MUMBAI, India — I tell the driver where I’m going and then duck into the auto rickshaw’s passenger compartment. I rummage through my purse, looking for my iPod to block out the honking on Mumbai’s busy streets. I put on PRI’s “The World” and settle in for the bumpy ride ahead. But as the news begins to play, I notice something is off.
In front of me, attached to the back of the driver’s seat, a pouch made of sparkling red and black faux snakeskin holds a selection of the day’s Hindi newspapers. I glance down at my seat — matching snakeskin. I slowly look around the rickshaw and notice a first-aid kid, a small fire extinguisher and containers holding tissues and a notebook and pen. Red and blue floral fabric with rug-like fringes decorates the top. An angle statue holds up the meter, speakers line the back and two silver vases with plastic flowers sit on a built-in dashboard above the steering wheel.
This is one pimped out rickshaw.
“Very fancy,” I say to the driver, Aresh Ghatge. He laughs and nods his head.
“This is my BMW,” Ghatge says a month later when we meet in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb. Ghatge’s wearing loose white cotton pants, matching top and traditional leather Kolhapuri sandals, named after a town about 400 kilometers south of Mumbai. A brass triangle-shaped badge reading, “Mumbai Cab Driver 144702,” attached to his keychain hangs from a buttonhole near his collar. “I treat my rickshaw like it’s my first wife,” he says through a translator. “I want to make it comfortable for my passengers, like a home.”
India’s financial capital is a booming, fast-paced city that — despite its overcrowded trains and exorbitantly expensive housing — attracts much of the country’s hardest working and most innovative young people. Aspiring actors and dancers leave families behind, rent out tiny rooms in far-flung suburbs and scrounge for auditions as they hope to become Bollywood’s next biggest star. Young men with little to no education set up their own mini shops selling the palate cleanser paan or the local snack pani puri.
Known for its entrepreneurial spirit, Mumbai is a city for people with big dreams and endless ambition.
Ghatge knows this better than anyone. Rather than drive one more non-descript three-wheeled, motorized passenger vehicle, Ghatge decided to make his product special. He puts all of his energy and attention into making his rickshaw stand out from the crowd, he says as he drinks a melon fruit juice at Cafe Coffee Day overlooking the Arabian Sea. Ghatge, who sports a goatee, buzz cut and single gold earring, says if he going to drive a rickshaw, he wants it to be the best possible rickshaw.
And his efforts pay off. He says he has many customers who appreciate the extra amenities and call him to book a ride rather than take the first available rickshaw that passes them on the road.
In addition to the extra work, he sometimes gets paid more for the ride. Customers call his mobile phone, and he tells them where he is and how long it would take him to reach their destination. If they ask him to pick them up, they often pay him more to cover the expense of his journey there.
As a boy, Ghatge never thought he’d become a rickshaw driver. He dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps and working as a railway foreman. But Ghatge, who grew up in Mumbai, got involved with a troublesome crowd. He and his friends were more interested in making mischief than going to school, he says. Ghatge graduated from high school, but he did not continue with technical training courses or college.
Asked if he ever got caught for his misdeeds, Ghatge’s face breaks into a big, mischievous smile. He laughs and shakes his head no.
He reached a point at about age 18 when he decided he had enough of the mischief. His father was well respected in their community, and he did not want to bring shame to him, he says. But by then, he had missed his opportunity to get more education.
“I realized my mistakes, but it was too late,” he says.
Ghatge’s father bought him this rickshaw, which in 1997 cost about 85,000 rupees ($1,850), and Ghatge then put his all into turning his driving into a successful business. In addition to providing his customers with music and newspapers, he offers special deals. Senior citizens, the physically challenged and newly married customers get a 10 percent discount on rides. Ghatge even has a pro bono service. If he picks up a passenger who needs to go to the hospital and cannot pay, he makes the trip for free.
“It’s my way of paying back society,” he says.
The job requires working 12 hours a day and often leaves him with back pain, but he says he is proud that he can support his family on his earnings, about 7,000 rupees ($152) a month in profit. He says some drivers earn more than him, but that is because they tinker with their meters, which he refuses to do.
After chatting at the coffee shop, Ghatge and I load up in his rickshaw and drive about five minutes to his family’s home in a neighboring suburb. We slip into an alleyway next to a one-chair barbershop where a man leans back in his seat with his face covered in white cream. We pass kids playing and laundry hanging out to dry, turn right before the public restrooms and arrive at his home. Ghatge’s 4-year-old daughter with tiny gold earrings runs out to greet him, and he lifts her into his arms.
With the money he earns, Ghatge says he can afford to send his two young daughters to a missionary school, which costs about 15,000 rupees a year. Ghatge says he wants his daughters to become doctors.
“I couldn’t study, but I have a dream of making my daughters study well,” he says.
Near his home we meet one of Ghatge’s most loyal customers, Subra Mani, a salesman who has known the driver since childhood. Every day Ghatge picks Mani up at 6 a.m. and drives him about 15 to 20 minutes to work in another suburb. Mani says he enjoys the comfort of the rickshaw and getting to read the morning papers on the way to work. He also appreciates that Ghatge’s always punctual, drives safely and — perhaps most noteworthy in Mumbai — only honks in an emergency.
With other drivers, Mani said he has to tell them to slow them or speed up or to stop honking. When he rides with Ghatge, he can sit back and enjoy the ride.