Rickshaw-Wallahs

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The autorickshaw-wallah is a minor lord of the Indian underworld. His travels and his mobility make him well-networked, and well-known amongst those who do things unseen by the law. He is accountable to no law but his own, for rarely does the law check his behavior. He feels no remorse lying plainly to the face of his customer if it will make him an extra fifty rupees. He is greedy, and he grows fat on commissions from a whole litany of shady deals.

His auto is his chariot, his home, his weapon. He glides along the roads, most often with his meter turned off and his customer paying more than what it would read were it on. He feels no remorse at bullying those weaker than he is, be they beggars and the uneducated, who lack economic and educational power to confront him, or tourists, who lack the cultural knowledge and experience to take him on. And because he is the chief provider of transportation within Indian cities, almost no one is free from having to interact with him. He is a bully, and should be treated as a bully. He should be responded to aggressively and forcefully, and by upstanding citizens, he should be given nothing more than the fare he is entitled to.

That’s one way to look at it.

He is also a man struggling to make a living, to feed his family, to chisel out a place for himself and his descendants in the overburdened and underfunded mess of Indian society. He is oppressed by laws that set his fares only slightly higher than what it costs to operate to his vehicle, and demand that he does not do this thing or that thing with his time and with his transports.

He does things that are shady and manipulative, but he must just to survive. He does things that are immoral and illegal, but that is because the System has been built with no regard to his rights and his dignity, and he has found shelter and community amongst those whom a cruel, emerging economy has left behind. He is not a bully, he is a victim; and if he abuses his customers, it is only because he has first been abused by the System.

That’s another way to look at it.

The autorickshaw-wallah is an astute amateur economist, carefully gauging the laws of supply and demand to calibrate his maximum advantage. When extracting extra rupees from his passengers, or manipulating them into jumping through the commission circus, he carefully factors in the risk involved; the fact his customer might complain and bring upon him a five hundred rupee fine that would more than erase his minor gains.

When his customer is ignorant, he exploits that. When he is knowledgeable and confident, he respects that. But in all cases he is always on the look out for any cracks through which he can make an extra ten or twenty rupees, and eagerly grasps at them like any good ascendant businessman.

So there is a third way to look at it.

Above all, the rickshaw-wallah is a human being; complex and multi-faceted creature, whose behavior is not always the best and not always consistent with his values. But he is a creature created in the image of God, for whom Christ died, as in need of repentance and redemption as the rest of us (although it is often easier to see his faults than our own.)

I’ve been wondering, recently, how Jesus would look at it, and how he would handle his autorickshaw-wallah. It occurs to me, first of all, that there would not be the sort of economic discontinuity between Jesus and his rickshawist as exists between us and our rickshaws. Jesus was the kind of guy who would walk, and when it was too far to walk, crowd on to public busses. Economically, he was less endowed the rickshaw-wallah; even if he did possess an unmeasured unseen richness.

It seems to me that the rickshaw-wallah occupies approximately the same space in contemporary Indian society that the tax-collector occupied in Jesus’ Galilee. He is ubiquitous, obnoxious, and a bit slimy.

This has only begun to help me understand how to interact with them appropriately and compassionately, and I’m sure I still make lots of mistakes. But, at the very least, my interactions with them are now are not merely frustrating or challenging: it is a sort of Bible study in living color.

Thank God for autorickshaws. Not only do they make it possible to get from Main Bazaar to Shanti Path, but they have shown me something about the love and the character of Jesus.

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