Rikshaw wallahs and morality

The challenges of living in India are not so much poverty and misery, although much of them can be directly connected with those factors. What is challenging is the constant balance one has to keep, a balance that depends solely on yourself, your own moral standards and the realities and necessities that come between.

If someone wants to do the “right thing” then his moral compass will be spinning wildly. Every new bit of information shifts the right thing to do in a different direction. For example, taxi drivers offering you to take you anywhere for ten rupees. Great offer. Take them up on their offer, though, and you’ll end up in the driver’s uncle’s shop. The uncle pays the driver’s petrol if he brings them customers. You don’t have to pay anything, says the driver. The uncle, one assumes, is of a different opinion and will probably not let you leave until you have spent your money’s worth. So what is the right thing? To save oneself from being exploited? To help the taxi driver who probably can’t afford enough petrol to earn a proper living? Or is it great to be chauffeured to a shop where you can buy a few trinkets that you’ve always been meaning to buy since even when they cheat you the prices are ridiculously low anyway? Take your pick! Spin the wheel!

Don’t pay the rikshaw-wallah more than twenty rupees, says the Indian to the tourist. Well meaning? Or does he just not want to hear the rikshaw drivers complain that the foreigners pay better? Insignificant, since you’ll probably have to pay more anyway. Only if you can afford to wait for forty minutes you might find one who takes you for twenty rupees. The group of stringy, miserable looking men lights up when they see a white man loaded with bags. Easy prey, their smiles say. They begin to wave, Namaste and implore you onto their cracked seats.

But even they are upstaged by an enormously fat riskhaw wallah who swoops in imperiously and says Fifty with an unperturbed and stolid face. Puzzled, perhaps, by the man’s authority I clamber into the rikshaw and we’re off. On the way I’m surprised that the people don’t wave to my new driver or bow to him. His massive frame reminds me of a temple priest and his impassive face shows the same certainty and calm arrogance. He seems above his stature, powerful even. On the streets of India aggression is often the only way ahead and girth is often sculpted around aggression. If someone is fat, you can be sure that he – metaphorically – ate his competition on the way up.

When, at the end of the short ride he pulls a huge bundle of rupee notes out of his pocket and counts them demonstratively to give me change, my heart sinks a little bit and I feel like I’m back at the start. Any of those greedy, hungry faces with their fake smiles would have profited more from me.

Those are harmless day to day examples. Still, they pile up and if one has a tendency to think about their surroundings one is quickly led to dark, fatalistic thoughts. One moment I meet the hustle and aggression with aggression of mine own, but a little thought reveals that the people are simply fiercely competitive. Everything is up for grabs and the hands that reach to grab are so many. On one hand, I don’t want to be a walking briefcase, on the other hand there are my socialist urges to be useful to society, even if it isn’t my own society.

In functioning society, among the affluent, riskhaw-wallahs are considered dregs and pieces of jetsam. Small time workers who have been laid off because their factory went bankrupt, immigrants from rural areas who camp in slums and shantytowns, part-time and small-time criminals – it’s not a profession with a pension (obviously) and not a long-term job. It’s what you do when you’ve reached the level just above the bottom or when you want to finance your kids a better start in life. Not worth anyone’s attention, failures…but this isn’t true, of course…an old question: are only those who produce more than they spend valuable to society or is everyone valuable on their own terms? This is not a scientific or economical question and cannot answered by numbers and studies. You can only answer these questions by relying on your moral standards or philosophical convictions, even if they stand in gross opposition to what reasonable numbers might say.

India brings out those uncomfortable moral questions and makes me wish to examine them more deeply, even though I know that there is no satisfying answer waiting at the core but only more twists and turns.

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