It had been a ‘zappy time’, when a twenty odd year old man, a cycle-rickshaw puller, became ‘friend’, to a nine year old girl. His age buffered him from poverty and had not started weighing him down. He had a job, which gave him independence and he was happy in a way that only a twenty odd year old man could be. I am talking about Adimoolam, my ‘rickshaw man’.
I was in grade 5, when my family moved to our new house. My mother had seen him ferrying children from my school in his rickshaw. She spoke with him and arrangements were made. I was to be picked up every school day along with the other kids and brought back after school in his cycle rickshaw.
I had never been in a rickshaw before. I loved everything about it. It was just the right height, and had the right pace to take in all of the morning sights. It had a red rexine seat with a hood which was always kept folded down. He said an open hood meant more work for his legs. I was almost always the first to be picked up and last to be dropped. That gave us, a window of time, when we talked. We talked about the most ordinary things but whatever we did, just stayed between us. There was no need to share it with anyone else.
He had been taller than most average men, with thick dark hair, that perpetually needed a trim. It looked good on him though. I don’t remember a single day when he did not wear the broadest grin, his teeth brilliantly white against his stark dark skin. He wore a lungi neatly folded up above his knees. His shirts had been full sleeved ones rolled up to expose his wrists and were loosely buttoned up. His appearance was nothing that one might call gentlemanly yet oddly he did look like one.
Ours was a girl’s school and so obviously all of us were predominantly girls except for a couple of kindergartners. The rickshaw could hold ten children at a time with schoolbags on hooks placed on either side of a frame; a division that separated his cycle side from us. Four kids on the red seat, four on a narrow half bench held by the divider frame and facing the main seat. Two kids sat on the backrest, with legs dangling out between the hood. Surprisingly, the backrest had been the best place to be on and so we took turns.
He was our friend, because it seemed like he never thought of, where, we came from. While we were in his rickshaw, we were ‘his’. He would randomly pluck a guava from a tree we passed. He then would clean it, cut it into pieces with a knife he carried and let us all have a piece. There was always something absolutely thrilling in eating the fruit as it combined with seeing him climbing the tree. There was the spectacle and then the treat.
Then there were the times when we would celebrate end of exams, when he would buy for us cookies from a shop that looked like a watchman cabin. They were cookies from a glass jar with no expiry date on it. We never fell sick so I guess he knew they were safe to eat. We also celebrated Holi on our way back from school, when he would buy us the powder in different colours with his own money. He would colour our faces mercilessly and we would his.
Being on his rickshaw meant we had to do some work too. All kids were picked from their doorstep. If one was getting late, another had to go inside the house to get them to hurry.
Getting closer to school, there had been an incline where although it was fun going down, when we returned, everyone had to be out. Rickshaw-man himself would at this juncture stop cycling. He would be down pulling the mobile, one hand on the handle bar and the other on the ‘dividing frame’. We were all asked to push too.There would be frolic and laughter because we always only pretended that we were.
On the rear side, where he could not see us, we would partially hang putting our feet anywhere we could, as long as it was off the road and we didn’t have to walk. It was trouble for him but he only stopped when the extra weight made it impossible for him to pull anymore.
One of the days when it was just rickshaw-man and me, I asked him his name. He said Adimoolam and I laughed. Adimoolam is a Tamil name. Adi could mean ‘earth’,’first’, ‘King’ or ‘Lord Shiva’. Moolam means the ‘source’.
To me though, with my 9 year old wisdom, adi meant ‘half’ as in Hindi and moolam was a derivation of ‘moolai’, which was ‘brain’ in Tamil. Putting both together I thought it was the most funny name I had heard… half brain. I guffawed and told him exactly that. He replied that yeah, considering he was a school drop out, it did suit him, and he laughed alongside me.
Then one day, he asked me out of the blue, “Can you teach me to read English?” I was stunned to find a grown man asking me to teach him anything at all. He said if I agreed he would make time in the evening when I might not be studying. I had my mom’s permission and so our classes began. He would not come into my house, so we always had the classes in his rickshaw on the streets where he parked near my house.
As I grew up, my rides to school changed and I lost touch with Adimoolam. Years later, one day, when I had been walking down a street with my children, I heard someone call my name and then an auto rickshaw stopped beside us.
It was him, grinning the way he always did. I was so pleasantly surprised! He quickly filled in with news about himself. He was doing auto rickshaw savaris (rides) these days. He told he was married and had grown up daughters too. He said he cannot keep talking because he was working. Ready to move, roaring up the vehicle, even before I could ask him his contact details, he asked, “Are these your children?” I nodded. He looked at my daughter and said “Your mother taught me to read”. Saying this he was off again.