Twenty years ago, actor Patrick Swayze was in India filming the movie, City of Joy. He played a disillusioned doctor whose life is changed by a friendship with the resident of a Kolkata slum, who worked as a hand rickshaw puller — human horses is how they were described in the film.
This demeaning and grueling form of transport is banned worldwide, including the rest of India, but they're still on the streets of Kolkata.
And in general, the rickshaws are not the image the new India wants people to see. Though the tinkling bell is a pleasant change from the relentless horns of all the motorbikes, cars, taxis and trucks now clogging Kolkata's streets, it is hard not to be shocked by what you see — a bone-thin man, usually barefoot, pulling a high-wheeled heavy hand-cart, often with two or three hefty passengers and bags.
Jordan Rall, first time visitor to India from Seattle, was shocked.
"My first reaction to the rickshaw-pullers was, 'these people are treated like animals, bussing other people like myself around the city, with no shoes, no food in their stomach, really nothing to live off of,'" Rall said. "But at the same time, the manual labour is going to take a toll on these people's bodies, and eventually the job is going to go away because the rickshaw-puller is not going to be there anymore."
Rickshaw pullers have been described as human horses. "To say the least," Rall said.
It is brutal work, and these guys work 12 hours a day, pounding these treacherous and toxic streets, all for just over 2 dollars a day.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but there are 6,000 licensed hand rickshaws, many thousand more unlicensed ones. And the pullers share their rickshaws, to share the cost. They don't own them; they rent them by the day. So there are probably about 20,000 rickshaw pullers.
Laxman Rana, a rickshaw puller in Kolkata (Photo: Judy Swallow)Laxman Rana is one of them.
"I come from a very poor family, that's the reason I'm doing this. I had to pull a rickshaw to support my wife and three daughters and one son," Rana said.
Rickshaws didn't originate in India. The first came over from China, but China banned them long ago, as has the rest of India. Kolkata tried to ban them, but failed.
Subir Bhaumik, writer and veteran journalist of Kolkata, said it was part pity, mostly politics.
"Most of the rickshaw pullers here, almost all of them, are from the state of Bihar. So if the government went ahead with the ban," Bhaumik said, "it would mean thousands of Bihari rickshaw-pullers being out of jobs. They don't' want to force these people out of jobs because it creates tensions with the neighboring state.
After a week here, American tourist Jordan Rall decided he had to leave his Western standards back in Seattle. He took a ride annd paid an unusual, and much appreciated, tip.
"My little brother back at home had an extra pair of shoes, and I had told him I'd throw in the back of my bag and give them to someone that really needed these shoes," Rall said. "And the first person when I came to Kolkata, of all the people who really, really needed these were the rickshaw drivers. So it took me no more than 30 seconds to know exactly who I was going to give these pair of shoes to."
Jordan Rall with Laxman Rana and his interpreter. (Photo: Judy Swallow)Rall said his views on rickshaw drivers have changed. He is less apt to judge the practice.
"Without clientele, without people to hop into the back of these rickshaws, there's absolutely no way for these people to make any money at all," Rall said. "However, at the same time, you feel guilty, you feel sad for the people who are doing these jobs, so one part of you says there's no way I'm going to partake in anything when it comes to riding in a rickshaw."
There is one other reason the Kolkata authorities have found it hard to ban the hand rickshaws; the weather. When the monsoon rains come in June, they hit the city like nowhere else. Only the hand rickshaws with their huge wheels and high seats can get through the city's flooded streets.
Rickshaw driver Laxman Rana may have to pull his rickshaw waist deep in water, but he can double or triple his fares, and for a time, earn, by his standards, a decent wage.