Train number 12371, the Jaisalmer Express, pulls into Gaya Junction. It is 45 minutes late. Not bad for the first leg of a 1,400–mile run from Kolkota to the east to the Pakistan border to the west.
The first local I run into on the platform is a cow: light brown, bony, young short-horned. It ambles along aimlessly, looking bemused, as if wondering what it’s doing here and what possessed it to listen to its friends when they suggested this might be a fun place to while away the afternoon.
Outside the station is the official rickshaw stand, which is no stand at all but a tangle of sputtering yellow and black three-wheelers, their drivers competing vociferously for customers. One particularly enterprising operator agrees to take me to Bodh Gaya, my destination today, where devotees gather from all over Asia and beyond because this is where Buddha attained nirvana.
The fare seems reasonable. I climb in and join a bespectacled, surly-looking man, whose set features suggests that rickshaws were not invented for pleasure alone and that this will be a ride to remember. It doesn’t take long for this prediction to come true.
seems almost roomy. Surely, it could accommodate another passenger, or even two.
We set off in a cloud of dust and fumes. A deafening chorus of calls, bicycle bells, shouts, and horns assaults the visitor as the whiff of urban effluvia and cow dung mingles with roadside cooking smells and the sweet fragrance of incense.
The rickshaw begins to fill up, honking for more as we pitch and roll along the rutted street. By now, I share the back seat with a surly-looking man and two slender young women who never stop chattering until they tap the driver on the shoulder and wander off down a dusty alley.
But reinforcements are not long in coming. With the railway station still in sight, the rickshaw now contains eight fully-grown men sharing a vehicle designed for three, four at most.
The driver shares his cab with three other men: one on the tiny seat to his right, the other two squeezed together to his left. The one on the outer left can't have more than half a buttock on the seat, and he stops himself from going overboard by jamming his left leg against the metal rod that
supports the rickshaw’s roof. To accommodate his neighbors, the driver steers the vehicle with his upper body twisted sideways. One of the men smokes, a rare sight in India.
As we negotiate a particularly chaotic turn, a bright green rickshaw moving in the opposite direction tries to ford a gully running across the road. It is massively overloaded with enormous bales wrapped in white jute. The front half of the vehicle makes it across safely, but as the rear sinks into the gully, one of the wheels snaps and the contraption collapses in a grinding crash and a whirl of yellow dust.
As the three-wheeler keels backward, slowly but inexorably, the front portion rises until the wheel points heavenward. The rickshaw is now marooned in the middle of the road, resting on its one remaining rear wheel and what is left of its suspension. Motorbikes and bicycles squeeze past easily enough, but larger vehicles pile up behind it, and the honking redoubles.
A door opens, and the driver emerges. I expect him to curse his fate as he contemplates the repair bill and perhaps the loss of his livelihood. Instead, he grins broadly and starts trading banter
with amused onlookers grateful for the entertainment. But soon, all join hands in moving the stricken vehicle out the way, some pushing, others pulling, while the wiser element stand around offering tips on the art of rickshaw removal supplemented with moral encouragement.
A few stops later, a heavy-looking man in a light cotton costume that was once white and a long shaggy beard that only partially hides the food stains on his tunic brings the rickshaw to a screeching halt. In his right hand is the thick staff that signals his calling: he is a holy man, a sadhu, an itinerant ascetic in search of enlightenment, but not so unworldly as to contemplate walking the last couple of miles to Bodh Gaya’s shrines. Asceticism has its merits, but so do rickshaws.
The driver turns around, gives us a thoughtful look, and for a moment seems to be calculating how he might squeeze in the holy man and add his five rupees to the day’s take. But the sour-faced grump intervenes, and in terms that require no knowledge of the Bihari dialect of Hindi to understand, barks to the driver not to be so ridiculous. Let us
be on our way, he snarls. The driver complies, and the sadhu is left standing, there to ponder life’s unpredictability.
We stop again; a burly man unceremoniously removes the relatively slender man occupying one of the front seats and orders him to the rear, where he crouches into a ball and wedges himself in the narrow space between the driver’s shoulder blades and my kneecaps. The driver was right: it was possible; the body count is now nine.
There are cows everywhere. Most are light, scrawny, sorry-looking creatures wandering the streets in search of scraps discarded by food vendors and market traders, or failing that, crumpled newspaper on which to munch. One of them, a splendid, exceptionally well-fed specimen, black with majestic horns and a no-nonsense look in its large eyes, guards the entrance to a gas station, signaling to drivers in need of fuel its conviction that it owns the patch of real estate on which it now ruminates. Each whack of its thick tail raises a small cloud of dust. The idea, it seems, is to remonstrate with drivers over their preference for self-propelling vehicles when so many of her bovine cousins are under-employed and could do the job at a fraction of the cost.
At the end of Gaya airport’s runway, an Air India jet is making its final turn in preparation for takeoff. The sight of the white and red beast and the roar of its engines are sufficiently novel for a long line of stationary cars, rickshaws, and bicycles to clog the narrow highway as locals used to gentler rhythms gaze in awe. In the land of bicycles, this may be the first time most of the onlookers have ever been this close to a jet. In this flat, barren landscape, it looks huge. I must confess to rubbernecking too.
The load lightens as two of the male passengers abandon ship one by one, including the dour-faced original passenger. But a few stops and one or two near-collisions later, two more women in multicolored saris join us and restore the rickshaw to its full complement of nine occupants, except that each lady is holding a baby, eight or nine months old, perhaps. Both infants are heavily made up, their pierced ear lobes adorned with tiny silver rings.
As we pass a roadside stelae, one of the women tries to toss a small coin in its direction through the opening in the side of the rickshaw. But as she takes aim, the vehicle descends into a pothole of cavernous dimensions. Her hand wobbles, and the coin lands at my feet. Seeing her encumbered with her baby and unable to lean forward, I pick up the coin and hand it back to her. This time, she tosses it out of the opening in the back of the rickshaw, retroactively as it were, then brings her right hand to her forehead, lips, and heart in quick succession in a manner reminiscent of the Catholic sign of the cross.
As the rickshaw finally splutters into Bodh Gaya, whining is heard; veils are loosened, and a synchronized breastfeeding session begins, instantly becalming the restless infants.
You couldn't invent India.
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