Andrew Buncombe: No escape from the pull of poverty

Kolkata Notebook: Life as a rickshaw-puller is hard, difficult and usually short

Share
Related Topics

Of all the examples of human misery on such open display in this remarkable, terrifying, contradictory city, few are more moving than the hand-pulled rickshaws. For a handful of coins, an often-barefooted man dressed in little more than a dhoti tied around his waist will pull his passengers through the noisy, cluttered streets. Life as a rickshaw-puller is hard, difficult and usually short. Many of the 20,000 pullers are migrants from Bihar and many sleep on the streets. They are lucky to make more than $2 (£1.30) a day. "I only have the clothes I am wearing right now. I am very low," one puller, plying his trade at a temple in the south of the city, tells me. He is painfully thin: his leg is barely the size of someone's arm.

Actually there should be no rickshaw pullers here. Following a campaign by activists who said such labour had no place in civilised society, the authorities last year amended legislation to ban them. The trouble is that they failed to provide alternative employment for these men, so they resisted the ban and for now the pullers remain. So, should I ride in a rickshaw? My instincts are utterly against it. But outside a metro stop, some pullers are lined up and they hail me. I clamber on, persuaded that while they exist, any contribution I can make in the shape of a decent tip might help them, if only for a day.

We set off through the chaotic back streets. We pass a group of tourists and I make sure not to catch their eye, suddenly embarrassed. When we stop I pay the puller the equivalent of a good day's earnings. In truth, it is a tiny sum but he looks very happy. I still feel bad.

The draw of ancient beauty

The Asiatic Society on Park Street is a historical treasure trove and perhaps houses the most important collection of South Asian manuscripts. I have only ten minutes to spare, but the museum's wonderful curator, Keka Banerjee, gives me a guided tour, pointing out manuscripts in languages as diverse as Sanskrit, Assamese, Pali and, of course, Bengali. The most precious, she tells me, is the Kubjika Mata, a 7th Century text of tantric virgin worship. The manuscripts are amazing and beautiful. In a city where beggars lurk on every corner, I am again reminded of India's incredible richness and complexity.

Trams: shake, rattle and extol

A ride on an ancient tram costs just four rupees (about six pence). We're not sure where it's heading but in the spirit of adventure we leap on and rattle through the city. Apparently these too are being phased out, but unlike the rickshaw experience, we feel exhilarated by this bumpy ride.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Technical Sales Manager

£45000 - £53000 Per Annum plus bonus plus package: The Green Recruitment Compa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The leak of Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos isn't her fault. But try telling that to the internet's idiots

Grace Dent
US first lady Michelle Obama (2nd L) and her mother Marian Robinson (L) share a light moment with Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd R) and his wife Peng Liyuan  

Europe now lags behind the US and China on climate change. It should take the lead once more

Joss Garman
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor