He was an old man, a rickshaw-puller in a small city. In his 60s, he appeared frail and tired, yet to keep his life going he had to toil hard whole day long. Unlike other rickshaw-pullers of the city who were often sweaty and filthy with dirty belcher handkerchiefs round their necks, this old man's dress was a lot cleaner, but his old, watery eyes were deep inside the sockets. He wore a white kurta and a lungi wrapped around his weak legs, and long green colour scarf hung around his neck. Instead of slipper, he wore leather shoes, and his white beard was long and clean. He wore a taqiyah, a round fabric cap worn by Muslims, and along with this his gentle and serene face generated sublime respect for him in my heart. Every student took pity on his age and the labour he was doing.
In the blazing noon, he would wait at the college entrance to carry students back to their homes. I had seen him many a time at many places in the city. There was a pity beyond all telling in his old eyes and all those who saw him could feel his toil in an advanced age. That was the age he ought to have spent time in total rest. Yet, he was working and that made me recalled what Ivan Turgenev said, “Do you know the worst of all vices? It is being over fifty-five.”
Unlike the other rickshaw-pullers of the city, he would pull his rickshaw rather slowly, dawdling through the uneven roads with his head often downcast, yet at times he would straighten the upper part of his body and inhaled deep breathing. He, as some of my colleagues had informed me, was a reticent, perhaps fighting his own struggle.
“Why can someone of his age pull rickshaw?” I argued to myself as I approached the old man to hire him for going back home one hot afternoon. That day I was too tired, and decided to a take a rickshaw over a two-kilometre walk, and as I reached the old man's rickshaw I climbed on to it and sit comfortably and said:
The old ma, who was doing something with the pedal, all at once stood up and began to pull the rickshaw by his hands for a while before taking the driver seat. All through the journey I watched him and thought how shameful it was that I, a young man, was sitting, and he, an old man like my grandfather, was working so hard. Poverty, I realized, was such a curse that it didn't spare an old man to live in peace.
After half an hour, we reached before my home. I jumped out of the rickshaw and handed four rupees into his palm. I hurried home since I was very hungry, but his tough call stopped me, and as I turned he showed me the money that I had given him. His palm was spread in anguish. I was sure it was a reasonable fare in 1987. He looked a bit angry and reproachful. I looked back questioningly.
“What is this?” he protested. For the first time, I saw his full face, which exhibited absolute pucker. There was a King Learian bitterness in his behaviour.
“Your fare. Isn't it ok?” I asked and took one-rupee coin and tried to add it to the notes into his palm. Other people, I was sure, would have given him three rupees for the trip, yet, out of his age, I paid him one rupee extra. I was little startled at his behaviour.
“O young man, I am a rickshaw-puller, not a beggar,” he retorted back in a very harsh tone, throwing the money on the ground.
Amused and enraged I watched this side of his character. Had he not been a young rickshaw-puller I would have dealt with him rather firmly, yet, to pacify him I gulped down the welling up rage and picked up the money, added a two-rupee note to it and tried to give him again. He declined.
“What more do you want?” I spoke loudly.
“Thirty rupees,” he announced, his face firmly poised and his eyes static.
The very mention of thirty rupees shot up my blood. For a moment, I tried to come to terms with what the old rickshaw-puller had said. Instead of a gentle look in his eyes he appeared a greedy old man and the antimony that he employed on to his lashes metamorphosed him into a villainy of an evil jinn. In those days, fifty rupees was a luxury and I was a student. Nervous and confused, I s searched for the right move.
“Thirty-rupees! Are you insane?” I yelled at him at the top of my voice. But then, I looked around, and in order not to create a scene like those hard-hearted people who were always very miser in paying lawful fare to rickshaw-pullers, I announced I would pay him not more than ten. That was more than enough.
The old man was adamant on his price. He lowered his gaze for a while, but his lips were shivering, perhaps muttering curses and abuses.
“But why? Isn't it unfair?”
In reply, he questioned, “Did you ask me the fare? Did we settle a fare?”
I had no answer.
“Three or four rupees is the normal fare, uncle,” I tried to reason with him.
“I don't know what others charge, but this is my wage,” he said in a convincing tone.
Being a soft human was not a plus point at that time, and since I believed in human rights and values I had to pay the price. Without waiting any more I searched my pockets, but I could not gather thirty rupees. I asked him to wait and ran into my house, and after a bit of struggle with my mother I managed the money.
I came out to hand over the remaining amount to the old rickshaw-puller. I was not angry but experienced, not humane but practical. By the time I put thirty rupees into his palm, I was ready to teach him a lesson. I neared him, leaned into his right ear and whispered:
“Don't do this with others. They will not respect your white beard.”