The View from a Rickshaw

What Chennai looks like at 35 miles per hour

By / May 2012

We settle, the rickshaw driver and me, on 150 rupees for the six-mile ride from central Chennai to the Southern Trunk Road, which runs from the Bay of Bengal clear across southern India. As the vehicle springs from the curb and dives into the river of traffic, Chennai evaporates into a blur of pavement, fenders, and people, six million strong, each of them moving at the same time.

The sharp outlines of multistory concrete tenements and red towers of steel disintegrate. Everything in the distance is sliced in half by the low horizontal line of the rickshaw’s roof. In the absence of tall, stationary objects to give perspective, the shoulder-high details of transitory life coming bursting into full, fleeting color, a thousand hues of impressionistic flourish splashed across a soot-smeared canvas.

The rickshaw lurches through an impossible gap in the traffic. We are going 35 miles per hour. I am less than a foot from the woman in the car to my right. Window down, she is refastening a silver bracelet. Our eyes meet for an instant, divide an instant later. In the afternoon, Chennai roads are a maelstrom of close, breath-brief encounters. Nameless, nearly formless, strangers keep whizzing by.

My driver weaves around a large truck. In the bed, men perch atop a gravel pile. We cut to the outside, scraping curb and sidewalk. Pedestrians alight along my left, jostling for advantage in their own, slower stream. My abbreviated view, elided by the rickshaw roof, slices off heads, leaving spectral bodies to bounce before me along the rickety pavement.

So many bare feet. I’ve never noticed it before. Even here, in the city. Some of the barefoot passersby, married women no doubt, sport gold chains around their ankles, a metallic show of status more important than wearing shoes.

The cement walls on the far side of the foot traffic are caked with peeling political ads and movie posters, one pasted atop another, a decade’s worth of fading heroes with bulging shoulders and menacing stares, now curling up and floating to the sidewalk to be scarfed by goats and trampled by all those naked toes.

There is an electric pole directly in our path. My driver, nonplussed but for the bulging vein in his neck, weaves to the right, bullying other rickshaws to brake, to stand down. I can see his expression in the little round mirror mounted in the upper right corner of the windshield. His face is a picture of bellicose concentration. His eyes cut back and forth. He knows the exact dimensions of his rickshaw, knows instinctively which maneuvers will expedite his journey and which ones could accelerate his demise.

He spots a window amid a gang of motorcycles and punches the gas, nearly clipping a taxicab in the process. I gasp, involuntarily, as he ditches the taxi and burrows into the thick of motorcycles. I bump knees with a man on the back of one. He barks at my driver, who gives him little more than a sideways glance in reply before plunging ahead.

Congestion. There is a blockage in the road near what looks to be a construction site. Once more, we swerve to the outside, exploding through the spark shower of a barefoot welder, and whip around a stack of corrugated metal.

At last, we reach a stretch of empty road. I exhale and unball my fists, but too soon.

A moment later, we barrel full-bore across traffic and come grinding to a halt on the sidewalk opposite. “We are here, sir,” the driver says. He is as composed as a bellhop, as if we have only just weathered an elevator ride to a hotel lobby instead of a bumper-car race across Chennai. I make my exit. I hand over the 150. “Thanks,” I mutter as he speeds away, “thanks for the ride.”


Chris Watts’s previous story for EthnoTraveler was about weathering a monsoon in a mysterious Burmese village.