As expected, all the roads near the market were double-parked by duly unauthorized attendants and I had to venture well into the innards of the colony to find enough free space to squeeze in my red monster.
As I began my long trek back to the market, I noticed that the place was swarming with cycle rickshaws, a vehicle that used to be seen only in Chandni Chowk, and that too before it had become a victim of the auto industry and misplaced human rights angst. But they were all around me, simpler and barer than the ones in my mind’s eye, without the colourful hoods, the tassles, the metal work, the mirrors, but good old-fashioned cycle rickshaws nevertheless. An instant decision, a quick negotiation for a ride a back to the market for a tenner and I was being driven imperiously through the milling crowds. There was a something about the wobble of the wheels or the way in which the rickshaw driver rose up on the pedals to exert himself that took me back four decades in an instant. Once again I was a five year old, and he was Radhe Shyam.
Radhe Shyam had appeared one winter evening, in his white dhoti, a buttoned-up black coat, shiny black shoes, a muffler knotted firmly under his chin to protect his head and ears from the cold. He was a smiling answer to my mother’s prayers.
She had been facing an odd problem in sending her five year old to a nearby school, only a mile or so away as crows used to fly those days over fields of cauliflower and radish.
Those fields, with the occasional shade of a neem or a sudden flame of a gulmohar, with their wells from which camels drew water as the bells around their necks tinkled and the bearded hermit sat on his charpoy under the canopy of a tomb and watched over it all, have now vanished. Instead there are shopping malls, apartment blocks, potential metro stations.
The mornings were fine. I would be the last child to be picked up by the school bus and dropped at the new red-bricked building in a few minutes. But some strange logic of equity made the bus take the reverse round on the way back.
The result: I would stagger home, hungry and tired, from the neighbourhood school after having been driven for about two hours in the blazing yellow afternoon through the scrub, thorn and rock of south Delhi, dotted with innumerable brick kilns (the big colonies of south Delhi were still being built) right up to Qutub. So I became the first client of Radhe Shyam, who had started the first school cycle rickshaw in south Delhi.
Soon I was joyfully riding to and back from school in a few minutes in his black breadbox affixed on top of the cycle rickshaw frame. The idea caught on quickly. Radhe Shyam soon had a full house of six kids, complete with orange bars dripping onto white uniforms and scarred knees.
Then his brother Chotte Lal started a parallel service and life was never the same again.
I got off at the market and gratefully handed over a tenner for a journey that had not only brought me to the market but had shown me once again the wondrous lost light of childhood.
The article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, January, 2008