It’s really quite something to see and sit in an auto rickshaw (henceforth rickshaw) for the first time. I have been riding in them since as long as I can remember at least once every visit I’ve made to India. The little three-wheelers are unlike anything on the road in most other countries in the world. They’re obviously not Mumbai-specific, but they iconize the streets of Mumbai as well as the BEST buses or taxis. The truly spectacular thing about these vehicles is that, north of Bandra, they are everywhere. It makes them the best way to get around the city.
If you come to Mumbai, you absolutely have to sit in a rickshaw. The open sides and sheet metal body create a subconscious thrill of danger, and the tiny wheels and lack of any real suspension means you will truly experience why Mumbaikars cannot stand the roads of the city. The front wheel and corresponding fitting is reminiscent of the front wheel of a Vespa; indeed, rickshaws in Mumbai use a two-stroke scooter engine. Steering is controlled by handlebars rather than with a wheel. At my height, if I sit straight, the canvas tarp that is stretched over the top of the frame comes till my chin. Mumbai rickshaws are tiny, and are barely comfortable with two people. Unlike cities like Bhopal, where rickshawallas are proud and decorate immaculately cleaned vehicles, Mumbai’s rickshaws are usually filthy. You’ll see bare wiring flaying about in the breeze, rust gouging fist-sized holes in the body and cracked windshields on most rickshaws.
The meter on rickshaws are mechanical, so despite the fact that is might say Rs. 2.20 on the meter, you might pay Rs. 21. It always begins at Rs. 1.00, and stays that way for the first kilometer, and then increased proportionally by Rs. 1.00 for every additional kilometer thereafter. As of October 2009, each meter rupee is approximately Rs. 9 of real money. The government adjusts this value every once in a while, and you can buy meter cards at newsstands, since it is not intuitive, but most Mumbaikars follow a simple rule: multiply the meter value by ten and subtract one rupee. It is not perfect, but it seems standard. I have not seen a meter card since the early 2000’s. Put a mechanical meter in the hands of a rickshawalla though, and it is going to get tampered with. I would guess that rickshawallas fiddle with their meters less than taxiwallas, but it definitely happens more often that I first suspected.
Rickshaws are one of the major causes of bad traffic in most Indian cities, and Mumbai is no exception. They have a top speed of 50 km/h and probably cruise at 35-40 km/h, though I am guessing—I do not remember the last time I sat in a rickshaw that had a functional speedometer. I have to assume they come broken from the manufacturer. Despite the rather humbling resumé put forth by these vehicles, rickshawallas are the king of the roads. When you flag one down, he will stop (it is always a he), and you’ll tell him where you want to go. With an almost imperceptible leftward rotation of his head, you can get in the back1. Now, the fun begins. Every rickshawalla thinks he is Michael Schumacher, and his rickshaw has the power and agility of a Formula 1 car. Expect a roller-coaster of tumbles, turns, heart-stopping close calls and earfuls of swearing from the rickshawalla to the public around his rickshaw, in or out of cars. They are masters at making everything part of the road, be it the sidewalk or a lane of opposing traffic.
I absolutely love rickshaws2. It is by far the most incredible way to travel in the city. I would advise a fairly large subset of the population, however, to stay away from them. Asthmatics are the first: I remember taking a rickshaw with my aunt nine or ten years ago. We stopped in traffic right next to a bus. I stuck my head out to marvel at this towering behemoth of red and smiled at the passengers so high up above me. The bus lurched forward, and out of the exhaust pipe came this seemingly sentient dark mountain of smoke. It made quick headway towards my face, and as I sat there, terrified and unable to do anything to stop the impeding emphysema, I wondered if this is what Bob Dylan was singing about in Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
The old should also consider avoiding rickshaws. It is not an understatement to say that sitting in a rickshaw is to feel the pulse of the city; you can feel, deep in your bones, every groove of every pebble on the road. Standing on solid ground after a thirty-minute trip requires patience and effort. Your knees will not hold, head will swim, and heart will threaten to stop. It just does not pair well with afflictions of the body that come with age: blood pressure, arthritis, muscle degradation and a weakened immune system. Pregnant women should avoid them too, or risk giving birth in a moving, open-air vehicle.
Now that I’ve convinced you that this is the best transportation method in the world, excuse me while I go and find one to take me to work.
- What many newcomers never find out is that rickshaws and taxis are required by law to accept any fare if they are For Hire. Just get in, and if he complains, suggest a trip to the nearest police chowk. ↩
- Obviously a lot of what I’ve said here is in jest—though it is all true—but I truly do love them. I’ve been in a serious accident sitting in one, have been ripped off by the rickshawallas more times than I can count and have been so frustrated with their speed, but I still crave the thrill. ↩