Occupation – Bullock cart driver and owner

My nose guides me to Shivashankaran’s house in a tiny bylane in crowded Nedumcaud. There, tethered in front of his house are two bullocks. Washed and clean, both were taking a snooze on a Sunday morning, much like their 73-year-old owner Shivashankaran, perhaps the only bullock cart driver and owner within city limits.

But he remembers a time when bullock carts were the primary means of transporting goods, grain, sand, bricks, coconuts, straw and so on; a time when more than 350 bullock carts used to rattle along the streets of the city and its outskirts; a time when they needed a permit to be in the profession. “We had to pay Rs. 1.50 to get a licence for the driver and a plate with a number for the cart, Rs. 4 for the cart and a permit, all from the Corporation. Then we had to pay Rs. 3 as rent for a shed for the bullocks. Every day, we used to cover about 16 to 20 miles,” he recalls with a broad smile.

He says in the seventies when there were plans to ban bullock carts on the main roads, there was an attempt to form a union to protect their interests and livelihood. “If my memory serves me right, we met at Vallakkadavu for the first conference of bullock cart drivers. We formed a union and opened a small office at Chalai. Yearly subscription was Rs. 1. But by the sixth conference, there were less than 10 of us. Most of them did not pay the fee and so the office closed down,” he says.

But there are no regrets. He still drives his cart when people in the vicinity employ him. But the distance covered has decreased and by afternoon, he is back at home for his lunch and a siesta.

“I make enough to make ends meet. As a boy, I was fascinated by bullock carts and used to run behind them. By the time I was 16, I was driving a cart. Eventually I bought one. I plan to do this until I can. My sons, however, are into other professions. One is a tailor and the other is an auto mechanic,” he says.

The bullocks, both of which he calls Mani, were purchased from a “chanda” (market) in Vadasseri for bulls and the cart is a second-hand one purchased from Tamil Nadu. Along with the phasing out of bullock carts, a cottage industry also has been gradually run out. “It is extremely difficult to get someone to shoe the bullocks or repair the wheels of the cart. Earlier, there used to be ironsmiths and carpenters aplenty for all these jobs. For instance, there was one at Killipalam that eventually went out of business. Now, I know only one person who does shoeing for bullocks. He stays beyond Thachottukavu and comes here when I call him. But to replace the wheels is very difficult. One has to go to Tamil Nadu for that,” he explains.

To show us the cart, he leads us to a neighbour’s house. Enthusiastically, he shows us how the wheels are made of six pieces of wood and the engraving on the wooden piece that holds the wheels in place. A little later, bells tinkling merrily, the bullocks are brought there. To complete the picture, he yokes the bullocks to the cart and poses solemnly for the photograph.

Many people working in serials and films ask for him when they need a bullock cart. But after working in ‘Verukkal’, a serial, Dilliwallah Rajakumaran, a movie, and a couple of films, the names of which he has forgotten, Shivashankaran discovered he has no patience for the camera. “You have to keep doing the same thing again and again…” he explains with a wry smile.

“This is my profession. And I intend to drive a bullock cart till my health permits,” he declares.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)

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