Unspoken Contract With a Rickshaw Driver

Oct 21, 2005

"Where to?" the rickshaw driver asks me with his mouth full of tobacco. "Vijay Char Rasta," I say. I'm headed to meet Sampat, Raj and Archana to talk about the purpose of life and things like that. :)

After some light conversation, the rickshaw driver and I quickly become friends. "Are you from Ahmedabad?" he asks me. "No, I'm just visiting a friend." "Just a visit?" "Yeah, he's opening a restaurant and he wanted my parents to inaugurate it. I'm helping him launch the caf?."

"Caf?? You mean, it's like a Barista?" he asks showing his knowledge about the trendy coffee joints in town. "No, not quite like Barista. It's called the Seva Caf?." "Oh, what's that?" "Well, it's a place where everyone is a volunteer, and no one gets charged for their food. It's going back to our cultural roots, where each person is treated as a part of you and not a customer: Atithi Devo Bhava. We start each relationship by giving, and not by thinking of receiving."

As we talk more about the Pay-it-Forward model, the rickshaw driver progressively gets more and more blown away. "I can't believe that such a thing can exist in a world like this. Today, everyone is after money. No one gives. Corruption is everywhere, even in our government. The world needs more people like your friend."

"What's your name, by the way?" I ask the pumped-up rickshaw driver. "Mohan. Don't call me 'kaka' (uncle). I'm like your brother. Call me Mohanbhai."

When I press him a bit about his own life, Mohan goes on to describe his own bad habits. "Sahib, what can I say? It's hard. I know it's bad for me, I've seen all the tobacco related cancer patients in the hospitals but it's hard to let it go." I suppose we're all in the same boat with our bad habits, but Mohan has got honesty working for him.

In between the loud honking horns and the exceptionally noisy rickshaw, Mohan drives slowly in the side of street so we can converse. He even starts singing some poems, in praise of human virtue (I wish I could remember them :)).

"How long have you been in Ahmedabad?" I investigate. He says, "My whole life. We used to have a farm and all in our village, but now I just drive a rickshaw. It's good money."

"About how much money do you make everyday?" "Oh, 200 to 300 rupees daily. It's really good."

Throughout the pilgrimage, this is one thing I noticed -- people with more money are more self-conscious about it. I can't imagine any of my middle or upper class friends volunteering their exact salary information; either they'll fake it to pretend to be "successful" or they'll try to hide their net worth in fear that someone will somehow steal their jewels. For Mohan, though, it was 200-300 rupees a day (minus the operational costs, which he didn't figure in).

Thus far, our conversation has been in pure Gujarati. And then, just out of nowhere, he says, "I am B-com graduate. I speak English." Whooa. And then he reads a couple of the English billboards to happily brag about his skills. A college grad driving a rickshaw? "Oh yeah, this way I take home about 3000 rupees a month for my family. Nothing else gives me that kind of money," Mohan explains.

"How many people in your family?" "Two daughters, one son and my wife," he says with a smile as he describes his loved ones.

On the face of it, Mohan's red-colored teeth, a fake-looking-weird-yellow dyed hair, big eyes and tattered clothing can present a daunting image. But in this conversation, we had entered another dimension of our realities. By now, Mohan and I were almost brothers in service; I was excited to be given a window of insight into the heart of a rickshaw driver and Mohan was enthralled with our conversations on the need for good in the world, examples of meritorious acts, and the heroic experiment of my friend's Seva Caf?.

Soon enough, my fourteen minute rickshaw ride came to an end. It was time for me to pay for the ride.

"How much?" He checks his meters and reads, "23 rupees."

I look in my wallet and notice that I have the exact change of Rs. 240. That's only 10 rupees less than his daily turnover. Spontaneously, I say, "Mohanbhai, here's 240 rupees. Will you drive your rickshaw in the Seva Caf? style, today?"

A moment of stunned silence.

I explain, "For the rest of the day, just drive the rickshaw as usual but when it comes time to charge, tell your customers that someone else before them has paid their bill for them and if they want to continue the chain of kindness, they can contribute whatever they want. See what happens."

Mohan still is awestruck. Shaking his head in disbelief, he says, "No sir, no sir, I can't take this." "Why not?" "No, no, sir, you don't understand. I'm a terrible guy. How do you know I won't just take the money and run?"

"Mohanbhai, if I didn't trust you, why would I give you the money?"

"Sahib (boss), don't trust me. I'm a very bad person. No one trusts me," he says while rejecting money and downplaying himself for the next couple of minutes.

To his several minute tirade, I respond with a one-liner and an extra-broad smile on my face: "Too late. I already trust you."

Again, a moment of stunned silence. Mohan doesn't exactly know what to do.

"Ok, sir, tell me your name. I will come and tell you exactly what happened with this money."

"Too late, Mohan. I already trust you fully. You don't need to tell me anything. It will be an unspoken contract between you and the world," I say. One got the sense that he had never experienced such a blatant act of irrational faith. :)

Still, Mohan felt a need to reassure me that he will live up to the faith I had placed in him. After fumbling around for a bit, he gathers money from all the hidden pockets of change; "See, see, I have Rs. 312 on me. You have given me Rs. 240. I will do my honest best today. You can be sure of that. I won't let you down today."

It's hard not to be elated after such encounters. Rs. 240 is worth less than a movie in the US; no movie has ever left me feeling this connected with life.

Right as I was about to go, Mohan throws in his final condition: "Sir, I won't let you go without giving me your name and address. You have to. You can't leave without telling me."

"Mohan, I tell you what. You and your family, you come to the Seva Caf? some day. You've seen the Reebok building; it's right on the fourth floor. If you come in the next week, I'll be your waiter. Otherwise, ask for Jayeshbhai and tell him you're my friend. He'll know."

He grabs a newspaper from one of his bins, pulls out a pen from under his seat, and writes down a few things in Gujarati. "One day, bhai, I will find you and tell you all my stories." Almost silently, he whispers, "Thank you."

"See you, my friend," I say while walking off. He smiles, snaps his fingers and lifts his right index finger towards the sky. I don't know what it meant, but maybe it was the seal on our unspoken contract.

Bookmark and Share


Projects I'm Involved With

"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."