Travelling by rickshaw has to be one of my favourite things to do in Dhaka, or in any other part of Bangladesh for that matter. I can trace my love affair with the rickshaw back to the first moment I sat in one – almost 20 years ago – while journeying through south-east Asia. I was hooked then and remain so today. I love how, on the one hand, they differ both within and between countries and, on the other, how little rickshaw travel has fundamentally changed down through the years. Usually, my favourite way to explore new places is on foot, and while I do walk a lot here, there are times when it can be overwhelming, given the crowds and the inevitability of company. A rickshaw is the one place I can sit quietly and absorb the enormity of everything that’s happening around me. As a reflective learner, I need time to process new information. That was never truer than it is in Dhaka, where the senses are in constant overdrive. Rattling along the city streets slowly by rickshaw gives me that time to think. My rickshaw reflections allow me to adjust to the ebb and flow of the city, to consider its challenges and revel in its surprises. Finally, I remain enchanted by the aesthetic of the rickshaw, and I haven’t been disappointed in Dhaka. Here, in the cycle-rickshaw capital of the world, rickshaws are amongst the most colourful in Asia, with every inch decorated. There are plastic flowers and streamers in little brass vases, and embroidered and appliquéd canopies. Panels and seats are decorated with bright, bold artwork. Peaceful rural landscapes compete for attention with mysterious symbolic scenes and portraits of famous stars from swashbuckling films. I visited workshops in old Dhaka and saw shiny new rickshaws being assembled and decorated. There, I was told that the tradition of decorating rickshaws originated as a way to compete for business: the more beautiful the rickshaw, the more clients it would attract.
But as with anything I begin to ‘enjoy’ in Bangladesh, sitting in a rickshaw prompts me to question what injustice makes possible and how poverty is exploited. (See post 33.) While I might luxuriate in the experiential, for the rickshaw-puller (or ‘riksha wallah’), the story is one of everyday survival in one of the poorest countries in the world. Rickshaw-pullers, in general, come from poor, rural-village families and migrate to Dhaka in search of a better life. Bangladesh remains a markedly hierarchical society and rickshaw-pullers (of whom there are an estimated 600,000 in Dhaka alone) are considered to be amongst the lowest ranks. Within the rickshaw industry they are at the bottom of the ladder. Between them and the rickshaw fleet owners, or maleks, at the top of the chain, there are thousands of manufacturers, spare parts vendors, managers, mechanics, cooks and artists. The life of the rickshaw-puller is therefore a difficult and often dehumanising one. And on almost every rickshaw journey I take, I can sense a history of pain in the skeletal framework of the man taking me wherever it is I am going. In addition to being treated condescendingly, and often rudely, by passengers and fellow road users alike, they have to navigate deeply pot-holed, uneven roads and battle through the crowded streets of Dhaka’s main thoroughfares (see post 7). Add to this the intense heat, humidity, ferocious downpours and nauseating air pollution, before considering the physical exertion required to carry up to four passengers, or staggeringly heavy loads (of anything from agricultural produce to furniture), many times their bodyweight, all day long. It is little wonder that I have never seen a rickshaw-puller with as much as an ounce of excess weight. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can attract the wrath of an angry policeman’s baton. Such anger can be appeased, however, by a payoff from the puller. I have a clear memory of one such incident: the rickshaw-puller turned round and gave me a weary smile as he pulled a low denomination bank-note from his shirt pocket and presented it to the gruff, overweight police officer, who then retracted his baton and allowed us on our way. (Mind-you, the road we wanted to travel down was officially closed to rickshaws at that particular time.)
Of course there are other stories too: I regularly meet rickshaw-pullers who proudly own their own rickshaws. For example, one early Friday morning in Dhaka University, I came across a man washing his rickshaw by a picturesque pond against the backdrop of Curzon Hall. He beckoned me to take his photograph and took great pains to proudly point out the shining artwork. Some human rights groups have demanded an end to the human exploitation involved in the pulling of rickshaws. I’m not so sure about this now. (It’s a bit like the question of giving to beggars – see post 30.) As well as the many proud rickshaw-pullers, there are those in the city for whom the rickshaw is the only affordable transportation option. When it was suggested some years back that rickshaws be banned from the streets of Dhaka in order to solve traffic problems, there was a huge outcry from rickshaw-pullers. The solution at that time was the closure of many of the main and important thoroughfares to rickshaws, which had a negative effect on the livelihoods of many pullers and their families. That employment conditions should be improved is certain: that removing the employment option completely is less so.
