Close Encounters in Dhaka
The silent cycle-rickshaw – the transport lifeline of many a town. It has almost all but disappeared from some of the big cities in India, to be replaced by the growling yellow and black auto-variety. But it still reigns supreme in places such as Madurai, Allahabad, and of course, Varanasi, where there appear to be millions clogging every thoroughfare and back street. It is like some sci-fi disaster movie – the invasion of the cycle rickshaw (and the cow!). You cannot move for fear of being mowed down by one (rickshaw or cow).
I once met a fellow traveller who was into Buddhism and said to another traveller that all forms of life in the material realm entail suffering. The other person disagreed by saying that he was enjoying his life and was not in a state of suffering. The first traveller countered by saying “Maybe, but someone, somewhere is probably suffering on your behalf, enabling you to live a life of enjoyment”. That may be the case, and every time I take a ride in a cycle rickshaw, I always remember that statement. The person suffering on your behalf came very often be much closer than you think.
Most times I board a cycle-rickshaw I feel like telling the driver to sit in the back so that I may cycle. Even if the driver is young, he looks old, and if he is old, then he looks to be at death’s door; skinny, bony men, often ten years younger than me, looking twenty years older. But then I see a whole family sitting crammed in the back with the driver struggling to pedal, and think that my driver can surely manage with just me.
Many foreigners in India often end up paying more for a cycle-rickshaw than for an auto-rickshaw over the same distance, and going by how the cycle driver looks – malnourished and feeble – his need (and suffering) is greater. The assumption is that life is much harder for the cycle driver than it is for the auto man. My English friend in Delhi works for an agency to help street children, and her main hope for some of the kids is to get them off sniffing aerosols and glue to enable them to earn a living – usually by driving a cycle rickshaw. That kind of puts both the children’s and cycle drivers’ lives into perspective.
I never thought that I would see a city with more cycle rickshaws than Varanasi. But amazingly I did. I went to Dhaka in Bangladesh to apply for an Indian visa. (Dhaka – I spent a year there one week – I think you know what I mean) If I thought that cycle-rickshaws had invaded Varanasi, then they have positively colonised Dhaka. And taking a ride in one is a nightmare.
I am one of those unfortunate people who gets travelsick; never on trains, sometimes in buses, and often in cars. Not a very good thing to admit for a self-confessed traveller. I didn’t think it was possible to get sick while travelling in a cycle-rickshaw but I did. I have taken scores of rides in them in India, but Dhaka is something else; something that defies belief unless you witness it first-hand There are that many of them that they often travel bumper to bumper, resulting in the front wheel continuously bumping into the rear axle of the one in front, particularly when they slow down at junctions; constant bumping, with me being thrown forward as we hit the one in front, then backward as the one behind hits us – about as much comfort as being inside an electric vegetable blender.
The day I met Li Peng was the usual bumping, swaying and feeling-sick-day in the back of a rickshaw. (For those who may not know, Li Peng is a top Chinese leader, thought by many to be responsible for ordering the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when thousands of people were killed by troops.) But today was slightly worse because half of the roads had been blocked off so that good old Li could drive unhindered with his entourage along any road of his choice. That meant the gruesome scenario of having the same amount of rickshaws crammed into even less road space.
I had been making my way to a five star hotel to use the health club there. At this point I must explain that I am a fanatic – I simply have to go to the gym to exercise wherever I am. And in Dhaka the only one I could find was in this top-notch hotel where they charged me some top-notch price for the privilege of using their precious equipment. The price was scandalous, but what could I do? Missing training is not an option. So like all fanatics, I endure excessive pain to do what I must. In this case the pain consisted of parting with a wad of cash and enduring the bump and grind brain-splitting rickshaw journey through Dhaka to get to the gym.
It took twice as long as usual to get the hotel. With half the roads closed, the traffic jams were horrendous and periods of waiting in the rickshaw for twenty minutes, hemmed in by hundreds of other rickshaws became the norm. The opposite side of the road had been blocked-off and cleared of traffic. At the very point I was thinking to myself “I want to go home”, a cavalcade of police vehicles and shiny black cars with darkened windows pass on the opposite side of the road. It was Li Peng and his entourage. After they had passed, we were allowed to proceed on our not so merry way.
Finally, I arrived at the hotel. It was one of those places that was five-star, but could easily have passed for seven if such a classification exists. Perhaps it was a seven star, five star hotel. It was a den of opulence. But soldiers were everywhere, standing with guns flung over shoulders and lining a red carpet that stretched from the foyer, past reception and beyond into the corridors of the hotel. It seemed a bit strange, but I thought to myself that maybe this is the way it is with seven star, five star hotels in Bangladesh. I walked straight in, unchallenged. The soldiers were standing in a formal on-duty manner. Each one was spaced out at a distance of five metres from one another. I caught the eye of one or two – they just gazed back, like an average person does on the street when he sees a white face.
Doubts began to creep into my mind. Red carpet? Soldiers? Really, this can’t be normal for such a hotel in Bangladesh, can it? Anyway, what did it matter to me? I was going to the gym. As I walked along the carpet, I felt that somehow I shouldn’t have been walking along the carpet; in fact, I felt that I shouldn’t have been in the hotel. And, as it turns out, I was probably right. But I happily went on my way carrying my training bag and wearing flip-flops on my feet.
Perhaps at this stage I should explain something. In certain parts of the world being white is a distinct advantage. No matter what you may look like, the being-white-factor can open doors: flip-flops or no flip-flops. And Bangladesh is one of those places. In this case the door was flung wide open. Indeed it was flung so open that as soon as I got near the lift, I casually passed good old Li, his wife, bodyguards and officials as they exited from it. I stopped and turned back to see Li Peng about two metres behind me; a vulnerable old man with his vulnerable old wife. No one paid me a blind bit of attention to me. That’s when it hit me – I was in those much talked about yet seldom seen corridors of power! I never knew they really existed before. But there I was – inside them at last. It would have been the easiest job ever if I had been in the assassination business.
I think that in the world of techno-babble they might have called my close encounter with Li Peng not so much a near “catastrophic failure to protect” but a mere “security glitch”: the kind of language that makes officialdom always sound as though they have everything under control, even when they don’t. I guess there’s a thin dividing line between catastrophe and glitch, but they wouldn’t want us to know it. Funny, I never really saw myself before as being a mere glitch. I had hoped for so much more in my life.
So as Li Peng disappeared into his world of diplomats, diplomacy, and politicians, I disappeared into one of rickshaws, traffic-jams, and travel-sickness, and after I had finished at the gym, a skinny rickshaw man, who had been waiting at the gates of the hotel, cycled me away. A man who probably had no idea of who Li Peng is, what the corridors of power are, or indeed where they are. I never thought that when people mention “the corridors of power” they mean a red-carpeted seven star, five star hotel in Dhaka. Maybe they don’t; but it’s probably the closest I’ll get to them. And for the rickshaw man suffering on my behalf, waiting outside is the closest he’ll get.
Colin Todhunter is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, which reached No.3 in the bestseller list of India’s largest bookstore, Landmark. This piece is an extract from the book. All of the other chapters can be found in the India section of BootsnAll.