Sunday 13 March 2022

The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur - Stories From Bangladesh

I met Noor Jehan outside Kamalapur, Dhaka's main railway station. Not the Noor Jehan who was Pakistan's best-known actress and singer, but her namesake, who is one of the city's two known women rickshaw drivers. I asked her how she came to be doing this work. She said "I began six years ago when my drug-addicted husband finally left me. I need to support my two daughters and I want them to complete their education." Her girls are now aged 13 and nine and their photographs are displayed on the back of her rickshaw. 

"My name is Noor Jehan"

I went to Kamalpur, Dhaka's main station to admire the modernist architecture, and to look for pictures and stories. Kamalapur is a mini-version of Dhaka. Huge crowds flow in and out of the station. Hawkers, beggars and street kids take up residence under the external canopies, hoping to make enough money to feed themselves, and dozens of rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers wait, anticipating customers. At night (and sometimes during the day) homeless people sleep here. The mood is often raucous as the drivers tease each other or minor disputes break out between the other occupants. The drivers drink tea  purchased from a street vendor and drive a hard bargain with commuters and shoppers before setting off on their next journey.

In the midst of this activity I noticed a woman standing beside a rickshaw, with a small crowd around her. She wore a gamcha (worker's towel) as a hijab and held the handle-bars of an electronic rickshaw. I have never seen a woman rickshaw driver in my travels around India and did not expect to meet one in Bangladesh. Together with Liton, my guide and interpreter, I drew closer and we began to talk to her. She was small and quietly spoken and understandably seemed a little suspicious at first. We introduced ourselves and she said "My name is Noor Jehan".

I wanted to know how she became a driver, and how people reacted to her. This was only my second day in Bangladesh but I had already learned that if I stop to speak to someone, a small  crowd will gather, follow the conversation and sometimes try to add to, or dispute, the answers I'm given. The canopy at Kamalapur was no exception and very quickly a large group gathered, including other drivers, passers-by and a couple of Hijra, all of them taking close interest in our conversation. It was clear that this wasn't the best place to talk, so we hired her, and she took us for a drive around central Dakha.

 "I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Driving in Dhaka at four in the afternoon is not for the faint hearted. Actually, driving in Dhaka at any time is not for the faint-hearted. There are too many vehicles, not enough space and the rules of the road are interpreted very broadly. The rickshaw is a very fragile vehicle and when surrounded by cars, buses and overloaded trucks the driver and passengers are vulnerable. Despite this I love traveling this way, being close to the activity, and getting a different view of the street. But of course, I don't have to do this to earn a living. Noor copes with this every day.

She explained how the rickshaw system works. She rents the vehicle from the garage, for 300 thaka, per day, which  is about £3. By 4pm on the day I met her she had made 400 and so had only just cleared a profit. She would go on working until the evening while a neighbour looked after her daughters. 

I asked her how she managed to secure the job. "I needed work but didn't know what I could do. I thought maybe I could drive a rickshaw and so I went to a garage and asked to rent one. The owner laughed and told me to go away. He said the work is too hard for a woman and that I wouldn't be able to do it. But I didn't give up and eventually he agreed to rent an e-rickshaw to me". I wondered about the response of the other rickshaw drivers and how they treated her. "Some are pleasant and encourage me" she said, "others are not pleasant  and say bad things. It's the same with the customers". Shortly after starting our drive I saw an example of this less pleasant behaviour. While we were waiting at a traffic light, a man leaned out of a bus window, shouted something and leered at us. Liton shouted something back and the man quickly sat down. I asked him what had been said. "He was rude and asked us why we had chosen a woman driver. I told him to mind his own business" he said. From the expression on the man's face, I suspect it may have been something a little stronger than that. 

I asked if she was there were any other woman rickshaw drivers in the city. "I only know about one other" she replied. "I've seen a woman driving a rickshaw in the university area but I've never spoken with her". After twenty minutes we made our way back to the station. As we said goodbye we wished her and her daughters luck before insisting she accept the tip that she twice refused. "Remember me in your prayers" she said, "I am happy to work hard for my girls. I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Logistics for my trip were managed by Native Eye and Bangladesh Eco Tours.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

Follow me on instagram @adrianyekkes

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