“Indian helicopter, sir?” asked the tiny old man as I was leaving Agra’s Red Fort, and I laughed out loud. In this city of harassment and bad hustling, his sales pitch stood out like a crisp line of rap braggadocio, perfectly delivered. How could I refuse him?
Morality, for starters. Having someone transport you on a cart attached to their bicycle isn’t going to do their bodies any favours; all the more so when the driver is your father’s age. Indeed, many Indian states have considered outlawing them altogether, although they’ve generally stopped at the point where they realized that the ‘rehabilitation’ of the thousands of people such a move would immediately impoverish would be no simple matter. Once again, Isaiah Berlin’s irreconcilable positive values.
Agra’s rickshaw drivers are notoriously aggressive, which is no surprise, given the year round flow of tourist meat for them to feed on, all keen to ogle at the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments. Walking a few metres down the street is impossible without being accosted, the drivers’ repertoire normally consisting of ‘where you go?’, ‘very good price’, or ‘give me a chance’, all easy enough – with a little Israeli sturdiness – to brush off. My favourite trick is to turn ‘where are you going?’ back on the questioner, to launch into a pseudo-philosophical tirade that convinces them you’re mad. It works every time.
‘Indian helicopter’, however, seemed too brilliant to ignore, and I decided to make it one last rickshaw ride. My driver (with that strange mop of orange hair no-one has been able to explain to me) ushered me aboard and began to peddle. Within seconds, however, it became clear that this was a bad idea. Maybe I’ve had one too many paranthas, but my man was struggling to move; he had bitten off more than he could chew.
To solve the problem, I had an entrepreneurial brainwave. Why didn’t I get behind the proverbial wheel? The benefits were obvious. Firstly, it might spare my man a coronary. Secondly, it could save the entire rickshaw business. The drivers’ health and wallets could be saved by having their clients drive for them! There isn’t a backpacker in India that wouldn’t go for it. With that thought in mind, I set off, thankful that the professional remained in charge of the steering. Even so, it was tough work. No gears makes for a challenging journey, like cycling through water. If this is hard for me, I thought, how much harder it must be for the old men who make up most of the rickshaw-wallahs in Agra.
Half a kilometer up the road, we stopped for lunch. The Uttar Pradesh sun had weakened my appetite, and I wanted something light. Unfortunately, he presumptuously chose to drop me somewhere a little more upmarket, perhaps to benefit from a commission. I pondered whether to invite him to eat with me, but from my experience people in his situation haven’t been keen to break bread with the ‘client’, possibly out of embarrassment at being seen as out-of-place in more fancy places. So I ordered a pilao, and began eating alone.
The food hadn’t arrived when he appeared at the door, hovering. Instinctively, I invited him to sit down with me, asking him what he wanted. “Whatever you are having, sir,” he said, and with that the wandering satlan and the rickshaw-wallah started tucking into a pilao rice and roti apiece, washed down with a shared bottle of mineral water, our contentment only disturbed by the occasional questioning look from the nouveau riche Indian clientele.
Food completed, and my man slunk outside, without so much as a thank you. I paid the bill and joined him. Then I learnt his name, Rapalial, from a note he suddenly produced, scrawled on the back of a postcard. Written by one Neil Owen of Stoke-on-Trent, it testified to Rapaliel’s good character, and how helpful he had been when Neil visited Agra. I do not know when it was written, but have resolved to try and contact Mr Owen.
We set off for our next stop, the Mughal garden overlooking the Taj from the other side of the river. It took a while, with Rapalial and I swapping pedaling duties whenever fatigue set in. On arrival, I wanted to shake him off, to give him 100 rupees to go somewhere and rest, and not return to me. He was having none of it. He could rest whilst I visited the garden, and – besides – there was no other work. Unconvinced, I headed to the garden, increasingly desperate at the prospect of this 62 year old man rickshawing me to my guesthouse on the other side of town.
There could be no escaping it: Rapalial was resolved to finishing the job, and then some. Back on the road, he started telling me about all the wonderful things I could buy in Agra – stones, jewelry, a shawl for my mum, a leather jacket for my dad. I explained that I just wanted to go straight to my guest-house and rest. This didn’t deter him, though, and he launched into a schpiel about how he would get commission even if I didn’t buy anything. Unmoved, I told him that I would pay him sufficiently, that he needn’t worry about the lost commission.
He wouldn’t stop, however, and I’d soon had enough. After a while, I told him I wanted to walk, but would happily pay him as if he had taken me the whole way. At the beginning, he had told me I could pay what I want (always a good hustle); now that I produced 150 rupees (a massive sum, without mentioning the lunch), it was not enough. Souring the day, he demanded an extra 50, which I readily gave him, disgusted at India and tourism and what the two of them together had wrought.
I do not write this down to show off my generosity. In India, one quickly learns that the difference between a good and bad deed can be tiny indeed. Moral dilemmas – often impossible to resolve – confront you at every turn. This is a difficult place, one that gnaws on deeply-cherished beliefs from all sides. The mountains are now but a memory, but the urge to escape to them must be resisted. For it is here, in the northern plains, that the grandiose claims about India’s significance start to make sense. In the plains, where overpopulated town gives way to overpopulated town, where kids shit in the street while their mothers crouch selling vegetables nearby. India shines here, yes, but the worry is that it is the light of a white dwarf.