Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hand-Pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata

"You can find every kind of transportation in Kolkata," he said to me proudly, as if I had the Richard Scarry book Cars and Trucks and Things that Go in front of me and was checking off each vehicle inside. If I had, I would have had to make notes in the margins of the ones that Richard Scarry did not include.

Rickety trams. Trains departing Howrah Station. The metro slinking underground; the autorickshaws plying their routes. Ambassador taxis and Maruti 800s and the extremely occasional Mercedes. Three-wheeled cycle rickshaws, bullock carts, and men carrying dozens of chickens suspended upside down on either side of the seat of their bicycles.

And the one you will not find in any other metro area in India, the hand-pulled rickshaw, saved from extinction in this city that clings to its past just as the rickshaw pullers clung to their age-old profession in the face of their possible ban. Whether a ban has actually been put in place I do not know, nor does it matter, since they still fill the Kolkata roads regardless.

I saw many jarring things on my first trip to Kolkata. Having lived in Delhi for nearly a year, the poverty no longer moved me, but the hammer and sickle painted on the side of buildings did. The urgent monsoon sky did. And these men, thin, gaunt, darkened by the sun, often barefoot, certainly did.

Anirban Saha has done a series of photographic sessions of these rickshaw-pullers. He portrays them in black and white, in sharp focus against the blurry sped-up background of modern Kolkata. The images are poignant, but viewing them brings back the same feelings of uneasiness at class distinction that I had when I first encountered them. Intellectually, I understand their importance to the day-to-day life in the city. I understand that they remain in Kolkata by choice and not entirely by compulsion. But for someone who grew up in an egalitarian society, watching one man be beast of burden for another is uncomfortable. Children riding to school does not affect me in the same way as the fat man in a business suit, riding in broad daylight when he could easily walk. And I know I could never sit in one.

Perhaps this is what makes the most uneasy about the entire situation. It is a world I encountered, but not my world. As a foreigner, I cannot enter into that sphere. Availing myself of a ride is an image that smacks of colonialism and flies in the face of my generally-egalitarian nature. And if it were I who were taking the photos, instead of the talented Mr. Saha, it would be nothing more than poverty porn. This has little to do with skin color. He, as a lifelong resident of Kolkata, has interacted with this world from his childhood, perhaps even rode to school with a classmate or two in such a rickshaw. His eyes and his camera lens see as perfect sense what I see as cognitive dissonance. And his photos focus on the task at hand, on how the past and present coexist, not objectifying the bare feet or the wiry bodies. He is able to photograph these men and their occupation in a way a disturbed or impartial foreign eye cannot.

I encourage you to go take a look at his photos and give your own impressions.


  1. I've always had this awkward feeling about getting pedicures. Manicures are one thing, but having another person sit below me and clean my feet always feels distinctly unegalitarian

    1. I felt that way in India - maybe because of the price of the pedicure? - but in the US I don't feel that way necessarily. I think of it more like a doctor's exam. I am not sure why it is different in the different places but I think value and cost of the service has something to do with it.


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