Posted by: cochinblogger | May 31, 2010

When a Rickshaw Driver Slapped a College Principal

First, take a good look at this painting from Amitava Kumar’s blog:

The Rickshaw Wallah

Now you can begin reading.

The principal of Maharaja’s College in the 1940s was Prof. K. Karunakaran Nair, a strict disciplinarian. He presided over the college at a time of great political turbulence; students were actively taking part in the anti-British agitations of the time, and on-campus protests were common. My father was a student of the college then. Not surprisingly, the principal was not popular among the students. However, for my father, for reasons that had nothing to do with politics, the principal was a hero. One aspect of the principal’s character that all, both admirers and detractors, agreed on was his integrity: for example, the only criterion for admitting a student was his or her marks. Detractors maintained that this was the only good quality that Karunakaran Nair possessed.

My father recently narrated an anecdote regarding Karunakaran Nair, who was very hot-tempered. He traveled one day in a rickshaw, and got into a dispute with the driver about the fare. The enraged principal slapped the driver. What happened next? Well, the driver slapped the principal in turn.

I did my schooling in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and am familiar with the rickshaw. It was the means of transport used by the common man, similar to the position of the auto in Cochin today. The overwhelming majority of rickshaws in Calcutta were pulled by hand; they were not cycle rickshaws. Most rickshaw drivers came from Bihar. They were a largely timid, subservient lot. They eked out a precarious living, and I’m ashamed now at the memories of my arguing with them sometimes over the fare. I cannot imagine anyone among them slapping a passenger! There was a move sometime ago by the authorities in Calcutta to ban the rickshaw and rehabilitate the drivers, but I think the move had to be withdrawn.

The rickshaw puller is the archetypal Third World stereotype of the human degraded to subhuman, and many among us feel we must get rid of these eyesores and protect our global reputation. Alas, alas! Our government’s track record in rehabilitation is abysmal. Who can blame the rickshaw drivers for not jumping at the offer? (And, talking of Third World eyesores, let me mention another: we are justly proud of our railways, which is one of the largest in the world, but the sanitation system used is primitive: feces and urine are deposited on the track, which is unheard of in most countries. In a sense, the whole of India, anyone who travels by train at any rate, shits on the railway tracks!)

Rickshaw drivers in Cochin in my father’s days were known for their rudeness and arrogance. I fell to thinking, was there any other part of India in the 1940s where people of the class of rickshaw drivers could lift up their heads in self-assertion, leave alone pride? I doubt it. Such an early awareness (compared to the rest of India) of their rights on the part of the working class is a phenomenon unique to Kerala, with the credit, I think, to be shared by enlightened Maharajahs, the church, and the Left (not necessarily in that order). Arrogance is generally reputed to be a Malayali trait. Certainly, there is very little servility, except of the token kind, on display in Kerala, which is a good thing.

Now, back to K. Karunakaran Nair. At the dinner table one day, my father, then a schoolboy, announced his decision to emulate his principal in everything he did. One cynical sharp-tongued relative shot back, “Sure; but whatever you do, don’t get slapped by a rickshaw driver.”

Some of the sting of that remark is lost in translation. 🙂

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