Every year, around this time, Naseeruddin goes home for a month.
Naseeruddin is a small, thin man with skin the colour of burnt earth. He’s not someone you would ordinarily notice. Or even spare a moment thinking about, leave alone write about. I wouldn’t either. But he’s a Very Important Person in my scheme of things and it’s only fair that I dedicate a few lines to tell his story.
Naseeruddin is my chauffeur. It’s a job he’s taken up voluntarily. Rather forcefully, if I might add. For I haven’t officially hired him. I don’t really need a chauffeur. Most of the places I frequent such as the grocery store or my daughter’s school or even the neighbourhood shopping mall (if I’m feeling particularly adventurous) are within walking distance of my home. I don’t need transport to get there.
But there’s no getting away from Naseeruddin! He’s always waiting near the gate with his trademark toothy grin, ready to whisk me away, brushing aside my feeble protests. These days, I don’t even bother. As soon as I spot him, I walk across meekly to him. I climb onto the rickshaw carefully avoiding the torn leather that rises in the middle of the seat like the folds of a flower in bloom. Shreds of gaily coloured plastic, remnants of what was once a cover, hang loosely from the metal hood of the rickshaw. One tring of his rickshaw horn and we are off.
Naseeruddin is very different from others of his ilk. He doesn’t have an attitude, never grumbles or misses a day of work, except for his customary one month leave this time of year. But then, one can’t really compare him to other chauffeurs for he doesn’t drive a swanky Mercedes, Audi or Toyota. He owns a rickety cycle rickshaw, purchased for a “princely” sum of five thousand rupees,
“Where are you from Naseeruddin” I ask him one evening as we are returning from the little girl’s piano lesson. I am hugging the six-year-old close to me so that she doesn’t fall off the speeding rickshaw. Her chubby hands try to grab the plastic hanging from the hood of the rickshaw from within the confines of my arms, giggling all the while as she misses.
“Uttar Dinajpur, Didi,” he replies cheerfully. Uttar Dinajpur is a district in the northern part of West Bengal. One of the most backward districts in the country with a sizeable Muslim population. “Many rickshaw pullers in Gurgaon come from there. I came here three years ago to find a job, after selling off my flower business in the village,” he explains.
As he pedals, Naseeruddin tells me how, burdened by debt and unable to feed his wife and two daughters, he had decided to move to Gurgaon on the advice of a cousin who also worked as a rickshaw puller here. His cousin had loaned him some money to buy the rickshaw. Each month, Naseeruddin sends money home to his wife and daughters after keeping aside a paltry sum for his food and lodging.
“My wife Fatima tries to earn extra money by doing odd jobs in the village. Whatever she can get her hands on. My elder daughter, Nusrat, is eleven. The younger one, Chini, just turned five. Nusrat goes to the Madrasa nearby but Chini is still young. She stays at home, helping her mother with her chores,” Naseeruddin sounds happy when he talks of his family back home.
“I came here in search of a better life but it’s very hard Didi. I barely make enough to make ends meet. People try to cheat me all the time. People like you,” I can’t help wincing at this. “They travel long distances on the rickshaw and don’t give me enough money. Everyone tries to take advantage of you when you are poor.”
It’s a tough life. The man barely makes two hundred bucks in a day if he’s lucky. The uneven Gurgaon terrain makes the job a strenuous one to boot. The rewards? Getting shortchanged all the time by people. I feel guilty. That he comes from my part of world only makes it worse. Is there something I can do? Yes, for sure.
That is why I have allowed him to hire me! As his passenger, being carted to destinations I don’t need to be carted to. Being frowned upon and looked at with disdain by the Gurgaon women in their fancy cars. “God, look at her, so tacky in that cycle thingy! Whoever uses those?” I can hear them snigger.
Can’t say I blame them. Women like me (read: belonging to a particular demographic profile) don’t really use cycle rickshaws in Gurgaon. They either drive their own cars or get driven around by their chauffeurs, husbands, boyfriends, brothers … depending on who is available and willing. In the rare instance when transport is not available and they have somewhere to get to in a hurry, they may use a rickshaw making sure that a battery of excuses is ready. Just in case they bump into someone they know.
“My car isn’t back from servicing yet and my husband’s taken his car to work.”
“Oh no, I bought a car yesterday but left the car keys in the showroom. They were sending it to me but I couldn’t wait.”
“Both my cars are busy. I’ve bought a third car but it isn’t here yet.”
“My kid wanted to go sightseeing in a rickshaw.”
The excuses keep getting more and more bizarre. There seems to be a unspoken social code that people don’t want to break. One must not be seen in rickshaws in Gurgaon. If you are spotted in one, people will automatically assume that you are economically challenged. Quite ridiculous, isn’t it? But it’s true.
Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn. I choose my own mode of transportation, thank you very much. And while I’m perfectly able to walk (God knows I need that walk), and I own a car as well (and that’s not an excuse!) I’m not going to sweat it. If it’s the small change that’s making a big difference in someone’s life, that’s good enough for me.
Now where did Naseeruddin go? I need to make a quick trip to the grocers.
The shrill tring of the cycle horn and a familiar voice behind me. “Looking for me Didi? Hop on!”