When Rickshaws Break Down in Traffic

Driving around Delhi doesn’t leave much time for introspection or idle hands. Really, driving through Delhi at any hour, of any day, involves a fair amount of white-knuckled seat-grabbing, fervent prayers to God Of Choice, and teeth clenching as your vehicle/taxi/rickshaw comes thatclose to sideswiping a bus/demolishing several pedestrians/delivering you to an inevitable death.

I returned to Delhi after nearly three weeks in a tranquil and slow-paced Rishikesh. I was hesitant to make this return, however inevitable it was for me boarding my return flight to the USA, because I knew the brash and noisy clamor of Delhi would be an even harsher wake-up call after so much time spent in yoga practice and reflection.

My overnight train from Hardiwar arrived only three hours late to a Delhi that looked to be in throes of a monsoon. The road outside the train station had become a literal lake, water sloshing so high that I feared engines would be watered down and all manner of transport would be carried away like bobbing buoys in a lake.

A friendly man from my train cabin helped me negotiate fares with taxi drivers who not only wanted to upcharge me for being foreign and white, but also because of the rain. Once the price was settled, a rickshaw-van of sorts rumbled up through the miniature lake, smoke pouring out of the side. I looked at the man who had helped me negotiate the price, laughed, and said, “Wow, it’s really smoking, huh?”

He laughed too. “No, I think it’s on fire.”

Well, that’s always a relief before you’re about to be carried off alone into the depths of Delhi.

But still, I boarded, because it’s Delhi, and these guys know their rickshaws better than anything else (I’d assume), and it was my only way out of the train station other than making a boat with my own hands. We rumbled off through the dirty Delhi water, joining traffic hesitantly.

The engine sputtered and burped and groaned as the driver joined the careening traffic of the highway. Once we got on our way, the engine seemed to have resolved most of its existential questions and we puttered along safely, resolutely. The smell of burning was mostly gone and the only smoking I could see was from the driver’s own cigarette. Score!

But then about fifteen minutes into the voyage, something happened. The rickshaw-van slowed, despite the way the driver pumped the pedal.

Probably just a rickshaw quirk, I reasoned. Probably has nothing to do with the smoke pouring out of the engine earlier.

His expression grew more quizzical as he continued to pump the pedal. The rickshaw slowed more, which made the careening traffic around us an ever crazier and fast-paced blur.

He worked the pedal harder, but the vehicle never responded.

Then the rickshaw sputtered to a complete and undeniable stop.

The driver, unfazed and non-reactive, tried to start the engine. It came to life, but before we even moved a few feet the engine fizzled. Traffic continued to honk and zoom beyond.

Rinse and repeat about seven times.

From here, the driver tried to turn the engine a handful of times more but all that resulted were harsh mechanical groans that yielded nothing.

Despite having been raised by a vehicle enthusiast and general car mechanic, I don’t know much about cars. Even still, I knew that this rickshaw van wasn’t going to turn on again, no matter how many times he tried to start it.

I was stuck somewhere in Delhi in a non-functioning rickshaw with one massive language barrier and no idea how to get where I was going other than “Saket”.

The driver entered the back part of the van and opened the floor, which provided a direct view of the engine. Everything was gritty and gray; pure petrified vehicle dust and ancient layers of engine grime. He poked helplessly at some tubes and wires, each time running back to the front seat to try to start the van. It never worked.

And then he went around to the passenger’s side of the car, took the seat off, began poking at another part of the engine revealed there.

No luck.

So then he took out the driver’s side seat, and poked at the revealed engine parts there.

Still no luck.

Finally, after a solid quarter hour of fruitless attempts and unhelpful engine poking, he took out his phone and called someone.

The only explanation I got was “five minutes”, which for some reason I interpreted as him leaving me and the entire van for five minutes to go somewhere, like to get a part, or find a friend, or tag out a waiting rickshaw van in what I assumed must be a complex network of rickshaw support.

He must have seen the horrified look on my face as I contemplated being left alone in a van that didn’t even lock in the middle of an Indian highway, with all of my belongings piled around me in the middle of a monsoon. The driver repeated it again – “just five minutes” – and climbed back into the front seat. Phew.

Now it was time to wait. I figured five minutes was an optimistic estimate of whenever help or replacement rickshaws would be arriving, since traversing the entirety of Delhi can sometimes take over two hours – and that’s not even in a rainstorm.

Worrying and speculation didn’t seem to be helpful courses of action, since the bulk of this situation was firmly out of my control. I knew I would get to my destination, eventually. So my only real decision, at this point, was how to while away the time?

So I trimmed my cuticles. All of them. I gave myself half of a manicure while I waited in the backseat, rainwater dripping onto my knee through the broken window, the driver sucking on a strange Indian cigarette as he appraised the gray Delhi day beyond.

Traffic swarmed and hissed past us. Alternating honks and gear shifting provided a constant soundtrack to the rickshaw manicure.

In addition to not worrying or speculating, I also thought it might be prudent to not think about the possibility of any of the traffic connecting with the backside of the rickshaw van.

After my forays into the overgrowth of the Himalayan foothills and the existential desperation this provided, I knew that worrying about my untimely demise wasn’t the best use of time, no matter how much the statistical chance of such an occurrence had skyrocketed now that I was stranded in traffic on an Indian highway.

So I clipped and snipped my cuticles until they smiled back at me, preened and prim. And after about twenty minutes, another rickshaw van rumbled up. No smoke, no sputtering engine. I was ushered inside, the monsoon now a mere drizzle, and we continued along our way into the immense labyrinth of Delhi.

A furtive shot from inside the replacement rickshaw van. Cuticles trimmed. Drivers gesticulating at traffic. All is well.

A furtive shot from inside the replacement rickshaw van. Cuticles trimmed. Drivers gesticulating at traffic. All is well.


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