Saturday, May 31, 2008

Urban Wars: Revenge of the cockroach

With growing economic independence, the urban landscape is being continually altered. This leads to an interesting subset of micro issues that add to the idiosyncrasies of living in a chaotic city.

Urban warriors awaken at the crack of dawn, preparing themselves for the struggle that lies ahead. They step forward with steely resolve to survive another day. The blue sky above bears witness to this haloed battleground where each individual is left to fend for oneself.
Darwin is redeemed everyday as in this battle only the fittest survive.

The sound of rubber grinding away at asphalt brings a new found hope to this bemused tribe. The open road provides enough traction for the common chariot to halt at a mild signal by the lone trooper, which is commonly agreed upon to be an indication of shared camaraderie.

But alas, the trooper is left waiting, staring into the horizon, longing for another chance. The sight of white smoke rings glowing at a distance bring with it new possibilities.

Travel travails

In Mumbai, an average person travels at least for one and a half hour using a broad spectrum of transport options to earn a livelihood. This dramatic scene fairly describes the plight of the urban trooper who is dependent on a rickshaw to get to his next mode of transport.

The local trains are bestowed upon with the title of being the ‘spine’ or ‘lifeline’ of Mumbai and with good reason. The monstrous metal organism spews millions of rodents on to the streets of this congested city. Lugging them from far flung places and scattering the load in all directions.

The humble bus service run by the BEST is the backbone of road based public transport in the city. But, it is the auto rickshaw which is witnessing a new resurgence and wielding enough clout to leave a person stranded and perplexed.

The auto rickshaw known by its many names like ‘auto’, ‘tuk-tuk’ or just simply ‘rick’ is anointed with a very apt title by the urban dweller, ‘cockroach’. Like the roach, the auto is unruly, ugly to look at, spews grotesque waste and has an uncanny ability to survive even the most devastating swats inflicted upon it.

They are everywhere, infesting roads, taunting the bystander with their yellow and black hideous exterior. Unlike the majestic taxi, which has come to blend into the fabric of the city, the rickshaw sticks out like a sore thumb.

It is relatively easy to romanticize about a cab ride on a rainy
South Bombay day, across the washed, splendid streets and overlooked upon by beautiful facades of age old structures. It is equally difficult to withstand the rickshaw. The taxi is the loved daughter while the rickshaw is a bastard child.

The roach strikes back

With economic confidence comes the aspiration of a better, comfortable and seemingly seamless life. The new converts benefiting from their interactions with the market perceive the rickshaw to be a symbol of this initial upgrade in lifestyle. The contention is that we haven’t arrived yet, but sure are on the way!

This is wherein, lies the rub. Disposable income has made such ‘comforts’ seem mandatory for better living. Of course, you are better with your own car, but if not, this is the next best thing. It is the Indian middle-class’s noble chariot.

Even though riding in these three-wheeled cantankerous beasts is hardly a comfortable experience on pot holed riddled roads, a true rick addict will tell you that it beats traveling by the bus by a mile.

This results in those endless battles in peak hours for a rickshaw to get to work or jut to the railway station. The entire focus is to get the driver’s attention by any means possible. And you are left at the mercy of the rick guy to pick you!

In the last few months, I feel the situation has worsened. Hordes of angry workers during peak hours throng the streets of
Bombay in search of this affordable and yet elusive mode of transport. The BEST buses on the route I travel are almost empty.

This ungainly sight of a mass of people trying to outwit each other with their different strategies to attract a rickshaw for themselves seems ridiculous, especially when witnessed from the window of an empty bus with lots of room to accommodate these tiresome troopers.

In an urban jungle personal space is a rare commodity. This may be one of the reasons that drive people to travel by a rickshaw, as opposed to a bus, so as to have his or her own personal space. Each pore on a body is aware of the existence of its counterpart on another while traveling en mass via public transport. The thronging masses seldom leave an individual alone.

Whatever may be the fate of the humble rickshaw in the coming times, its position in history is assured as the chariot of the middle class. It is the bastion of personal travel and enterprise, the symbol of an individual’s initiation towards economic prosperity.

As the cliché goes love them, hate them but you sure can’t ignore them.

1 comment:

Zeien said...

Wow!!! Nice writing. More, please.