It was still dark when I met Mohammed near the central market in Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. He and two other men piled dozens of huge burlap sacks in the carriage of his black and red rickshaw supplies, he said, for delivery across town.
For Mohammed it was just the beginning of a long day at work.
Calcutta is one of the few places in India – and one of the few left in the world – where fleets of hand-drawn rickshaws still roam the streets.
The men who serve them are called rickshaw wallahs. (Wallah is a term used for someone who carries or procures something.) Some people pull their rickshaws more than 10 miles a day and carry several hundred pounds – the total weight of the rickshaw and a few occupants. Their daily wages are often a few dollars.
My job as a photojournalist involves a lot of traveling and I’ve gotten pretty good at getting used to new places. Nowadays I find it difficult to feel culturally disoriented, or dépaysé, as we say in French – literally “outside of his country”.
However, Kolkata, which I attended a photography workshop on a grant in 2018, left me with a welcome sense of cultural dislocation. The saris, the sounds of the Bengali language, the smells of the spice markets, the thick monsoon air: all of this contributed to my disorientation in this dense river delta city with more than 14 million inhabitants. Likewise, the sight of the rickshaw wallahs, who often pulled their passengers barefoot through the crowded streets.
Rickshaw wallahs don’t make a living from tourists. Their clientele consists mainly of local Kolkatans: shoppers who come to and from markets, or residents who traverse the city’s narrow side streets. Schoolchildren who are picked up at home and taken to school every day often provide a steady income. When someone is sick at night, a rickshaw is just as good as an ambulance.
And when monsoon rains fall, usually between May and September, rickshaws – pulled through waist-deep water – can provide transportation to places motorized vehicles cannot reach.
During the height of the Indian Covid crisis in April and May, many rickshaw wallahs did an invaluable service bringing patients to and from clinics and hospitals. Others had to leave Calcutta during the lockdown and return to their home villages. (In many places in India and elsewhere, the pandemic has resulted in mass emigration of migrant workers.)
Over the years human rights groups and government agencies have sought to curb the use of hand-drawn rickshaws, which some view as a degrading colonial anachronism. Local authorities officially banned the vehicles and stopped issuing or renewing driver’s licenses in 2006, while promising that the government would provide training on alternative livelihoods.
But for the hundreds, if not thousands, that remain (some estimates put the remaining rickshaw wallahs at 500, some at 5,000), rickshaws are often the only reliable source of income.
Not all of the men I met were ready to be photographed. Some wondered what good that would do. But others, like Mohammed, were eager to share their stories.
One young man described his frustration with the police, who occasionally fined, confiscated rickshaws, or asked for bribes. “They know where we are and where we work,” he told me. “They only do it for the money – and then we have to earn it back.”
Many rickshaw drivers are migrants from the neighboring state of Bihar. With the exception of the meager resources they keep for daily needs, they send a large part of their income home to their families.
Bihar has one of the lowest literacy rates in all of India. In fact, none of the men I met could read or write.
But Mohammed proudly told me that his children went to school in Bihar.
“Everyone,” he added with a genuine smile, “thanks to the money I send.”
After we talked, I watched him bend down to pick up his grips and walk away. After a short time I could only see the black spot on his rickshaw that disappeared around a corner.
Emilienne Malfatto is a photojournalist and writer based in Iraq and southern Europe. You can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter.