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Published: April 2008

India’s Rickshaws

Kolkata Rickshaws

Last Days of the Rickshaw

Kolkata is bent on burnishing its modern image—and banning a potent symbol of India’s colonial past.

By Calvin Trillin
Photograph by Ami Vitale

The strategy of drivers in Kolkata—drivers of private cars and taxis and buses and the enclosed three-wheel scooters used as jitneys and even pedicabs—is simple: Forge ahead while honking. There are no stop signs to speak of. To a visitor, the signs that say, in large block letters, OBEY TRAFFIC RULES come across as a bit of black humor. During a recent stay in Kolkata, the method I devised for crossing major thoroughfares was to wait until I could attach myself to more pedestrians than I figured a taxi was willing to knock down. In the narrow side streets known as the lanes, loud honking is the signal that a taxi or even a small truck is about to round the corner and come barreling down a space not meant for anything wider than a bicycle. But occasionally, during a brief lull in the honking, I’d hear the tinkling of a bell behind me. An American who has watched too many Hallmark Christmas specials might turn around half expecting to see a pair of draft horses pulling a sleigh through snowy woods. But what came into view was a rickshaw. Instead of being pulled by a horse, it was being pulled by a man—usually a skinny, bedraggled, barefoot man who didn’t look quite up to the task. Hooked around his finger was a single bell that he shook continuously, producing what is surely the most benign sound to emanate from any vehicle in Kolkata.

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