Smile, Stories, Struggle’: Six Hours With A Rickshaw Puller Amid Lockdown

There was something in his voice, far too soft and polite for the coarse path of his mundane life. Or maybe it was his innocent little smile, not broad enough for his teeth to peep, but sufficient to whisper his feelings. Nope! It was actually his pale-yellow shirt, a button, perhaps two less, soaked in sweat but bereft of any blemish. Or maybe not...

I had struggled to find an answer the next day, I’m struggling six months later and I’m quite sure, the struggle will be never-ending for as long as I breathe.

My memory of a stranger is such that even if I’m the last witness on earth to a robbery happened as recently as a few hours ago, the cops still won’t choose me to identify the culprit. I’m one of those who connects more with incidents, places and words more than the nuances of a face.

But Biren was different. Every detail of his face – he has two black spots on the right side of his chin, one slightly closer to the lips. His toned hands, veins sticking out like electric cables in a narrow North Delhi lane. His rough yet thick and strong hair strands, ready to fly here and there towards the wind. His copper-like skin tone – Everything...

Everything is so vivid, all thanks to my mother’s broken sandal.
It’s kind of funny what one broken sandal can do to you. For me, it resulted in a six-hour search amid lockdown in the scorching Delhi heat of April. Throughout the entire journey, barring the ten minutes it took me to find him, Biren was my companion and his rickshaw my chariot. Oh yes, Biren is a rickshaw puller, one among many who ferries us to different parts of the city, with whom our conversation is perhaps limited to a fair-bargain and our patience lasts till he gives the change.

Biren is no different. He would have been lost like the thousands of strangers I generally come across but for those six hours, my desperate need of a ladies sandal – my mother only had one and she had been stuck in my small apartment for over a month due to nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of a global pandemic – and his impeccable patience stubbornness.

“Hum dhundlengebhaiya ji! Kahitohkhulahogana dukan,” he would say after each of our failed attempts in finding a shoe shop which had its shutters up.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Markets were closed, non-essential shops were not permitted to run the daily business. If only I could tell the government that shoe is an essential commodity - definitely it is if all you have is a broken pair.

Biren was relentless. I don’t know whether he was doing it to earn, it definitely was hard to find passengers at that time, or he genuinely wanted to help... Perhaps some mysteries are better unravelled.

We started around 10:30 in the morning and by the time it was 2, we had visited around eight market areas, stopped by policemen thrice and were hungry to say the least. The shoe shop, however, had somehow managed to evade us.

“Chaliyeaapkoekjagah le chalta hu jaha pet bharkekhanakhaasaktehai,” Biren once again came to my rescue. By then he knew that lunch had taken over shoes as the first priority in my list. 

The small eatery resembled Biren. Struggle evident in its every corner but no compromise with cleanliness and hygiene. 

Biren has been ferrying passengers for seven years now. He bought his own – the one I sat on – last year.

“Parivar ko roti khilanelayak paisa aa jatahaibabuji.” I somehow wanted him to admit that he was going through tough times, he sure was. I wanted him to narrate all the hardships he has to face because of this situation, I wanted to him ask favours, request some extra money but he did.

In our long journey not even once did he made me realise the plight of his family. The harder I try, the further he took me away from the topic. Perhaps it was his way of dealing with the situation.

In between our long chats about his love for Mohammed Rafi songs and my fondness for
food, Biren took me to the lanes of East Delhi that I never knew existed even after spending more than five years there.

“Ekaur dukan hai babu ji wo last pakka,” Biren would say every time I lost hope and requested to take me back.

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I knew I won’t find a shoe store, not that I wanted to now. I was kind of lost sitting on the back seat of his rickshaw. It is indeed a chariot and how beautiful Delhi is without the countless heads and limitless honking of cars...

“Jai Bajrangbaliki!” Biren’s sudden burst of delight broke my chain of thoughts. “Wo dekhie dukan khulahai, le lijie chappal aap.”

It was a local shop with a limited collection. As if the owner in his mid-fourties was waiting to welcome me and Biren with a garland of rose.

Without further ado, I selected a pair of sandal and hopped back on Biren’s rickshaw. My apartment was now about an hour’s drive in the chariot but I wouldn’t have minded had Biren taken a few minutes extra.