S. K. Bikari regularly pulls a pair of girls to school in the city's fading historic center, yet he rarely sees his own five children back home in the state of Bihar.
S. K. Bikari regularly pulls a pair of girls to school in the city's fading historic center, yet he rarely sees his own five children back home in the state of Bihar.

Last Days of the Rickshaw

Kolkata is bent on burnishing its modern image—and banning a potent symbol of India’s colonial past.

The strategy of drivers in Kolkata—drivers of private cars and taxis and buses and the enclosed three-wheel scooters used as jitneys and even pedicabs—is simple: Forge ahead while honking. There are no stop signs to speak of. To a visitor, the signs that say, in large block letters, OBEY TRAFFIC RULES come across as a bit of black humor. During a recent stay in Kolkata, the method I devised for crossing major thoroughfares was to wait until I could attach myself to more pedestrians than I figured a taxi was willing to knock down. In the narrow side streets known as the lanes, loud honking is the signal that a taxi or even a small truck is about to round the corner and come barreling down a space not meant for anything wider than a bicycle. But occasionally, during a brief lull in the honking, I’d hear the tinkling of a bell behind me. An American who has watched too many Hallmark Christmas specials might turn around half expecting to see a pair of draft horses pulling a sleigh through snowy woods. But what came into view was a rickshaw. Instead of being pulled by a horse, it was being pulled by a man—usually a skinny, bedraggled, barefoot man who didn’t look quite up to the task. Hooked around his finger was a single bell that he shook continuously, producing what is surely the most benign sound to emanate from any vehicle in Kolkata.

Among the great cities of the world, Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal and the home of nearly 15 million people, is often mentioned as the only one that still has a large fleet of hand-pulled rickshaws. As it happens, that is not a distinction treasured by the governing authorities. Why? It’s tempting, of course, to blame Mother Teresa. A politician in Kolkata told me that the city is known for the three m’s: Marxism, mishti, and Mother Teresa. (West Bengal has had a government dominated by the Communist Party for 30 years. Mishti is a sweetened yogurt that Kolkatans love, though they’re also partial to a sweet called rossogolla.) There is no doubt that the international attention given to Mother Teresa’s work among the wretched and the dying firmly linked Kolkata in the Western mind with squalor—no matter how often Kolkatans point out that Mumbai, for example, has more extensive slums, and that no other city in India can match the richness of Kolkata’s intellectual and cultural life.

The most loyal booster of Kolkata would acknowledge that the city has had some genuinely trying times in the 60 years since India became independent, starting well before the emergence of Mother Teresa. The partition that accompanied independence meant that, without substantial help from the central government, Kolkata had to absorb several million refugees from what became East Pakistan. There were times in the 1970s and ’80s when it seemed Kolkata would never recover from the trauma of those refugees, followed by another wave of refugees who came during the war that turned East Pakistan into Bangladesh. Those were years marked by power outages and labor unrest and the flight of industry and the breathtaking violence unleashed by the Naxalite movement, which began with peasants demanding land redistribution in rural West Bengal and was transformed by college students into urban guerrilla warfare. In 1985 India’s own prime minister, then Rajiv Gandhi, called Kolkata “a dying city.”

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