It was early morning. Our train had just arrived at the New Jalpaiguri station. People were rushing forth to get the best coolie and conveyance deals. We waited till the rush sobered down a bit having no real rush for time. Pleasantly enough the very second coolie we encountered quoted us an easy negotiable amount closest to the real rate. Gladly enough we ventured towards the rickshaw and auto stand believing that the day would go good without further monetary haggles or otherwise, having accomplished the hardest bit so early and that too in the pleasantest manner possible. Alas, we were but a bit too early to come to this conclusion!
I remember the town of my childhood as naturally air conditioned when the Celsius metre of the nearest destinations showed a fearful rise during the summers. I remember this town as having all the basic amenities of life at arms length without travelling blues or the need for muddling over what exactly would be the best way to get to our desired destination within the town. I also remember the cherished rickshaw rides; we would repudiate the buses except for ‘very’ long distances. A pleasure to go places without having to brush sweaty shoulders with a whole host of unknown faces or having totally innocent looking ones grabbing you at all the wrong places in the name of the crowd, haste or otherwise. The best of this was that the rates were not much different or rather even if a bit higher than the bus rates, was affordable for the little luxury it provided. Even if the distance called for a noticeable difference in fares as compared to the cheaper bus rates, the rickshaw puller’s subtly put demand, more like an innocent plea, made the little luxury easily justifiable. Mostly we just felt like giving them much more than was really required just for their goodness of nature.
But what we were to encounter that same morning was something unprecedented in this familiar long drawn saga. As we reached the stand, asking around for a suitable conveyance that would satisfy both our exhausted energy as well as our purses, we realized that the tourists had still not chosen theirs and hence the rates were still much higher than what the real native would have been familiar with. We were back from an official tour, that had drained our resources and we were severely short of cash. Hence, we gave them time to make their best deals, waiting patiently for our turn until the coast was favourably clear. Once this ideal condition was achieved, I finally left to make the round for ourselves.
The very first thing that I noticed was that the known kind faces seemed to have been replaced with almost growling ones. The rates they were asking for was still immensely higher than the last time I had gone from the station to my home, and that was just half a month back. And there was no sign of that approachability that I had grown up with, all replaced with a detestable coldness. I still rummaged the rickshaw wardrobe, believing in that mythical goodness of theirs that was still pasted in my memory. One man agreed to take us at a negotiable rate after much haggling, still much higher than the municipality decreed ones, but tired as we were, we decided to give up and end the days hunt.
Now we were three of us, and we had a total of five luggage. We needed another rickshaw. But there was none that would go according to our rates. The only way left for us was to cram up ourselves in the same rickshaw and double up the rates. A new circle of haggling began, as the man now chose to disagree, demanding a much higher price. Seeing no point in causing so much inconvenience both to the puller and ourselves, physically and as well as financially, in the thirty minute ride back home, all crammed up, we gave up on the man and chose an auto for ourselves. Hauling our luggage into the auto, voluntarily giving the former guy a ten rupee note for holding him up for the little time that we did, we were shocked out of our skins when we heard the first ‘growl’ from this very man, which as we realized was just the beginning of a long chain of abuses and curses he was to flung on us in the next fifteen minutes. Blaming us for holding him up when he could have made much better business, he said that it was monstrous of us to give him just ten rupees i.e. for not having moved an inch from the station at all. That we would be cursed and be in debt of him always and that we should plaster his name ‘Ram’ on our minds forever, so on and so forth. The others, who had refused to even listen to me previously, joined him and shouted abuses at us. They crowded around our auto, not letting it pass, not listening to any pleas that we made. We tried to make peace with another ten rupee note, but the man would not be pacified because the twenty rupees was nothing compared to making him miss the opportunity of taking other passengers. Finally an old woman, some mother figure of theirs, held onto them making our auto pass by, as we pressed the twenty rupee note in her palm.
Don’t know whether I was really worthy of all the blame that day, but was twenty rupees not enough for just loading and unloading our luggage from his rickshaw, even though I agree that we did rob him of five precious minutes when he could have made much better business? At least I could defend myself on the ground that we did not move an inch from where he was originally parked. Even if it indeed was my mistake, is there nothing called amicable negotiation rather than subjecting us to a rally of abuses and curses, early morning after such a tiring journey? O humanity! Where are those days, when the heart felt like showering our honest responsible bearers with much more than they had asked for just for their goodness of behaviour? Don’t know what you guys would think of the entire situation, but it has left me with a real bitter taste on my palate for a very long time to come. Not that this was new, since such rickshaw problems have been going on for a long time now. There are very few of them now, with whom we can conclude a pleasant journey, without any crisis of any sort. Either we give in to their unnatural demands, or are showered with abusive language till we are forced to fleece out much more than is the real fare. They are beyond any amicable conversation, and we are left quarreling like barbarians. But, it was this incident that finally stamped the consciousness that the situation needs real reconsideration, that which I had been evading for a very long time now. Believe me, I am not overtly class conscious. But I also believe that a good businessman is one that respects his clients, for what is his business if not for his clients? It is not about money, but more of a certain expected decency. If not a fair deal, am I very wrong to expect at least a civilized behaviour when I am paying for ones services (to put it in very crude terms)? Yes, I am hurt, and I believe that this wound is here to stay without any promised cure for now. What do you think?