A new rickshaw wala abandons his rickshaw in the standstill traffic to go and get a paan.
He stands and listens to the cross-legged paanwala complain about his wife while he sucks and chews and masticates the betel nut and sweet coconut in his mouth.
Then, with a red mouth like a clown and dusty feet in chappals, he heads back to the sea of rickshaws. In that ocean, he cannot find his own.
He curses. His home place of Jamshedpur is nothing like this goddamned crazy city full of traffic.Traffic starts to inch forward maybe a hundred meters ahead. His passenger starts to worry, where is he, she is already late.
He swims through the ocean to reach her and swings himself into the rickshaw like an orangutan, swiftly starting the rattling engine. They lurch ahead just in time.
He feels relieved and a little bit heroic, and smiles a paan-stained clown smile at whoever will look. The children in the next rickshaw on their soft mothers’ laps laugh and point at him.
Even before it rains, water hangs in the air. The wind starts to blow, warm and pursuasive. Palms are flattered: they dip and lower their heads. Long grass blushes and looks the other way.
Women scramble to manage their fluttering dupattas. As the sky darkens and the air thickens, they tuck their mobiles into their purses and slip their purses into plastic bags. Micro-managing moms pull raincoats over their school-going kids at the first drop. Water bottles held by straps bump against kids’ chests. White socks slide down their little ankles as they slog onwards, humpbacked because of their backpacks under their coats.
Rickshaw walas know that they are everyone’s last hope, and become pompous and full of attitude.
“They won’t take you anywhere!” fumes an Aunty, who has been waiting outside the general store with three grocery bags for half an hour. Her plastic bagged purse is wet. Her groceries are wet. She is wet, and the fight is over. What to do? The river of rain rushes down from a higher road and creates a creek in which she stands, waiting.
Outside the train stations, traffic slows to a stop and people weave between parked cars, holding newspapers and shawls uselessly over their heads. People and animals and vehicles fill every inch of available space. Truck drivers turn off their engines and put their feet up, examining the bunions on the sides. Taxi walas spit paan spit out the window into the water that spills over the ground. A drop of red into a brown river.
Thin and wiry men surrender almost completely to the weather, except for the inverted plastic bags on their heads like chef caps. They walk unhurriedly, letting warm rain soak their faded clothes. Begging kids have no qualms about getting wet, as no-one expects any professionalism or maintenance of appearance from them. They point their faces up while everyone else points their faces down. They choose to dance, pumping skinny arms into the water and air.