A memory: I’m six years old and riding with my parents on a rickshaw. It’s 1973 in Chandannagar, a small bustling city in West Bengal, 30-odd miles upstream from Kolkata on the banks of the Hooghly River. I’m sitting on the high cushioned seat, enjoying the breeze blowing my hair back on a hot, humid day. The rickshaw-wallah weaves through the narrow lanes; we go past one of the larger ponds, the curved trunks of coconut trees loom over its edges. He swerves, narrowly avoiding the rows of clay goddesses laid out to dry on the ground by people preparing for the festival of Durga Puja. I see their garish red-and-gold paintwork and almond-shaped eyes staring up at me. The rickshaw-wallah’s a thin, wiry man, sweating and probably tired from pedalling all day to earn a living.
There are few cars on the roads as they’re too expensive for most people. Prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Soviet-style protectionism means that there has been no influx of cheap foreign imports – and there’s a waiting list of several years to buy the only Indian-made vehicle, the Ambassador, a lugubrious old-fashioned car that looks like it has come straight out of a 1940s film. In any case, the narrow roads make it difficult to drive in Chandannagar. We pass other rickshaws, cyclists, cows and piles of rubbish on the roadside. It is a dirty, messy place but beautiful, too. I will live here for a few more months before we return to England, where I will spend the rest of my life.
I’ve always been obsessed by those rickshaw rides of my childhood: the large wheels, the driver, the antiquated silvery carriage reminding me of Cinderella’s coach. These images are held in a state of timeless suspension within the pool of my memories of India but they also make me feel uncomfortable – a reminder of the harsh realities of life for millions of people in India.
In an era of environmental crisis, I think, however, there were aspects of my 1970s childhood in India that were small-scale and less-polluting: the clay pots used to drink sweet milky tea; the paper bags made out of old newspapers; the man who cycled round with his pails of milk everyday – milk that came from cows kept in people’s back gardens. And the rickshaws that plied the small roads, requiring no petrol.
I wanted to go back to Chandannagar for a holiday with my husband and daughter. It would be a first visit in six years. But, recently, I’ve been filled with dread about the turbocharged growth in India: the increase in the number of cars, the levels of pollution in the cities, the effects of climate change, the McDonald’s restaurants and Vodafone stores. Someone reported that there may even be a KFC in the bazaar in Chandannagar. I worried, that, like an unstoppable plague, the city would be altered by the advances of capitalism. In particular, I worried that Chandannagar’s narrow roads, its trees and ponds, would be overrun with cars – metal junk, spewing smoke and pollution.
I took the plunge, though, and off we went.
We arrive, and to my relief it all looks kind of the same. I go with my aunt and daughter to visit the bazaar – there’s no KFC. There are still myriad dark little shops selling spices, gaudy plastic mugs, gleaming piles of wet fish and mounds of okra, onions and aubergines. We stop at the Banerjee Tea shop, where I buy loose darjeeling tea, weighed out by the shopkeeper on old handheld metal scales with small dark weights. As we walk out onto the busy road outside, stepping round a goat lying on the pavement, I look around – there are still hardly any cars and it’s the same chaotic mix of pedestrians, cycles and scooters. But I suddenly realise that cycle rickshaws seem to have disappeared. Instead, there are small three-wheeled e-rickshaws everywhere.
My daughter doesn’t want to walk back so my aunt says: “Cho, Toto nee-ay nee.” (Come on, let’s get a Toto).
Ah, so that’s what these electric vehicles are called: Totos. We clamber onto one: the driver is in the front and we are on cushioned benches facing one another at the back. My daughter loves it. Soon we are weaving through the streets, just like I used to as a child on an old-fashioned rickshaw. She loves the open sides and we look out onto the wide expanse of the brown-grey Hooghly River, go past fuchka-wallahs selling snacks of puffed wheat balls and spiced chickpeas. We hang on with a sense of fairground thrill, as the driver rides perilously close to some open drains at our side.
I start to notice that everyone uses them: commuters, shoppers, schoolchildren. They’re cheap to ride and perfect for little trips here and there. I’m not usually interested in transport but I’m excited when I start to think about the fact that Totos are battery-powered – they are not disgorging petrol or diesel fumes. Some even have solar panels on the roofs. There are thousands of bustling small cities in India like Chandannagar – where a huge proportion of India’s 1.3 billion people actually live. The small-scale Toto suits these places, and people like them. Could they, I wonder, be a tantalising step forward in the fight against climate crisis?
I find out more about how Totos have become part of the economic setup of a place such as Chandannagar. I’m staying with my aunt, in an impoverished area called Chuna Goli – a long, narrow winding lane, with people washing themselves at communal pumps, and goats tethered to rudimentary brick houses. It used to be a slum area but, over the years, people have managed to earn a living as street vendors or rickshaw-wallahs and send their children to school. And now many of the young men are Toto drivers.
Everyone congregates in the early evening by the maidan – the dusty playing field at the end of the lane – watching the sun go down by the river. I chat to locals Rahul and Paswan, young men who drive Totos. With their gelled hair, buzzing mobile phones and jokey nature, they are ambitious, but earning a living is hard as many in the area left school with no qualifications. Rahul tells me that several of his friends in Chuna Goli have scraped together the money to buy a Toto (for around £1,500 each) and now hire them out to the others by the week or day, or even for a few hours. Paswan points to a couple of Totos parked at one end of the maidan that are being charged, telling me that he’ll go off later to do a couple of hours in one of them, when the bazaar is busy.
As I write, I’m back in England and there are yet more headlines (and shocks) about the climate emergency: A third of the Himalayan ice cap is doomed; The devastation of human life is in view. It’s hard not to feel powerless and depressed.
And yet … I feel the Toto is a small signal, emblematic of what could be done if only the will were there. My feeling of fragile optimism could well be justified. One news website describes Totos as the new electric-vehicle revolution in India; another reports how 11,000 of them are hitting the streets of India every month. I can’t help but think what could be achieved if this eco-friendly form of transport was promoted across India, and if infrastructure such as solar-powered charging stations were introduced everywhere. In the second most populous country in the world, the humble Toto could make a significant impact in terms of climate crisis. I even wonder if e-rickshaws could be exported to the west, especially to our cities?
At the end of our stay in Chandannagar my daughter and I take a Toto from Chuna Goli to my grandparents’ old house where I used to live as a child. We come to their road, still too narrow for two cars to pass, still with the open drains at either side. “Ah there’s the Shiva temple,” I remember, “at the top of the road.” Where there used to be a rickshaw stand next to it there is now a block of flats. We are approaching my grandparents’ house. I think I see it, and I crane my head from the Toto. But no, I realise with sadness that it’s been knocked down and a new house built there instead. The mildewed stone walls, the huge carved wooden door, have all gone. The new owners have just kept the old sign. Most of the ponds in the area are gone and there are many more flats everywhere. We take a few pictures, our Toto moves on and we carry on enjoying our ride.
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