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Cycle-Rickshaw, anyone?

This drawing brought back memories of how I traveled to school when we lived in Chennai in the 70s. I even remember my poor, old, cycle rickshaw-walla's name : Veerappan - in his 60s, sun-drenched dark skin, tall, lanky, each wrinkle on his face telling a tale of hardship and misery, and always in a shirt and lungi, with the lungi hitched up high, so it didnt get caught in the pedals.

The most privileged seat was the actual "seat". The "top" was where no one wanted to sit, as our uniform skirts could easily provide a "peek show" to the passers-by. Every morning, his rickshaw bell in the next street served as a warning for me to hurry up and pull on my white socks and black shoes and grab my school bag, as he'd be at my doorstep within minutes.

In his heydays when business was doing well, Veerappan had two rounds. The first round in the morning was the most in demand, as it ensured you'd reach school early and have time to catch up on your homework. On the way back, everyone wanted to be in the second round, as it guaranteed you a "seat" and we could play longer in the playground after school. If we were nice to him, he would even stop at a store in Pondy Bazar for us to buy maps, posters and stationary the teachers had demanded at school.

The worst days for Veerappan were during the monsoons, when he had to transport a rickshaw full of snooty, chubby girls through the unforgiving Chennai floods, with only his "beedi" to keep him warm as he peddled in the rain. Or the days when some kid delayed the first round, because of which he had to face the wrath of the parents from the second round.

Ah, those days of yore, when we didnt have to worry about how unsafe this mode of transportation was, didnt have to worry about carpools, or pollution, or strangers whisking your kid away, not caring two hoots about the sun, wind or rain, and sadly, not giving a thought about human exploitation.

We never knew what became of Veerappan after we moved out of Chennai. He was heavily in debt to my parents for numerous cash advances (much of it spent on "sarai" or toddy). But my parents were forever indebted to him for transporting their precious bundle everyday. I hope his end was kinder to him than his life


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