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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London