Chai tea, a birthday and a rickshaw collision

Illustration by Anthony Mata/The Guardsman

By Mckenna Toston

I was awakened the morning of my birthday by a chai delivery from Sonu, accompanied by a dozen roses, a jeweled ring and a dosa breakfast.

And then I got arrested and spent some time in the local police station—apparently it isn’t smart to get on a motorcycle with an unlicensed driver and speed around the city at a terrifying pace.

But it was my birthday and I was feeling reckless.

After a ride that had me half screaming and half laughing, we turned our final corner and slammed into a hand-drawn rickshaw.

I was in the middle of the bike, between Sonu and our friend, Wasim, who flew off the back of the bike and landed on his back in the middle of the road.

Sonu and I escaped with some minor cuts and bruises.

Can’t say the same for the rickshaw. We completely broke it.

A huge crowd immediately gathered around us, pointing fingers and yelling.

And just when I thought they would cave in on us and beat up my friends, the cops arrived—and did most of the beating.

A heated Hindi argument led to two slaps in the face for Sonu and Wasim, an aggressive hair-pull for Sonu, who was driving, and three handcuffed arrestees.

Then off to the police station for what I thought would be the sad end of my Indian adventure.

After an hour of reprimands, most of which I only understood by tone, we were simply told to “get out.” Easy as that. Get out.

A mixture of thankfulness, shame, guilt and utter stupidity rushed through me. I left the police station with my head hanging low.

The rickshaw wallah was waiting for us outside.

We had destroyed his source of livelihood. He wanted and deserved compensation. I was ready to fork out at least $100 from my credit card.

He asked for 500 rupees. That’s $10. Likely more than he makes in a month pulling his wooden carriage filled with passengers more privileged than himself.

I’ve seen rickshaw wallahs like him sleeping in the street under their carriages at night.

I was struck by his meager demand.

I spend $10 on a good burrito in the Mission. Or a six-pack of my favorite beer. Or a BART ticket to and from the East Bay. I make $10 in a half-hour when working as a nanny.

I’m still trying to understand why I have these privileges. Money. Education. Access to plenty of food and clean water. A big bed with an abundance of blankets.

I work when I want. I go out with friends when I want. I take a spontaneous trip to India when I want.

I don’t deserve any of this, more or less than the homeless rickshaw wallah.

Why me? Why him?

I guess the answer is chance. It’s all by chance.

I vented my perplexity to a local friend I made in Mumbai over a steaming dish of rice and dal.

His words of wisdom: It is whatever you make it. The homeless rickshaw wallah is just as capable of happiness as the mansion-dwelling millionaire.

I’d have been skeptical of his simplistic solution if he wasn’t born and raised in the slums.

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