BAREFOOT ON THE GROUND
Mustafa wakes up every morning with the first rays of the sun that, through the roof of his wheeled-house, caress his face, playing and hiding between his wrinkled skin. He stands up and looks around ruffling his grey hair. After bathing under the public tap, he takes his breakfast, dipping a biscuit in a clay mug filled with chai. It starts here, every morning, his daily struggle. At the junction of Mirza Ghalib Street and Marquist Street in New Market. Waiting for the passengers and attracting them with his smile, slamming the aluminium bell against the wooden staves. Racing then, once the client is on board, in the maze of streets of Kolkata, exhausted in the crowd of people that attack him smashing him against the walls. Naked feet in contact with the hot melted asphalt. His shiny back covered with sweat and his thin but muscular arms that balance his business-tool.
Mustafa is one of twenty thousand “hathricha”, the horsemen, in this land away from everything. They made their first appearance here in late nineteenth and they now represent the ultimate form of pedestrian transportation remaining in the entire world. Thanks to the economic crisis, which has made the alternative transport much more expensive on the one hand, and the overcrowding of a city that is now home to more than twenty million people on the other hand, for the rickshaw conductors suddenly came to fruition a number of new opportunities. They leave the countryside where there’s bread and choose the city where they find a rupee. Just a few of them can reach her, just a few can manage to earn that rupee, just a few survive.
They are the rickshaw pullers of Kolkata, a land far from everything. They have skinny bodies, bones covered by contracts tendons and skin. Their ribs, that protruding from their bodies, look like the reinforcement bars that come out from the concrete of these houses that, all around, are falling apart. They hold a bell, tight with a leather thong between the toes, tapping it against the long-worn wooden bar. Many of them sleep next to their rickshaw and warm themselves by burning garbage just to be able to put aside a few rupees to send to their families back in the villages.
This is a vehicle that with time has gradually expanded, since it is the only one able to guarantee transfers relatively quickly. The word rickshaw comes from “jin riki shaw”, which in Japanese means “vehicle driven by man”. Of the twenty thousand, only six thousand are in possession of a valid license. They are constantly under pressure from those who want to wipe them out, off the streets and make disappear their only livelihood. And certainly not to protect them and their honor, but to free the city of Kolkata from what has become an uncomfortable symbol of the metropolis. A dirty image that probably annoys. And there is no person who cares that these people remain unemployed. No one cares about their families and all of the mouths to feed. If someday human-powered rickshaws should also be permanently banned in Kolkata, all these men would no longer be able to support even themselves.
What do we do then. We remain there, on the sidewalk, watching them like we’re stuffed or we accept their invitation to go in?
Here’s what you do, We invent a destination and we go..
Once aboard the feeling is twofold and controversial. On the one hand you feel the horror in exploiting the huge labor of that man below your feet, that is dripping in sweat, while the thin ankles move silently on the burning asphalt. On the other hand, you indulge the happiness in his eyes and the awareness that that evening he will be able to feed his family. You are in a soap bubble, everything becomes muffled, you can see smiles, colors and scents in streets submerged by trash, where there are no sewers. Now everything runs slower as the lotus flowers on the surface of the Hooghly, that pitch-blackriver that splits the city in two giving her a slight breath. Slow as those cargo ships crossing it slowly. Slow as those kites that are reflected on the water. All the senses are alert, but the smell is certainly the predominant. Closing the eyes, I am overwhelmed by the essence of jasmine, incense, spicy food, bidi and then rose. With closed eyes you can pick up the “hidden” voices. Those silent, delicate, difficult to hear and understand.The city will open you to unprecedented reflections. The city of the gentlelooks, of the shy smiles, of the kind gestures and silent voices. A silence that, though, screams loud and, sometimes, above the noise of millions of car horns. You can love her or hate her, but you cannot be indifferent to her.
They have always been them, the rickshaw men, the real stars of Streets of Kolkata. The whole life between the wooden poles, only counting on the strength of their muscles and bare feet, that every day, tread more than thirty kilometres in the flames of this hell. This is their curse, their pain. It’s not the massive Howrah Bridge, not the shining Victoria Memorial, and not even Fort William or Kali Temple. No, the monument of this city is represented by these dignified and indefatigable human beings. They, along with the thousands of bells tinkling in all the streets of this incredible festival of human existence called Kolkata.