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Rediff.com  » News » 'I get to see my wife only twice or thrice a year'

'I get to see my wife only twice or thrice a year'

Last updated on: September 11, 2015 10:15 IST

In a special series, Rediff.com looks at India through the lives of her people.

Today: Tapeshwar Ram, who has hand-pulled a rickshaw on the streets of Kolkata for 30 years. He works 7 days a week and plans to call it a day soon -- and that's when he plans to take his wife for her first-ever holiday.

 Tapeshwar Ram

IMAGE: Tapeshwar Ram arrived in Kolkata 30 years ago with Rs 8,000. He bought his first rickshaw, a second hand one, for Rs 12,000. Photograph: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar

The complete coverageI landed in this city on a hot summer day with Rs 8,000 and a heart full of dreams.

My uncle's friend took me to a local dealer of rickshaws and I chose a second hand rickshaw for Rs 12,000.

While I paid Rs 8,000 at once, the rest of the money I paid in installments from my earnings.

After a few years, I bought a new rickshaw for Rs 18,000.

I found it really tough to ply a rickshaw.

It hurt a lot.

After ferrying people on the streets of Kolkata throughout the day, my hands and ribs pained so much that I couldn't sleep at night.

With time, I got used to the hardship. I could comfortably carry two adults and walk as much as 10 to 15 km a day non-stop.

Now that age is catching up with me, I have been forced to cut down on the speed and number of daily trips.

Earlier, my day started at 5 am and ended at 11 pm. Now, I park my rickshaw by 9 pm.

To cut down on my daily expenses, I take two meals a day.

I set out in the morning after having a jug of sattu sharbat (a drink made of gram powder). It's easy to digest and keeps me full for long.

I carry with me a packet of muri (puffed rice) and water for occasional breaks in the afternoon.

In the evening, I make three rotis and vegetables for dinner.

I work seven days a week unless I am sick.

Tapeshwar Ram

IMAGE: He works seven days a week unless he is sick and eats only two meals a day to cut his daily expenses. Photograph Abhiroop Dey Sarkar

 On days when I don't feel like working I take a bus to Howrah station and sit by the Hooghly for hours.

I stay in a garage with five other rickshaw-puller friends in a multi-storied building.

We share a rent of Rs 3,000 a month among ourselves.

Having worked as a rickshaw-puller for so many years, I have developed arthritis and hypertension.

I have seen a doctor who advised against working more than 12 hours a day.

I wish I could listen to him.

I still need to earn a substantial amount of money as I plan to return to my native village in Jharkhand.

I hear that babus in Kolkata and other cities retire at the age of 60. I am 58 now.

Till then, I would have to ply my rickshaw around the streets of Kolkata and build my savings.

With my hard-earned money, I have married two of my daughters and helped two of my elder sons finish their graduation.

I still send a large part of my income to my youngest son who is doing his graduation.

My elder sons have started working in local factories and contribute to the family's expenses.

My wife takes care of my village home. We have stayed apart for years and get to see each other only twice or thrice a year.

I go home during Holi and in the winter.

For the last few years, I have been going home in the summer because business is lean at that time.

hand pulled rickshaws in Kokatta

IMAGE: The government plans to replace hand-drawn rickshaws with battery operated ones. Photograph: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar

 When I started my journey on the streets of Kolkata in the 1980s, I used to earn Rs 5,000, Rs 6,000 a month. It gradually went up to as much as Rs 12,000 a month especially during the monsoon and festivals.

I also started having some regular contracts with local factories and godowns who hired my rickshaw regularly for 10, 12 days a month.

At present, I earn Rs 8,000, Rs 9,000 a month on an average.

On a busy day, I get as many as 50 passengers whereas when luck is not on my side, the number can come down to 10.

In the summer months when business isn't good, I take up part time jobs in factories, godowns and at cold storages to make up for the loss.

Earlier, it was easy to get these jobs, but now with factories and workshops closing down, such odd jobs are hard to come by.

Video: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar

But if summer threatens joblessness, monsoon clouds bring much joy.

Hand-pulled rickshaws are in great demand among the residents of central and north Kolkata where water-logging is a regular menace.

From July-August till Durga Puja, business gets brisk and I manage to earn Rs 2,000, Rs 3,000 extra per month this time of the year, thanks to the shopaholics.

There is no limit to the number of people that I ferry during these months.

My customers typically consist of two types -- the kind and the unkind.

The former are generous enough to pay a tip of Rs 50 to Rs 100 while the latter prefer to haggle to the last breath.

On one occasion, I was so irritated with a woman (she was bargaining for more than 30 minutes) that I returned the entire fare with a rude parting note, "I don't take money from beggars."

But then there are good people as well.

There is a doctor, a regular customer whom I take to the fish market every Sunday -- he not only gives me Rs 100 as tip per trip, but also gets free medicines for me and my family back home.

Tapeshwar Ram

IMAGE: Among their regular passengers are elderly women going for their weekly visits to the temple. Photograph: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar

 With the West Bengal government keen on replacing hand-pulled rickshaws with battery operated ones (popularly known as e-rickshaws), I hear that factories have stopped manufacturing our kind of rickshaws.

I will never opt for these e-rickshwas.

I hear that each e-rickshaw costs about Rs 100,000. At this age, I don't want to invest such a huge amount.

Moreover, I have spent more than three decades pulling a rickshaw. Now, it's time for me to get some rest.

After retirement, I want to take my wife on a vacation to Delhi. She has never gone out of her home and deserves a grand holiday.

I like listening to FM radio.

Therefore, when my fellow rickshaw-pullers get anxious about the government's plan to phase out hand-pulled rickshaws, I stay unperturbed.

The old has to step aside making room for the new.

Though I do feel hand-pulled rickshaws accentuate the true heritage of old Kolkata, it has been tough for us in recent years with so many cars in this city.

We find it dangerous ferrying people amid heavy traffic.

Though modern people think hand-pulled rickshaws have lost their utility, we are in great demand during emergencies at night.

Ambulances and other vehicles are hardly available at night, especially in my part of the city, and if anyone falls sick, people call us for trips to the nearby hospital.

Tapeshwar Ram

IMAGE: There was a time Mr Ram could pull a rickshaw for 10, 15 kms non-stop, not any more. He wants to retire and return to his village in Jharkhand. Photograph: Abhiroop Dey Sarkar

 Our rickshaws are still in great demand among elderly women in north Kolkata who refuse to choose any other mode of transport for their weekly trips to the mandir (temple).

These women trust us a lot and once the puja gets over, tip as well and share the prasad.

I was listening to the radio news the other day.

I was dismayed to know that India scores pretty low on the global happiness index.

I have not studied much and don't have a proper understanding of the Constitution.

But I do know that it is the onus of any government to keep its people happy.

And on that count, India has failed miserably.

The West Bengal government wants to replace hand pulled rickshaws with e-rickshaws that would be more humane for the drivers.

Indrani Roy/Rediff.com met Mr Tapeshwar Ram on a rainy afternoon in Kolkata.

Indrani Roy / Rediff.com