Ipshita Nath’s collection of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, is in itself a rickshaw ride. Each story has it all: the fleeting moments, the sharp twists and turns, and the last jerk before the rickshaw smoothly pulls to a stop. The novel paints the picture of a rickshaw ride through the underbelly of Delhi, offering us glimpses into the lives of not only the rickshaw-wallas but also their passengers and acquaintances through 12 short stories. Each story picks on a character, who, while quite different from those in the other stories, holds an element of lingering familiarity for the reader.
Why? Because Nath picks on characters we know – the average, frustrated worker, the lover breaking boundaries, the oddball blamed for things they probably haven’t done (right?), the dreamer on the job, and many others, all told through the story of our favourite one…the rickshaw-wallah. Each character is first slowly brought to life and then given shape.
Then, just as you think you’ve grasped the person in the story, the character begins to slip out of your reach and enter an almost bizarre world of their own. One filled with desire, lust, love, hunger, anger, pain, angst, that comes alive when triggered by a person, object or phenomenon. It is almost like falling headfirst into a dream; or in this case, a reverie.
Escape from reality
The stories create a sense of claustrophobia; a picture of Delhi very different from popular imagination. A Delhi where the rickshaw-wallahs, even with their quick turns, cannot seem to escape shackles. The world described in them is “hot, suffocating, and sticky” in most parts, awaiting an escape. One that is brought about through the rickshaw-wallah’s reverie.
In “A Metamorphosis on the Northern Ridge,” for instance, we begin on any average day in the life of Balram. He goes about his daily work, looking for fares, with half an erection at most times. As the day passes, his sense of frustration and the yearning for release increases, taking us into his reverie.
The tale gets more bizarre as it continues, going from Balram relieving himself at the edge of a ridge, through dreaming of a monkey-gang raping him and waking up in a hospital, to finally exploding toward the end of the story with a physical tail growing out of him. The story plays jump-rope with the real and the symbolic, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to either take it at face value, or delve into it for deeper meaning.
The theme of the wait before a metaphorical “release” is common to all the stories. They begin on days that appear like any other, but the air seems laden, much like the calm before a storm. The idea of release is often not a physical one. Release comes to the characters in different ways: drugs, wealth, lust, and quite often, love.
This release is in fact an almost surreal transformation, where we see the character burst out of their everyday life in a moment of ecstasy, before catapulting themselves into a world of their own making – one that seems to almost reflect their unconscious – much like Balram’s dream with the monkeys.
A forgotten presence
The tension in the stories comes about right after the first release, when the character begins to feel a sense of angst; a feeling that the moment of ecstasy may have slipped out of their hands to never be found again. Nath beautifully captures several emotions in these otherwise invisible narratives.
First, a sense of reality settle in, where the characters come to terms with an existence previously denied. Second, her characters depict an anger or a frustration with the system; an anger that comes at the thought of never being able to fulfil their desire of a release: “He was a cripple, and Pinky knew it very well. It was good that she was a dwarf, she wouldn’t have started a relationship with a lame man otherwise. A current of anger ran through his body at the thought. After all the hard work he had done, all he got was a dwarf woman…” (“Dreaming in Delhi”). Other stories show pain, detachment, and sometimes even hope.
It is through all these emotions that the character then reaches the reverie, where they either begin to build for themselves a world of their own (in “Subterranean Love” for instance, when the odds are against a pair of lovers, all of a sudden the wife digs herself a hole from under her bed that leads to her lover) or are shown to unravel a certain past that is bizarre, to say the least, or come to face unusual, unforeseen circumstances (in “Pygmalion”, when the character’s love interest is haplessly beheaded, he is forced to build himself a clay model of her head, of course…).
The reveries read like travelogues of the characters’ unconscious minds, where fears, pleasures and desires are amplified. We begin to look inside a character in a way that their otherwise ordinary lives couldn’t have allowed us. Nath takes us through a plethora of people and minds through her characters, adding not just layers but also multiple dimensions to the otherwise singularised, rickshaw-wallahs.
Much like an auto-rickshaw swerving with a sudden loss of control, the reverie is unleashed on the reader like the Freudian id sans super ego. Characters veer drastically from their “normal” behaviour, often portrayed then in an almost animalistic, primal manner. Balram, for instance, literally transforms into a monkey, giving way to his animalistic tendencies after refusing the urge to tone them down.
Some of Nath’s choices when picking her characters become interesting here. The novel centers primarily around men, shown to be highly primal, carnal beings in the course of the stories; women feature as a mere means to a release for men – either physically or psychologically. Nath picks up these men, straddling the borders of visibility, and sets them free in a world of their own, undetermined by norms. The reveries come as a mixture of folklore, tradition, modernity, magic, and surrealism, into which the character is then thrown.
The collection is bold and fierce, with stunning metaphors, just like each reverie. Nath’s Delhi showcases a side of the city often unexplored; a Delhi quivering with desire, filled with contrasts, waiting to be let loose.
Even as we find the characters attempting to navigate their suddenly bizarre realities, we also come to experience a city that is home to all these different worlds colliding. Be it the crowded streets of North campus, or the luxury of the diplomats from the neighbourhoods around Khan Market, the novel acts as a window to worlds outside our own spheres, tipping its hat to stories often untold, albeit in the most unexpected of ways.
The Rickshaw Reveries, Ipshita Nath, Simon & Schuster.