Throughout history, the rickshaws of Bangladesh have been incorporated into changing cultural narratives, depending on the zeitgeist e.g. colonialism and exploitation, poverty and labour market inequality, opportunity and self-expression, environmentalism and sustainable transport systems. The distinctive and ubiquitous rickshaw of Dhaka has almost become a symbol for Bangladesh itself. The artwork too has been ascribed symbolic significance. In this regard the work of visual anthropologist Joanna Kirkpatrick is very interesting. Her work, Transport of Delights: The Ricksha Arts of Bangladesh (2003), celebrates rickshaw art and examines the cultural significance of the pictorial representations through time (e.g. in the context of a Muslim society, or political unrest, etc.). [2018: I have learnt, sadly, that Dr. Kirkpatrick died in 2017, RIP. Her website and articles etc. are no longer available, so I have removed the links. I found one 1997 article online ‘Bangladeshi Arts of the Ricksha‘.]
It is interesting that the Bangladeshi Nobel laureate, Mohammad Yunus, used the rickshaw as a metaphor in his 2006 acceptance speech:
I support globalization and believe it can bring more benefits to the poor than its alternative. But it must be the right kind of globalization. To me, globalization is like a hundred-lane highway criss-crossing the world. If it is a free-for-all highway, its lanes will be taken over by the giant trucks from powerful economies. Bangladeshi rickshaw will be thrown off the highway. In order to have a win-win globalization we must have traffic rules, traffic police, and traffic authority for this global highway. Rule of “strongest takes it all” must be replaced by rules that ensure that the poorest have a place and piece of the action, without being elbowed out by the strong.
On every journey that I take in Dhaka, I have a ‘conversation’ of sorts with the rickshaw-puller, albeit sometimes reduced to just a smile because of the language barrier. On most occasions there is an interchange in a mixture of basic Bangla and English, depending on how well I can make myself understood in Bangla, and on how much English the rickshaw-puller speaks. This usually begins with me asking about their home village: ‘Apnar gram, kothay?’- ‘What village do you come from?’ I have learnt that this initial question will always elicit a smile and a heart-felt response, because of the strong connection that exists between most Bangladeshis and their home villages. I love to ask what it is that makes their village special, and in this way I have learnt many things about many places in Bangladesh. Of course I must also contribute something of myself: my name, my country, my educational history, my reason for being in Bangladesh and (naturally!) my marital status. (See post 22.)
There are a few memorable occasions when I got to know a little more about the lives of rickshaw-pullers and two, in particular, stand out: one was when I was invited to a puller’s home to meet his extended family (see post 24), and the other a post-midnight, moonlit journey with a rickshaw-puller, who spoke exceptionally good English, and got me home safely. I was to meet the latter on a number of further occasions as he had a regular park-up position. I have learnt that a large proportion of rickshaw-pullers hire their rickshaws, often from members of criminal gangs, the latter frequently affiliated to a political party. It’s big business: one taka in every three spent on transport goes to the rickshaw trade. A rickshaw-puller earns a daily average of around €2 after paying the requisite €1.30 per day in rent. This leaves him with very little to survive on, and no hope at all of achieving his dream of one day owning his own rickshaw. These are figures based on conversations with just one rickshaw-puller: I have seen figures elsewhere suggesting average earnings from just US$1 a day to US$4/5 per day, though a distinction is not made between those who own and those who rent rickshaws. In any case, for the majority of rickshaw-pullers, average earnings remain meagre.
In such circumstances, the resilience and friendliness of almost every rickshaw-puller I meet is refreshing. Their fares are so low that I usually pay a little extra for my journeys: their gracious and dignified acceptance is humbling. In the beginning I was afraid that this might be offensive, but I think it depends on how it is done. Sometimes I ask if I can take a photograph and the wallah will stand proudly by his rickshaw, wiping the sweat from his neck and arms with his scarf before staring solemnly at my lens. On occasion, I have photographed a wallah asleep in his rickshaw, snatching a well-deserved forty winks. I am very thankful to the rickshaw-pullers of Dhaka and elsewhere for their hard work, for sharing glimpses of Bangladeshi life with me and for constantly cheering me up and brightening my days. Long may the rickshaws of Dhaka survive!
I have put together a few photographs below. Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.
Click on image below and then on the top-left image (67 photographs). Enjoy!