History beckons at every corner in the narrow gullies of the Mint area in North Madras. Even though decades-old traditional homes are giving way to colourful choc-a-bloc ones, in this part of the city even the air wears an old look. There is an effortlessness with which everything works. Here, the working class and the business class co-exist, and do so with a sense of belonging. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area’s preferred mode of transport. In Mint, where a majority of traditional business communities live, the cycle rickshaw rules the road and is a great leveller. Jostling for space with cows and competing with scooters and sedans, the humble tricycle still finds takers.
It’s around 3 p.m. on a weekday. I am near Kondal Street (Kondal Iyer previously) near the famous Sivagnanam Park. Most rickshaw-wallahs have settled in for a short afternoon snooze. But Chinnasami is awake and not at all camera shy. The last time I was on a rickshaw I was a young school girl. So when Chinnasami asks me to hop on, I am nervous. Apart from the moral dilemma this mode of transport poses, (whether or not it is humane), there is also the question of ‘what is the right amount for a given distance’. “I quote what I feel is correct. When the passenger and the rickshaw driver feel that the amount they have agreed on is right, it is a good feeling,” he says. The current rickshaw model is an improvement on the hand-pulled rickshaw which was considered even more inhumane. A passenger would sit and the puller would lift the handle and pull their weight with his hands. The DMK regime, back in the 1960s, banned them and soon the pedal model gained prominence. Kollywood too has paid tribute to the vehicle and the men who drive them with the 1971 MGR film Rickshawkaran in which the actor plays a rickshaw driver and Rickshaw Mama the 1992 Sathyaraj-starrer.
“You see rickshaws in Tamil Nadu only in Tiruchi, Madurai and parts of Chennai. They are not in use anywhere else,” says S. Prasad, who has lived in the area for several decades and uses rickshaws regularly. “I remember how my mother, when she was too old to walk alone, would call on these rickshaw-wallahs to take her to a temple. They would oblige happily and bring her back safely and help her sit in our living room,” he adds. Many rickshaw men in this also area double up as household help. “Locals allow them to keep their rickshaw in front of their home, even offer a private bathing area and give them space to sleep and in return, the rickshaw men run errands for them and drop the women of the household in temples or markets,” Prasad says, “Most rickshaw-wallahs in this area hail from Dharmapuri and own farmlands back home. When they get a call from home about rains they catch a train back to their town, take care of business and then come back to resume their work here,” he adds.
Negotiate narrow roads
While the rest of the city has adopted newer, faster modes of transport, the good old rickshaw thrives in these gullies because locals feel it is the best way to negotiate the narrow roads. Chinnasami has been riding rickshaws for 35 years. “My father sent me to school. But I didn’t study,” he rues. The 55-year-old, a father of six, hails from Dharmapuri and is also a landowner. “I have land and a pump set back home. And my wife Manimekalai and kids live in Dharmapuri. Due to lack of rains and the need for money I ride the rickshaw here,” he says. In fact, Chinnasami had given up rickshaws and gone back home at one point but he had to come back in 2001 due to the circumstances at home. “I sleep near Parry’s and use the Corporation facilities in that area. Once a month I try and go home,” he adds. Chinnasami makes, on a good day, Rs. 300 and some days, Rs. 150. For most short distances (like Mint to Central) the charge is around Rs. 30. He has married off two of his six daughters and the rest are studying.
“The only way to get out of this is for our children to study. They must! I didn’t and I am paying a very heavy price for it,” he says.