I love riding rickshaws and have since I could. I remember the very ancient days when women from conservative backgrounds would wrap a sari around the canopy to observe purdah while on rickshaws. That's late 50s.

But rickshaws are always a friendly beast of burden for me. There is a person right in front of you whose entire body works for the passenger. And the vehicle is such that happy conversations can be held with another without any disturbance sitting behind.

One never knows how many relationships were born, sustained or died within the small confines of that space on which the passengers sit. It's the cheapest place in which and where personal history takes place in so many of our lives.

Of romance and commercial sex

There was once a time when romancing wasn't easy in Dhaka. Dating places were few, elders frowned upon it and in general privacy was in short supply not to mention that no such thing as a cell phone existed. It was in the 60s that this rickshaw romance was in vogue. But enter the rickshaw and it provided everything.

When the hood was pulled over the head, all passengers went invisible, conversations were easy and comfortable and the two young people squeezed together provided a sort of welcomed forced physical proximity and togetherness that was rather popular. And one could say whatever they wanted because the puller by the nature of his class and culture was an outsider. It was 180-degree audio-visual privacy ensured.

It wasn't just romance but even commercial sex that was facilitated by rickshaws. It was once common to see rickshaw sex workers. I myself did a story on them and talked to several and found an underworld of commercial sex, impoverished human beings and the untold story of a bond between both.

I had used the Bijoy Sarani to do my stalking and found several of them willing to talk. The pullers would slowly ply their vehicles up and down the road with the girls sitting inside till a client showed interest. Sometimes clients would bump into their rickshaw and sometimes as the night grew, they would call out from the footpaths. The girls felt safe with the pullers in that twilight world.

A rickshaw puller told me with some pride how he beat up a client who had refused to pay a girl after the work was done. A few nights later, he was back for more. So, the puller gathered a few more fellow beings and gave that guy a quick hiding claiming he had stolen their money. After that he was never seen looking for paid physical pleasure. The physical pain was enough of a warning.

A rickshaw ride one last time

Perhaps the most touching story was one in which a friend of mine who lived in the US was informed that his father was dying and wanted to see him one last time. He returned home and found his father eagerly waiting for one thing he least expected -a rickshaw ride with him.

When my friend was a kid, his father would take him to school on a rickshaw and they would chat, laugh and be happy. He wanted to relive those moments one more time, one last time. They did take a ride, a long one as the son held the father just as the father had held him many years before and they were happy together one final time. My friend didn't leave as planned and stayed back the last few months and went back only after the earth had welcomed his dad back once more. That ride had brought them very close.

The brotherhood of pullers

I use a series of rickshaws to go to my university classes twice a week. I wonder whether I enjoy teaching more or riding the rickshaws. I pay 30 takas to reach Niketon Park, cross the traffic crazy awful road in front of the park and the Police Plaza and get to the stand and get another to reach the University in Badda.

It' interesting how fares are determined. A side road that avoids the main Badda traffic and reaches the campus "pocker gate", is taka 30 and the main gate is Taka 50. Most of the rickshaws are motor driven though a few are muscle powered.

I avoid the motor rickshaws because they are unstable and often out of control. Over the years I have had a couple of crashes so I know better. But they have to cross the Badda bridge and that's a tough call for muscles and even more if they are ageing ones.

Yet it's also an opportunity to watch Dhaka's impoverished class mentality. Older muscle powered rickshaws are often pushed from behind by the motor rickshaws as they negotiate the bridge. It comes so easy to them. On my way back I too often walk on the bridge's sidewalk as the puller drags it over the bridge's hump and reaches the end.

Somehow even at seventy two years I want to hold on to the fading magic of life and the blast one gets riding a rickshaw.

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