The Rishka Wisdom

It pulls to the side of the road at the start of a downpour.  With a push and a click of the metal sidebars the hood is lowered and fixed into place.  A plastic sheet of some impromptu variety is served across passengers’ legs just as a waiter spreads tablecloths in the expectation of diners.  The motion re-starts and the journey continues, with the driver, often uncovered himself, giving in to the drenching delivered by the sky.  There’s virtue in putting one’s own comfort second.  There’s merit in caring for strangers.

In the tyres and mud guards, from handlebars to hood and right down to the panel of imagination, the canvas of rickshaw art at the back, in the rickshaw is wisdom.  Often called ‘rishka’ by the villagers, every day chapters of this vehicle’s sacred texts are recited and inscribed anew across this city’s roads, championing the potholes and taking the occasional short cut along part of a footpath.  In muddy patches the rishka wisdom leaves its imprint traces: the new learning of new journeys etched into the land.  Traffic rules can be as they may, but the rishka wisdom has its own ways.

Long before we heard the broadcasts of rising seas and melting ice caps, before climate scientists became accustomed to death threats, it was there.  A beacon of clean transport the rishka said, ‘consider the air; consider the planet we share.’  And of employment it spoke, the reward that may come with some effort.  The push on the pedal gives the motion to families being fed and the most basic needs being met.  In a hostile world there’s dignity in the pursuit of honesty.  The rishka says that too.

The global centre of this particular branch of knowledge is Dhaka.  The tinkle of the bell is more than a ‘get out of the way!’  It’s a philosophy that tells us to take care with our life’s course such that it may not impinge upon the freedom of others; it’s a warning that the world is full of dangers and with care we should tread; and it’s courtesy.  The rishka bell is music; it’s the chorus call of the city.

The rishka is also about communication: in the dodgem chaos drivers call to each other.  They shout and scold and curse; and sometimes offer the greetings of friends with polite inquiries as to where the other is going.  In any case the rishka’s is not the wisdom of silence but of finding one’s voice.

The rishka’s is a discourse of opportunity and making the most of every space that offers itself in life, of finding space where there is none while working towards achieving a goal.  Somehow everyone fits within the limitations of the road, as the rishka wisdom favours inclusion and a singular society.  The values of patience, ingenuity in problem-solving and, in the event driver becomes technician, of multi-skilling, there are, and while it may be frustrating for pedestrians when in a queue the rickshaw wheels touch there’s also togetherness in that, and consideration, be it belated, as the driver swivels the wheel to let the pedestrian squeeze through.

And although there’s the sometimes violence of an uncouth passenger or car owner who slaps a rickshaw driver for some silly and inevitable scrape, there too is the wisdom: the face-slapper is revealed as a fool, the measurement of bad behaviour is set and the lesson in how not to deal with life’s frustrations is for all on display.  There’s no answer in violence, unless of course it’s in Mohammadpur where passers by may rally around the rickshaw driver and in his defence deliver one.  Possibilities have no end.  The rishka says all people are both good and bad.

In every guide book it shall be written and by many a local it shall be said: always agree upon the fare before stepping into a rickshaw.  As a basic instruction it has an apparent soundness to it: pre-negotiated fares are a vaccine against arguments at the destination and a remedy for the minority of tout-drivers or tight-fisted passengers intent on battling it out down to the last solitary taka.  With agreement in advance the day runs more smoothly and there’s added convenience to be had.  And yet the rishka wisdom says such advice can be wrong.

There’s little more rewarding when at the end of a ride on asking how much to give the driver says ‘give as you will,’ when they mean it.  It’s not as yet uncommon, that cultural inheritance.  But only then it comes, the opportunity for the passenger to consider their means and the driver’s efforts in order to arrive at a mutual understanding; and when the fare is on the generous side of fair it strengthens community, creating an ever so temporary bond and a departure blessed with a tiny dollop of respectful human connection.  The rishka wisdom says: goodness too needs a space to inhabit.  Sometimes it’s up to us to give it one, by throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance, by indulging what the villagers might call the ‘rishka riks’.

And here’s a secret: chatting to the driver along the way and using words like ‘thank you’ often brings out the best, and if there is time, why not stop for tea along the way?  So while perhaps the pre-negotiated fare is good to cover uncommon routes or longer journeys, it remains but a transaction, while the post-negotiated is a human interaction and of benefit to us all.

Still there shall be the smaller number of occasions when post-journey negotiations don’t run smoothly.  Still there shall be the lessons: negotiating skills and dispute resolution which can be useful in bigger situations, at work or at home.  These are the times post-altercation when walking away with a bitter taste in one’s mouth there’s the opportunity to ponder, ‘how could I have handled things better?  What can I do differently next time?’  But by experience, how else do we learn?






Ah, but the rishka's is not the only wheel of past-present-future, and inspiration can be found too in that river that watches the small city; yet, regardless, it's so that ultimately time will find its way back to the place where the world ends.


This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Rishka Wisdom




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