I usually do not engage in a conversation with the Rickshaw walas. I have this thing that they may take me for a royal ride if I try to be too friendly with them. Although I actually pay them for doing exactly the same.
This time around though, while using the rick in Mumbai, just for the kicks I engaged in a conversation with the drivers.
The first time it was when I was going to Santacruz from Borivali. It was early morning traffic. As we started moving further south on link road the vehicles kept adding. I almost felt like that old Digjam ad of Shekhar Kapur who keeps collecting people on the way as he takes a walk to no-where (People who have not seen Doordarshan and are not familiar with those ads or were born post 1982, please don't bother).
The driver was in his mid 40s and was clearly upset with a whole lot of things around him. This was just a week into post Mumbai attack. His language started going down hill with each passing light (signal), as he used the choicest curse words for present day politicians. He reserved the greatest abuse for central government and specially for Gandhi family. He also threw up an interesting trivia during the course of the conversation (or more like a monologue). 'Tya Sonia bai ani tichya mulanwar apli Sarkar dar warshi ekshe wees koti karch kartey ...ani akhya janatey war keval deedshe koti"... - (The Indian Government spends about 120 crores for security upkeep of Gandhi family and about 150 crores for the rest of Indian population.)
I was amazed by his knowledge. I actually looked it up in Times of India. He was right on the money. The annual budget for Gandhi family's security is about 118 crores, just 32 crores less than the annual NSG budget for remaining 1 billion population.
Old Post on Bombay
The knowledge available at certain places in India always amazes me. Whether it's the pan tapri, the typical Ram Bharose restaurants or people like this rikshawala. They pack some punch in there.
As the conversation went in different directions covering a few more topics out there, it came to the touchy Raj Thackrey-Bihari subject. I asked him upfront what was his take on the recent violence in Mumbai and attacks on Bihar-UPites. He told me - (Roughly translated) "Saheb, u'll be amazed, but Raj Thackey was just one name. He was actually getting tactical support from lot of parties, including the ruling Congress party. The thing is Sir, we are all fed up with these bhayyas. They are breaking the back bone of the city by their constant lawlessness. They come here and do not assimilate into the society like rest of us. Instead, engage into Mafia-ism and Goonda-ism and have taken over acres of lands around the city forcefully. Most of slum lords are now bhayyas and we have to pay them to just to survive in our slums. Even the police is encouraging Raj T to clean up this mess. Our auto rickshaw union is particularly affected by their increasing domination'
Although I din't agree to his assessment, the point was, he was the true voice of Mumbai in some sense. A slum dweller and a daily wage earner. Whether he was right or wrong, elites like me, sitting at 13000 miles from Mumbai can debate endlessly. He wouldn't care less. That auto driver was not the only one who had held this opinion. I met some well read, educated folks in Mumbai who for some reason did not find Raj T to be on the wrong end.Aso
I did not push him too much on the topic but just tried to digest what he had in mind and let it go. It was interesting to get a ground view of the ground reality though. The guy was facing life every day and seeing from close quarters what was happening to him and his city. To know his mind and through his eyes was quite revealing.
********* end of Part 1 ****
By strange coincidence I had a Bihari Auto driver when I took a rik from Santacruz Airport to Borivali during my last week in India. I only came to know of his Bihari origin much later during our conversation.
The way we started conversation was quite interesting. After coming out of the airport I started looking for the airport designated auto rick stand. I went quite a distance but was still not able to locate the starting point. In between, as I kept walking, I found a few random folks who offered me a taxi/rick and wanted me to bypass the official line. To my disappointment lot of people did bypass the designated rickshaw line. The poor rickshawalas who were waiting in official line were clearly furious as some of these "shaanes" got to bypass them. I kept going till I finally found it. I asked the policeman managing the official line, why he was allowing those ricks to take people out of turn when the airport designated line starts here. He gave me a look that can at best be described as a 'what-an-idiot-i-am-for-asking-this-silly-question'. Soon my look turned into - 'what-were-u-thinkin'. The driver of my rick said to me - 'Chodo sahab, yaha aisa hi hai. Hum doh ghante say khade hai imandari say. Woh log, bade sahab log ko hafta deta hai isliye bina permission kay ghus jata hai'. (Leave it Sir, no point talking to the havaldar. I am waiting for 2 hrs in this official line..Those tramps.. they bribe the higher up folks and squeeze in out of turn)
As we talked more about this issue, he told he was from Bihar and his family still lives there. If given a chance he will rush back. He said, he tried to follow the line and law of the city as much as possible, but some day he may break loose. He too has to learn the tricks of the trade.
For me, what was important was my stereotyping of "a lawless Bihari" broke in one single stroke after conversation with him.
He was a hard working Indian, trying to make mends in an alien city. He was an economic refugee in the city. If he had a choice, he would not have left Bihar. But alas, his people, his own people screwed up big time. And he had to look for other options. Other states for survival. He wasn't mad at Raj Thackray as much as he was mad at his own politicians in Bihar who did not give him or his state a chance. Once one of the most prosperous states in the country was in shambles and was regrouping after about 30 years of spectacular mismanagement and corruption of the highest order. One of the iconic figure of corruption, currently being hailed in Corporate India as a management guru was his Chief Minister for 15 years. A period enough to bring it to the brink.
After speaking with both the drivers I figured that the poor is really the worst hit whether its Lalu or Raj Thackrey and their politics. Those two guys are pitted against each other while both Raj T and Lalu live in palatial terms. Lalu, who squeezed out so much from Bihar in 15 years of this awesome (mis) rule, has no calms about poor folks from his state having to work as poor laborers in distant Maharashtra,Gujarat,Punjab. He takes a stand completely opposed to the interest of his "own men" and Raj T, for all his fake machismo, acts only against poor and weak and unarmed bhayyas. If he was man enough, as he claims to be, he should have the guts to take on the war lords, the slum lords amongst the bhayyas. Beating up a handful of weak, unarmed men, hardly qualifies for bravado.
In a strange way, both the rickshaw guys represented real India, which was being led by a fake India. I couldn't get my hand around this. My only hope was to see Lalu and Raj T, being subjected to worst kind of poverty and torture some day.