Although it has taken me nearly 6 weeks to finally meet this Khan guy, whose scooter I happened to find myself on late yesterday afternoon, I can’t say the horn on his scooter was as shy in making an introduction to me as I’ve heard it since day 1 of being a resident at the Salvation Army. Most cases when you hear a horn in Kolkata, it’s to politely tell someone “be careful, I’m right here,” but with Khan, I think he communicates with his horn in an entirely different way and it’s to tell people “Khan’s here!” The only reason I say this is because when he honks his horn, no one is even remotely close to him and often times, with the exception of me sitting in the courtyard reading a book, it’s deserted of all other residents.
For whatever reason, Khan decided to do the talking yesterday instead of his horn and it seemed like before I could even get my name out to finish the formal introduction, I was in his “bachelor pad” on the ground level with a glass of Indian rum in my hand. Normally, with new introductions, I try and get the kindling going for small talk, but it wasn’t necessary with Khan as he provided the fire by mentioning all the things he had his hands in around town. Bakery...he’s got it! Gym...got it! 5 vehicles...oh yeah, he’s got it. Mistress on the side that his wife doesn’t know about...you better believe it. Of course talking about all this stuff wasn’t enough and so that’s how I found myself on the backseat of his scooter as he wanted to give me the personal tour and so off we went...first, by scooter about 2 blocks and then by car for another 2 blocks. Your guess as to why we used two different vehicles is as good as mine.
First stop...gym! Once we got there, I’d say the tour of the gym took about enough time as walking into a 250 sq feet single room would and the only reason it took a little longer was that one, I got caught in a trance looking at Khan’s 85 year old Dad’s unbelievably ripped body and two, I had to peak around a bit more because I was almost sure I’d find Rocky Balboa training in there. After the gym, it was right next door to the bakery to continue the tour, where I got to see boys of no more than 9 and 10 yrs old I’d think rolling dough and doing whatever else is involved with making biscuits. God knows how many hours these kids work there, but I hope it isn’t anything close to the 16 hr days the 14 yr old kid at the juice stand on Sudder St. told me he worked. I’m of the belief that hard work builds good character in a person, but so does having fun when you're a kid and so I hope these guys have time for that too. Package of complimentary sweet biscuits later and we we’re off to Khan’s house to meet the rest of his family. His 3 daughters and 2 sons were as sweet as the chai that was prepared for me and after saying my goodbyes to everyone, Khan dropped me back off at the Salvation Army. I can’t say Khan and I see eye to eye on a lot of things, but next time I hear his horn a blaring in the courtyard, that won’t keep me from blaring right back with a friendly wave and hello.
This morning, as is the case every morning, I was yet confronted with the same rickshaw dilemma that many people find themselves in here and the dilemma is this—to support them and ride in them or to not support them. Before I get into the opening statements of why or why not to support the rickshaw puller, it would be best for me to make sure no one is confusing rickshaw puller with an autorickshaw. An autorickshaw is powered by an actual engine, whereas a regular rickshaw is powered by as much muscle and strength a man can find in his own body. If you still can’t quite wrap your head around what a rickshaw looks like, imagine a horse carriage, shrink it down to fit a couple people only, and put a man in front instead of the horses and you’ve got it. And would the prosecution like to make their opening statement? “We would your honor. People of the jury...what we have here is a vehicle of human slavery where horses have been replaced with men and their dignity has been exchanged for profit. This isn’t about whether rickshaws create jobs or offer a convenient form of transportation for some; rather, it’s about what’s right and wrong and rickshaws are flat out wrong!” Does the defense care to rebuttal? We do your honor. The rickshaw has been a part of Kolkata history for years and outside of this form of transportation being an integral part of our identity and culture, something we should be proud of, it has been a form of transportation offering great benefit to the local economy as it has created thousands of jobs for people who would otherwise not be able to make a living. Support the rickshaw and you feed a mouth. Don’t support it and you taketh the spoon away!” Since I’ve been here, I’ve been in contact with plenty of people that feel too bad to ride the rickshaw and I’ve seen plenty of people gladly paying their admission ticket in rupees and enjoying the ride. As for me, I feel bad not supporting these guys, but I know I’d feel just as bad riding in one so I’ve just decided to randomly give a rickshaw puller each day a $20 rupee note to solve the dilemma in a different way. Consider it a CARE MORE random act of kindness.