieved my victory. Better that people remember things like this.’
R.V. nodded. He could understand.
“Like that summer we had two years ago,” Shuggy said. “It goes on getting better in hindsight, nothing’ll ever beat that summer.”
R.V. continued nodding.
“The drivers,” Shuggy said, “couldn’t drive me out of business. You don’t keep a good man down.”
“In India, as your Mr. Somerset Maugham wrote, we talk about ‘the wheel of endless becoming.’ Your rickshaw has completed one full circle of the eternal cycle.”
“Now it’s funny you should say that, R.V., about India …”
* * * *
It transpired that Shuggy wanted to see proper rickshaws: so he was off to the Far East, pronto.
Before he left Carnbeg, R.V. gave him some addresses and contacts in Mahbapur and other places. He wished him well.
On Shuggy’s last day in Carnbeg, before his sister and her girlfriend rolled up to see him off, R.V. stood the man a drink at The Clachan. One, then two, for the road.
“The white settlers will miss you, Shuggy.”
“They’ll miss the cheap rides anyhow. And giving themselves airs and graces like the old days.”
“The Americans too.”
“Then they’ll all welcome me back if I return.”
“Your Hindu gods, they’ll know what’s fated to be.”
India had sent quite a lot Carnbeg’s way: the Raj Set—a few mysterious characters like the maharishi and the maharani—various bona fide princes and nizams in the time of the belle époque long ago—and a restaurant called The Hill Station in the 1950s which was well ahead of its time, employing the services of one Veneka, loyal housekeeper turned out on to the street by heartless relatives of her late employers and who by her own devices became the famous Tiffin-Maker of Carnbeg, plying her swift trade at the railway station as the trains waited …
All those Carnbeg legends.
Much less had gone in the other direction, from here to India. Now Shuggy—on his new passport, answering to the name of Richard Shaw—was bound for Mahbapur and whichever compass point he followed from there. It would be a long and winding road, in the words of the song; but, R.V. was sure, get to his journey’s end Shuggy would. He’d do it on the strength of his trusting character and, as another song put it (sort of), with a little help from the friends he made along the way.
Ronald Frame was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1953, and educated there and at Oxford. He is the author of 13 books of fiction.