The Rickshaw Wala
A Short Story by Kapal Dhir *
It was way back in 1956, when I was doing my post- graduation in commerce at Kanpur, an industrial town in northern India. It is a thickly populated city. A cheap mode of local transport there is cycle rickshaw- a tricycle foot-pedaled by a driver who, in local parlance is called rickshaw-wala (meaning the one with a rickshaw).
The monsoon season in that year saw a break out of a disease, which was new to us there. They called it influenza, which in short was named as flu. I was also one of the victims, and my doctor told me that a treatment of about 4-5 days would be essential. My first medication was on one Friday and it was on the next day, that is, Saturday that an encounter with a rickshaw-wala took place, which left a deep-rooted impression in my young mind.
The doctor’s clinic was well over two kilometers away from my residence and I hired a rickshaw to go there. Since my income was meager, based on tuition and part-time job of a typist at a small shop-cum-office, I had to manage my financial affairs with utmost caution. I still remember that the rickshaw fare for one side of that trip was fixed at 8 annas i.e. half a rupee. I calculated that the two-way trip costing a rupee and medication for two days (Saturday and Sunday) costing another four rupees would result into cash out-flows of five rupees. I was happy that I was carrying a sum of Rs.7 in my pocket, which was sufficient for this trip.
On the way to the doctor’s clinic, one had to pass through two railway level crossings. The first one called Allahabad rail crossing was shut at that time; hence the rickshaw-wala stopped the rickshaw to wait for the train to pass. Now I had a chance to look at the rickshaw-wala. A man of about 55 years, he was having uneasiness on his face and was coughing. On inquiry, I learnt that he was also inflicted with the flu. He could not afford to go to a doctor or even take a day’s rest at home, because he had to feed his family. The situation was indescribable as one patient was plying the rickshaw to meet both ends of his family and the other patient, younger in age, was comfortably seated on the rickshaw being driven by the former. Prompted by the feeling of guilt, I pulled the entire treasure of seven rupees from my pocket, and handed it over to the old man. As I searched my pockets, I also found one pink colour tablet (which was a part of the medicine I got the previous day from the doctor but not consumed due to negligence). I gave the same to him who under my instructions swallowed it then and there with a fistful of water from a nearby hand-pump. A smile now was discernible on his face, which otherwise was smothered with wrinkles.
Now there was no use going to the doctor for my medicine as I had run out of money. I advised the rickshaw-wala to go to his doctor, get medicine and then go home for a rest, now that he was having some amount in his pocket. With that I wended back to my residence on foot, which was about 200 meters only from the railway crossing.
Now starts the tragic part of my story. Reaching home, I found my body fiery with fever, headache and shivering. With not a single penny in my pocket or at home, I was helpless. The earliest I could get money from my bank was on Monday, which appeared to be Aeons away from Saturday. With no medicine and no money to buy it, I could not even cry, as that would expose my folly and self-inflicted misery. I found to my utmost dejection, that I could not even get up to warm up the food for eating which was lying wrapped in a napkin. At that time when I was almost semi-conscious with fever, it was a Herculean task to ignite the stove to do the needful. All I could do was to fill a jug with water and keeping it by my side; I lay down on the cot. I could not measure the temperature, but it must be about the highest. With no help to come from anywhere, I wondered if I had made a mistake in giving him the money and that my benevolence was totally misplaced. I even wondered that the old man might have been posing that he was ill and thereby made me part with my money. But no, the satisfaction and infelt pleasure visible on his brow after he got the money was a clear indication that the case was genuine. But then I had not bargained for this bodily pain and mental agony and possible label of immature behavior from anyone who would listen to my story.
In my childhood, I had heard that if there be any Power in this world, it would listen to any cry if it comes from the core of the heart. I made up my mind to cry and tell Him of my predicament. Simultaneously, I was also worried whether the rickshaw-wala had definitely got a medicine from any doctor or just spent the amount for family needs that might be more important for him. Thus the prospect of my own wellbeing and the rickshaw wala’s pathetic condition, were both inter-woven within my mind. All this, together with high temperature and hunger, had clouded my decision- making faculty. It was altogether misty. My temperature seemed to be soaring high and frequent sips of water were no substitute for medicine or food. In the semiconscious state of mind, all that I could remember to have murmured was “Oh Merciful, have pity on the poor rickshaw-wala and his family for they can hardly afford a medicine or a rest from the daily routine of hard work.”
But then I realised that I had faltered again and missed another opportunity to seek help for myself from the Power of all powers. Was this fateful day reserved for me to commit follies? “I deserve nothing,” I realised ultimately. Now my tolerance was coming to an end. I fell unconscious or asleep, I do not know. When I came to senses, it was dusk time. The darkness was setting in. My hunger reminded me that I must brave the bodily pain and fever to get up and ignite the stove. I ventured out to get up from the bed, though fearing that I might fall. But to my great astonishment I seemed to be normal. No fever, no pain, no mental perplexity or ailment of any sort. How could it be so? But it was so, for certain. The influenza, bodily pain, temperature, mental agony- all were gone and definitely GONE. I could jump, walk, run or do anything as I would do on any other normal day. Unbelievable but true. Even when other inflicted persons had to suffer for about 4 or 5 days from this disease, mine was over just in one afternoon.
AND… I could see that rickshaw-wala never again. AND…AND…. It is a true story.