Two real life incidents
An arm extended, at the end of which my hand flaps dully and ineffectually as I shield my eyes with the other and wait for the small but loud vehicle to slow down and stop. Not that they ever slow down enough – the screeching of brakes whistle by as the rickshaw comes to a stop five paces past me.
A destination mumbled. I throw in my bag and then climb into the rickshaw myself.
The driver is an oldish man. The shrivelled oily-brown skin of his neck meets peppery hair, more black than gray, though the stubble covering his cheeks is mostly white. Huge, work-roughened hands with knuckles like doorknobs curl around the handles of the rickshaw, the other end joined to an emaciated body, typical of the kind. The left holds a burning cigarette, the eddying currents teasing the smoke rising from the tip.
The rickshaw brakes at a signal. The man taps his large gnarled feet. He is barefoot, the sandals tucked behind. I mull over the day to come. My fingers knot themselves with nervous tension
The signal changes to green, and the rickshaw takes a right.
The wind whips in through the open sides. I lean against one side, my cheek against the soft plastic covering the metal framework. I peek out from the side at the other cars. I can feel the soft shininess of the plastic stick to my skin, the metal of the framework edge touching it too. It feels cold and paint-flaky.
On an impulse I ask him to pull over to one side.
There is a trick to speaking above the rattling of the motors in a rickshaw. You deepen your voice and chuck it at the back of the head of the person driving like you would chuck the fragments of a love letter at a betraying paramour. The voice hits and scatters about his ears, and some fragments of the command manage to drift in.
The rickshaw slows, and stops at the side of the road.
There is a jungle of flats in a sloppy line next to where we have stopped. The fronts of the buildings can be distinguished by their grand-sounding names and their differently painted exteriors, but when you enter by the gate and wander among the towering block As and Bs and so on do you really run the risk of getting lost. In these sunless alleys of congested humanity, bare patches of sky are visible only after your eyes encounter a rising tide of lives stuffed into apartments like forgotten photographs in shoeboxes.
I shove away these thoughts and extract a note from the jumble of miscellaneous objects in my pockets. I hold it in my hands, without passing it forward. Only a moment’s hesitation because I have decided, in essence, already. My voice is its usual pitch now that the roar of the motors has ceased.
“Can you get me a packet of cigarettes from the stall?” I ask casually.
There is silence for a second, broken by the whooshing of the cars going by. The man slowly takes a final drag on his own, then tosses it out of the window. Not looking at me he replies, “No, baji.”
His tobacco-roughened voice drags the irony of his response over rocks. I am more surprised and perplexed than annoyed. After all, he was just smoking one himself. “You won’t? Why not?”
The man just sits there, saying nothing. Cars continue to zip by, marking time, as I wonder if it was the request itself or the objects requested that was the cause of his refusal. I can’t tell. Maybe it was both.
“Should I go myself and get one then?” I ask, slightly amused and exasperated by now.
He throws a glance at me in the side mirror, then looks away. Barely noticeably, he raises his gaunt shoulders in a shrug.
I cannot see his face in this encounter, but I know what it will look like. The eyes looking into the distance, not meeting, not bold. The mouth set in a line. Maintaining the deference of servitude, but not losing the assumed integrity of his decision. Obstinate but hardly disrespectful. I have only ever seen that look on men – it is characteristic.
I debate the effort required, but the effect of his blatant refusal and the ticking of time win out. I sigh audibly and wave a hand at the road.
“Never mind. Carry on then.”
The man leans down and pulls the lever to restart the rickshaw. The motors begin again, the shuddering of the little vehicle and the put-putting of the exhaust.
I lean with my cheek against the soft of the shiny plastic again.
There is silence for the rest of the journey.