Cups of Chai and Rickshaw Pullers in Kolkata!

If you have seen the movie City of Joy based on the incredible novel by Dominique Lapierre,  (and, unlike me, could keep your eyes off of Patrick Swayze) you may remember that one of the main characters is a rickshaw puller from Bihar (a neighboring state that is one of the poorest of India).  He comes to Calcutta to make a little money so that his beloved daughter can marry.  I watched this movie twenty years ago so on a recent visit I was not expecting to still see men hand-pulling rickshaws on the streets of Kolkata.  But yes, here they are, in the midst of motorbikes, cars, taxis, and buses are these skinny men, some of them barefoot, others wearing flimsy shoes, pulling a cart on two giant wooden wheels, loaded with passengers and navigating through the modern traffic.  I was told that Kolkata is now the only city in the world that still has them (as opposed to the bicycle variety); they have been banned worldwide, including in the rest of India.

Apparently the West Bengal government tried to ban hand-pulled rickshaws in 2006, both on humanitarian grounds and also because they conflict with its desired modern image of India.  But the rickshaw pullers (or wallahs) went on strike against the ban and the government gave in.  Since then, I was told that the government regularly makes noise about the possibility of a ban, but the rickshaw wallahs are still here.

And speaking of noise, ironically, in a country where honking is a way of life, the rickshaw pullers all carry a small bell hooked to their fingers that they shake continuously in an attempt to inform those around them of their presence.  Although the tinkling noise of their bell may have been useful at some point in the distant past, it is now lost in the cacophony of the streets of Kolkata.

In my short time in the city, I saw many rickshaw wallahs and spent a little time with one of them, Dharmendra. Dharmendra, who can be seen wearing a reddish headscarf in many of the images below, told us that he has been in Kolkata doing this work for over 20 years.  From him, I learned that the clients of man-pulled rickshaws are mostly locals who need to travel short distances and often school kids.  This mode of transportation is also very popular during the monsoon season as the heavy rain makes it impractical for regular vehicles to navigate the streets whereas the high wheels of the rickshaws can keep their cargo dry (but obviously not the pullers).

Of course, it is hard to know how to react to this practice.  A first reaction is to be shocked by what you see these men doing.  They do arduous work for long hours and yet make very little money (about $2-$3 a day).  On the other hand, if a ban is instituted, the approximately 20,000 rickshaw wallahs will likely find themselves out of work.  After talking to Dharmendra, it is clear that they see the job as survival.  One can hope that as the economic situation in Bihar improves, fewer men will need to leave home to come to Kolkata to live the life of a rickshaw puller.

And speaking of hard work, walking in the area nearby the Kalighat temple, we ended up in a back street where a group of potters works and lives.  India is the land of chai tea; chai shops are everywhere and people consume several of the tiny cups a day.  I guess one of the practices the country should be lauded for is that often chai is consumed in terracotta cups (as opposed to plastic).  In case you were wondering what the connections with the potters are, well these potters make the small chai cups.  Each potter on average makes 200 cups a day that are then put on the roof to dry. The last step will be to bake the cups on fire nearby.  The cups will then be ready to use for a delicious cup of chai.  These cups will only be used once.  After one finishes the chai, the cup will be thrown on the ground and probably stepped on.  From now on, every time I enjoy a cup of wonderfully aromatic and piping hot chai, I will be reminded of the hard work that goes into the making of these short-lived cups.

Meet these tireless workers.


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10 Responses

  1. France,
    Your images are super. you are getting more detail, more shots of specific subject, allowing for deeper understanding. I love them. Great work. Ruti

  2. France, what a wonderful reportage! Keep up the great work…you always entertain and inform us with your engaging, thought provoking text and warm, heartfelt imagery.

  3. Dear France,

    We haven’t yet met, but your husband is my life coach and mentor!

    I find your photos incredibly captivating. They transport me to the many long (and hot) summers I spent in India as a child. These trips were just distant memory to me until viewing your work brought everything (sights, sounds, smells) back to life!

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful art with us.

    1. Ifte, Thanks for visiting and for your kind words. I loved Kolkata, thanks for helping with my visit. I hope to be back soon. France

  4. Unfortunately the earthen cups for chai have been making way for the less hygienic but more modern glasses and cups and even worse paper. I noticed in my recent visit that styrofoam plates are now proffered by many of the snack wallahs rather than the old style plates and bowls made of sal leaves. Random cows and goats used to subsist on these meager but eco-friendly scraps and do a great job cleaning up.

    I went on a recent visit to West Bengal in the Kolkata area. Since it had been over a decade since my last visit I was shocked at the changes.

    1. Yes things are changing there as they are everywhere I guess. I am sure you saw that a lot of the chai shops are now using flimsy plastic cups which I think are the worst on all fronts. Not only do you find them everywhere on the ground but I find them impossible to hold without burning your fingers. This is why I was so excited when I found that small “terracotta” factory. All around the neighborhood, the chai vendors were using their cups. And speaking of changes, this last trip for the first time, I was offered the option of a “lite” chai by a vendor!

Would love to hear from you!

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