ATP (my favorite blog – after my own, ofcourse) just posted a wonderful article on the 3-wheeler rickshaw which is seen EVERYWHERE in Pakistan. I have traveled on it often, long stretches from my home in Gulshan Iqbal to my high school in Saddar (I can tell you it used to cost Rs 55/- for that route in 1995 (Taxis used to cost Rs 100). I have also taken it to carry goats (yes, real live goats, 2 at a time!) during the sacrifice season, to carry large bundles of textile material for my dad’s factory, and spare parts for my car (including much of the engine, when the car was being rebuilt). My family of 6 has tarveled in it (along with 2 large-sized suitcases) at the same time, and I have been thrown overboard once when the rickshaw once overturned during a fast right turn. These rickshaws are so resilient to load, weather, traffic, etc that they can be found hauling passengers even when most cars and buses stop running. Needles to say, I have sooo many memories of the rickshaw that I cannot even attempt to recollect them. How many of you have been in a rickshaw when the driver would suddenly pull off a main streets and go zig-zag through narrow unknown streets to find shortcuts in traffic jams? When late for a meeting (or catching a train), a Rickshaw is da bomb! Despite the loud noise, the pollution, and the danger asociated with reckless rickshaw drivers, it is inarguably the best way to see my city, Karachi.
Here is the post on ATP. Please visit ATP for many other delightful posts on Pakistan.
By Owais Mughal
The motor- (sometimes auto-) rickshaw was invented by the Reverend Jonathan Scobie, an American Baptist minister living in Yokohama, Japan. The first model was built in 1869 in order to transport his handicapped wife. Today it remains as one of the most important modes of transportation in Pakistan where it was first seen on August 14, 1947. Before that it was not possible to see it in Pakistan.
The three-wheel-design of a rickshaw provides it a better road grip than a bicycle. It also provides gasoline savings when compared with a 4-wheeler taxi and green salad saving when compared with a 4-legged horse. When in need of repairs, the three-wheel structure also helps in lifting it from any side. When a side is lifted, it conveniently sits down on the other two while a mechanic goes looking for underbelly mechanical faults.
Pilot seat. A rickshaw is a perfect example of a compact automobile design. The driver practically sits on a bench seat which is strategically placed on top of the engine. This causes inductive heat transfer between man and machine and keeps the engine cool. The same however, cannot be said for the driver’s butt. The presence of a hot engine underneath, keeps a driver cozy during winters and boiling during summers. It is literally one heck of a hot seat to sit on. The advantage of a bench seat is manifold. A driver uses it to his own advantage to slide from one corner to the other depending on whichever side gives him a better view.
Driver’s Ergonomics. A rickshaw is immaculately designed to keep a driver relaxed during long hours. This has been accomplished by limiting driving the controls to both hands and a leg only. This keeps one leg of the driver free which he can dangle around when tired. Many of us must’ve seen the common practice where a tired driver lifts one of his legs and conveniently places it on top of the dash-board while still driving the rickshaw.
Starting Mechanism. The height of automotive engineering is the design of rod (danda) start mechanism of the rickshaw engine. A 3 feet long lever is put on the floor of the rickshaw. To start the engine, a driver bends down to the side and lifts one end of this ‘danda’ in a quick swift motion. If everything else is right then the engine starts. Otherwise the whole exercise of ‘danda’ lifting is repeated as many times as needed.
Passengers Foot-hold. While a rickshaw floor’s mean height above sea level is less than 2 feet, a one-step foot hold is nonetheless provided on the passenger side of the cabin. I’ve never seen anyone using it but it is a detail important enough not to be missed out in this analysis. Most of the passengers bypass this one-step climbing assistance and put their first step directly inside the passenger cabin.
Head lamp. Rickshaw comes with a single headlamp. The light emanating from this headlamp is usually just enough that other people can see that something is on-coming but a rickshaw driver doesn’t see anything. Its luminescence makes one constantly reminded of Elton John’s song ‘candle in the wind’.
Laws of Reflection. A rickshaw driver usually adorns his rickshaw with a multiple array of reflective mirrors. If a ray of light enters a rickshaw once, it gets trapped and it takes a while for it to get out after being internally reflected many times. These mirrors are placed by the driver to his own strategic advantage. If a passenger is to his liking then these mirrors help the driver to keep an eye on the passenger from many different angles.
Small is Big. I have never seen a group of people denied a rickshaw ride just because of their numbers. It can fit them all including luggage. Many times one can see a family chilling out in the passenger cabin while their younger ones sharing driver’s cabin with the driver. If a rickshaw picks up passengers from a railway station, luggage is easily placed in driver’s cabin.
Flat Tire Replacement. In case of a flat tire adversity, a rickshaw comes fully equipped with a mechanical jack. This jack is in the shape of a rectangular sheet-metal of roughly 12”x 24” dimension. The simplicity of design here beats all modern hydraulic and geared jack designs. A rickshaw driver simply tilts his rickshaw on a side, inserts this sheet metal plate for support and changes the tire. The whole process of tilting a rickshaw and inserting the jack takes less than 10 seconds.
The Rickshaw Driver Culture. Over the years certain etiquettes have evolved among rickshaw drivers. A passenger cannot just walk into an empty rickshaw and sit. He/She has to take drivers’ permission first. The magic question to ask is ‘Is rickshaw empty’ (rickshaw khali hai?). This question must be asked even if a rickshaw is visibly empty because depending on his mood a driver at anytime may declare a visibly empty rickshaw as occupied. Then there is no question of arguing. Rickshaw drivers have also mastered the sign language. If a rickshaw is empty then instead of saying ‘yes’ a driver usually moves his neck towards the passenger cabin in a long swooshing motion. This means rickshaw is empty. Please get in.
Mirror of Society. Rickshaws are also a mirror of our society. Rickshaw drivers use back of the rickshaw as their scrap book. It displays their favorite poetry, puzzling questions, messages to other drivers, etc. I don’t remember seeing any rickshaw ever without anything written on its back side. Some of these comments are a running commentary on our society’s social and economic fabric. Take a look at 5 sample rickshaw messages:
mein baRa ho kar Corolla banooN ga
malik ki gaaRi, driver ka paseena
chalti hai road par bun ka haseena
kabhi aao na Karachi, khahbo laga ke
Daalar ki talaash
uff baji, rickshaw gayee
My personal album of rickshaw photographs from Pakistan is available for viewing here (all pictures here are from this collection). The more serious rickshaw connoisseur is referred to iFaqeer’s full fledged blog dedicated to Rickshaw.
Owais Mughal grew up in Karachi where he spent much time in, and did much research on, the auto-rickshaw; now he is an IT professional in St. Louis, Missouri.