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  • Writer's pictureShefali Poojary

A Salute to the Rickshawala

Bone marrow suppression - We heard it first when the doctors at DY Patil hospital told us. By then my mother was admitted for two days and they had run a variety of tests. We were unaware of this extreme side effect when I was transferring her from Ajjarkad, a government hospital in Udupi to DY Patil a private hospital in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. The rains were consummate like they were meant to be towards the end of June in Mumbai. The liquid lashes mercilessly whipped the umbrellas and the mobile aircraft ramp. My wheelchair-bound mother whose arthritic bones sucked up the slightest amount of cold and sent a chill that lingered on every part of her body was unaffected. The marrow in her bones had stopped producing red blood cells. She could not feel the cold that had me in goose bumps.

I saw people surrender to the rain as the strongest of their parasols were upturned by the bellowing wind. The passengers were soaked in the two minute duration that took them to walk from the ramp to the terminal. I noticed that the flight attendants had used a heavy duty blue plastic garbage bag to cover their seats near the exit. I borrowed one, split the side and the bottom and covered my mother with it tucking it under her feet and around her body. One of the ground crew members pushed her wheelchair while I struggled to hold the umbrella to protect her head. She was the lightest she had been in thirty years. I picked up our luggage floating alone on the conveyor belt. Since people in wheelchairs alighted at the end, everyone else had picked up their baggage.

On reaching the exit gate we saw a long line of passengers waiting for their cars or waiting to get a cab. Most of the cars and cabs were stuck somewhere around the airport in traffic jams. I saw passengers who had exited the plane earlier waiting at the back of this line for a cab. I wandered around the exit confused and a little helpless wondering, how do I make this thirty-kilometre journey with my mother who was tired, frail and in pain? I thought of taking her in a rickshaw and immediately refuted the idea in mind. Even if a rickshaw was available, could she travel in a rickshaw? I decided to check with her after a few minutes of trying to get a cab in vain. I found out that I had completely underestimated the spirit of this woman who was a personification of resilience.

I asked her, “No cabs are available. Should we take the rickshaw?

She looked at me answered unwaveringly, “Yes.”

“Will you be able to sit. It will take us about two hours.”

The woman who could not sit up in the hospital for more than five minutes and had complained about pain in her legs during the one and half hour long flight confidently said, “Yes, Let’s go.”

My brother in law, Akshay, who was supposed to pick us up in the cab could not find one and had taken a rickshaw. After a conversation with me, he asked his rickshawala if he could take us to the hospital in Nerul after the airport. The rickshawala agreed. The ground staff helped me till the rickshaw arrived. Akshay pushed inside so that we could secure my mother in between us. My mother mounted the rickshaw overcoming the pain in her legs, the stiffness of her joints, still wrapped in the blue garbage bag. Before I sat next to her, she inquired in her delirious state, about my purse and our luggage. Once I assured her that they were safely in our possession, she laid her head on Akshay’s shoulder. She moved only to answer in monosyllables few questions I asked her during the course of our travel. So, began our journey to the hospital in a rickshaw. This, however, is not our story. Neither her nor mine. This is the story of the rickshawala who rode with all his might his three-wheeled chariot and reached us to the hospital on a day when the rains had had the better of all the available modes of transport.

We rode into the night at the speed of sixty for a few seconds, spraying the water accumulated on the uneven streets on other vehicles, the footpath and sometimes the pedestrians. The moment we reached the Western Express highway, we were met with the massive slow-moving herd of metal. I was sure that it would take us three hours to reach the hospital even with the rain subsiding. My mother by then looked like she had passed out. Never before had her body felt so frigid. I nudged her to ask if she was feeling cold, if she was alright. She managed a faint - “Ha” with a nod and went back to her restful state. It is then that I noticed that the stagnant traffic had not stopped our rickshaw.

Our rickshawala knew this city like the back of his hand. He knew every turn, every speed breaker and every pothole. More than us, he was on a mission to bring us to our destination. He navigated gaps between vehicles with the visual-spatial intelligence of a seasoned architect. He changed lanes with the fluidity of a serpent chasing after its prey. I was certain that our rickshaw will hit or get hit by another vehicle and we will either end up in a fight or all of us together in the hospital. How wrong was I! He directed his rickshaw like a conductor conducts an orchestra with a baton. He stopped within an inch behind a motorbike. He missed being brushed by the side of a truck by the skin of his teeth. He moved past Swifts, Xcents and Ertigas by overtaking them from the left side and the right. He challenged the authorities of the tempos and the trucks with his non-stop honking. I was surprised to witness that the honking, although subdued due to the higher decibels of vehicular noise and the rain, compelled the drivers of the trucks and tempos to make space for this proud black and yellow auto.

His skill with the rickshaw enabled us to reach the Santacruz Chembur link road where we were stuck behind a bus. The beeping of the horn that had helped earlier proved unsuccessful in this situation. We were so close to the bus that there was no room for us to move to in any direction. Just when I thought that the rickshawala had been defeat by the BEST bus, he stepped out into the rain. He asked the commuters around him, who were driving cars and riding motorbikes, to move back to allow him room to steer his rickshaw. Some cribbed, some yelled, some willingly made way but they all moved. This underdog had manoeuvered a path where there was none. Suddenly, we were on the footpath with the motorbikes, way ahead of the bus. And from then on there was no looking back. We sped on regular roads. Our tyre sank gently into potholes so deep that I felt like we were defying gravity. At one point on the Mumbai highway near Govandi, we beat the traffic by driving through the heavily waterlogged service road. The water splashed against the flapping blinds preventing us passengers from getting drenched. The rickshaw engine duplicated the resolve of the rickshawala to complete the pursuit assigned to it.

He glided past nauseating garbage trucks and transporter vans that could have had us flipping and crashing on the side of the road with a flick. His tiny three-wheeler jeered at the wrath of the rains. Once we had crossed the old Vashi bridge, within minutes we passed Vashi, Sanpada and Jui Nagar. We reached the hospital in Nerul in an hour and forty minutes. A nearly impossible task considering the weather and traffic conditions which was accomplished by the ‘Betaaj Baadshah’, the uncrowned emperor of the Mumbai streets, the rickshawala.

As my mother stumbled on to another wheelchair with the help of our relatives who were present to receive her, I handed him the money and asked for his name. “Vikas,” he said. “I’ll write about you, Vikasji,” I said before I turned my back to him to enter the hospital while he set off on another journey to explore his sense of adventure and claim his path as a champion.

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