Bishnupur, 2011 – We like to walk when we’re on an explore. But this time it was late, we were tired and wanted to get back to our hotel. So we flagged down a man on a bicycle rickshaw. The road back had a slight upward incline, whose angle increased as we rode. Half way, the driver was really struggling and got off the bike to push. I felt horrible and wanted to get off to ease his burden. Alan said that that would insult him and that we should simply stay on. I felt like a big fat American. I was relieved when we finally reached our hotel. We gave him a handsome tip, but that did nothing to assuage my guilt – actually it may have made it worse – now I felt like a big fat rich American. We didn’t ride on a rickshaw for the rest of the trip, which is bad. If everyone would feel this way, rickshaw drivers would be out of a job and would not be able to feed their families.
Kolkata, 2013 – A friend told us a story about a rickshaw driver he knew who was from a village outside the city. He saw his family only about every 2 months. At night, he slept curled up in his rickshaw; he bathed and ate in the street. He saved every rupee. Once, the driver revealed to our friend that he had tens of thousands of rupees under his seat. He uses this money he said, to put his children through private school.
Last month, in our neighborhood, I saw a barefoot rickshaw driver with two well-dressed children as passengers. The boy was sucking on a lollypop. The girl was holding a doll. They were dressed in British-type-blue-blazer school outfits. The scene was Felliniesque. I was totally perplexed, and pretty outraged – who are those children and why aren’t they walking? Then I remembered my friend’s story. Perhaps they are his children? One never knows, does one?
Santinineken, December 31, 2013 – This a beautiful little town, just north of Kolkata, made famous by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It has a famous university and few paved roads. The major mode of transportation is the bicycle rickshaw – we had no choice. I had to swallow my pride and jump on. I can’t help it – I find it humiliating, especially when the driver struggles with an uphill path, or a road full of deep ruts.
I don’t like to be seen as “the master.” Even after 25+ years of having a monthly cleaning lady back home in Chicago, I feel somewhat guilty – why can’t I clean up my own dirt? When we were first looking for someone to help clean our house, a friend recommended an African-American woman. I felt horrible – I couldn’t do it – I didn’t ask her to come back despite the fact that she did a fine job. There’s too much history in America between master/slave, and I felt like “the master,” albeit my origins are in Central Europe, not America. Ever since, we’ve had Polish cleaning ladies. I’m still uncomfortable, but the guilt is manageable.
In India housekeepers are called maids or servants. We have Tapoti, a woman who comes in for a few hours a day, cooks, cleans and does laundry. Alan convinced me it was OK–not only an opportunity for us, but we would also be adding to the local economy, almost an obligation.
I still find myself cleaning up sometime. Once I was cleaning off the breakfast table, bringing dishes to the sink. She stopped me, said “no,” and waved me away. Did I insult her? Was I doing her job?
Kolkata airport, January, 2014 – I walked into the new modern bathroom at the airport. All the stalls were occupied except two. The woman in front of me walked into the empty one, then walked out and went into the other one. I assumed there was something wrong, so I waited, but the attendant motioned me in. I looked inside and found that there was no toilet paper. I said so to the attendant. She then went inside, took a roll that was sitting on a ledge, out of my view, unrolled a length and wiped the seat. She then motioned me in. “No,” I said, “I thought there was no paper, see?” and pointed to the empty spool. She didn’t understand. I felt terrible about the misunderstanding and brooded over the misinterpretation for hours.
I keep wanting to get off the rickshaw.