Riding a cycle rickshaw on the streets of Chennai

I am an oddball guy who loves to do quirky things. Going against the grain is not unnatural to me and many times the things I do seem Quixotic to others. Using a cycle rickshaw as a means of transport falls very much within that ambit. Yes, I have lived in the US for several years and yes, I have driven a variety of cars at a variety of speeds over there. So it may be amusing for someone to know that on my Chennai trips, I would use an old and slow form of public transport – the “cycle rickshaw” to get to some place within Chennai whenever I felt like it. But that is precisely what I have done in the past and continue to do and while not having any need to justify it to anyone, I still want to share my reasons for using what people regard as a 20th century relic in this dizzying age of information technology, jet setting and space travel.

One of the many things that symbolized the old Madras was its ubiquitous cycle rickshaws – trusted means of transport for a previous generation. The humble hand-pulled rickshaw which later gave way to the more humane cycle rickshaw rode the streets of Madras like a colossus until the more mechanized “auto” took over that role. The legendary Thamizh hero of yesteryears – MGR did the role of a “rickshawkaaran” (in a movie of the same title) and the rickshaw had been featured in several Kollywood films to show how much it was a part of the social fabric in those days.

The last of the romanticism with that mode of transport died with the movies of the 80s, with other personal travel icons like bikes and cars taking center-stage both in films and in the real lives of people. Today one would be hard-pressed to find even middle-aged “upwardly mobile” people traveling in a cycle-rickshaw, leave alone a guy or gal of this generation, who would much rather be dead than be seen riding one. So, why do I do it?

Simply because I see nothing wrong with that and I also get to massage my ego a little bit in that:

1. I am helping my friendly, neighborhood rickshawkaaran to earn a living and support his family (where my frequent use of his services helps him put his son in school and gets the boy out of becoming another rickshawkaaran) since the man currently has no other employable skills in any case.
2. I am contributing in my own small way to lessening the pollution on the environment (what motorized vehicle can beat the emissions of a cycle rickshaw? :-)).
3. I am helping my country reduce its dependence on oil imports which are anyway done in less-than-desirable political and economic circumstances, accompanied by some international arm-twisting in other areas.

Some people may think I am tacitly encouraging manual labor for transport when mechanized alternate means are available, with some lurking suspicion on their part that I am probably trying to cut corners in my travel expenses by being an exploitative low-wage payer for services rendered. For them, I would like to say that I pay either the same fare basis or in many cases, more to the cycle rickshaw guy for the same distance than I would pay an auto simply because I believe that labor has to be adequately compensated and we have grown to treat that cheaply in India (where we always have material costs overriding the human one). In any case, I rest easy with the thought that in a day and age when “the old and the slow” are increasingly being marginalized (metaphorically speaking and applying that to several ills of modern society), I am still able to use such “uncool” things and derive economic value out of them, thus directly helping those who depend on such services with a dwindling demand, for their livelihood.

On the streets of Chennai, if you ever get to see a guy in a rickshaw wearing glasses and looking like he is enjoying life on the slow lane, you know it is me :-).

10 Comments so far

  1. Venkat (unregistered) on September 12th, 2006 @ 1:45 pm

    Seriously, whats your point ? Are you actually suggesting that you’re doing somebody a favour by driving in auto rickshaws ?

    or are you suggesting driving an autorickshaw after driving cars in the US is condescending and therefore a sign of ur magnanimity!

    eitherways.., the whole entry sounds dumb..

  2. thennavan (unregistered) on September 12th, 2006 @ 3:23 pm

    Venkat, thanks for taking the time to write a comment but you have started off with the wrong term in the first place (this is about the manual cycle rickshaw as opposed to the mechanized auto rickshaw). This is about what “I” feel on riding cycle rickshaws in Chennai and I guess that takes care of your first question. If you read thru my post with my disclaimer firmly in place, the second question is also moot. Regarding the last, what else can I say except that it flows from the previous and thus not at all necessary if you accept my answers to the other two :-).

  3. venkat (unregistered) on September 12th, 2006 @ 5:34 pm

    damn! dunno why I said Auto Rickshaws.., Rickshaws na Auto Rickshaws dan thalele varudu

    I beleive the background to your entry has potential to mislead.., thanks for the clarification, no offence intended.

  4. phantom363 (unregistered) on September 13th, 2006 @ 6:38 pm

    cool stuff thennavan. i too have done so on times when i visit chennai from my home in canada. cycle rickshaws are cool. hopefully as we progress, the status of the cycle rickshaw will go higher, and it becomes a tourist attraction!

    it is not so outlandish as it sounds. here in toronto, kairickshaws are a tourist attractions. the pullers are often young, white good lucking studs. their clients are usually tourist blacks who get a thrill of reversing roles. and young chicks, always game for some fun with the opposite sex, :)

    go for it. i guess it left unsaid, that you do not bargain the wages, and give him a little extra all the time. :)

  5. thennavan (unregistered) on September 15th, 2006 @ 1:53 am

    Venkat, thanks for the follow-up comment. Regarding your last line, none taken :-).

    Phantom, I guess what you say about the novelty and attractiveness abroad about the rickshaw largely holds true and eventually the romanticism of riding it may be reactivated in a couple of generations in India too down the line (by which time the last of the rickshaws would have gone out of circulation) :-).

  6. suppamani (unregistered) on September 17th, 2006 @ 12:17 am

    On coming to power the Dravidian rule, on the birth day of our GREAT Kalaignar, all the hand pulling rikshaws are replaced with free Cycle Rikshaws as a birthday gift to the handpulling rikshaw wallas in 1970 or ’71

  7. thennavan (unregistered) on September 17th, 2006 @ 2:08 am

    Suppamani, neenga enna DMK-vaa? :-)

  8. suppamani (unregistered) on September 17th, 2006 @ 6:01 pm

    Dear Thennavan,
    It is not the question of I belong to DMK or ADMK or PMK or COMMUNIST or a Tamilan or Keralite or Canadiga – To myself I feel as an Indian only.
    for your doubt of when the Rikshwa withdrqwn only I wanted to clarify somethihng from my memory; by the by may I know to which party you belong .

  9. thennavan (unregistered) on September 18th, 2006 @ 11:30 pm

    Suppamani, “endha katchi namma katchi, namma katchi kaaman katchi” :-)

  10. Mahesh Lokhande (unregistered) on September 25th, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

    hey what’s this about! whats the point of this write out? I am from chennai btw, dont be misled by my maharashtrian sounding name, yes i am one, but also have been born and brought up there.
    dont see y bother some-un with a long write up man!

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