I have now been using these four-stroke creatures to transport me around the island for the last 5 years, and I have to say that we’ve developed quite a lovely (e)motional symbiosis. They take me where I have to go, and I help them log a part of their daily kms while we both also get in a bit of a quaint conversation. The tuk tuk chatter ranges from Imran Khan’s political likability (he’s at least universally loved by the SL 3-wheeler brigade), to expertly compressed 6 minute summaries of their lives delivered amidst unexpected swerves, dodges and lurches, as my driver looks back during the choicest parts of his particular narration. I react congenially enough until imminent death threatens our largely blindly-pitching carnival of drama. Then I don my mother superior mantle, cut my voluble driver short and tell him if he doesn’t focus on getting me to my destination still in possession of my earthly form, that I will disembark right there, right then. That works, because losing a “hire” is almost as bad as having an animated conversation killed at its fastigium – this tuk tuk double whammy is a thing to be avoided at all costs. So the rest of the journey continues in inhaling the toxic and nauseating but thankfully silent, and undramatic fumes of over-taking vehicles.
Tuk Tuk drivers come in all manner of forms, from the road runners to the pavement huggers and a whole colorful gamut in between. There are the staid, honest types who drive in sedate silence (a perrenial favourite and an increasing rarity); the sly, intrepid ones who will take you on wildly circuitous routes to your destination; the meter cheaters who with undisguised enthusiasm will punch in 10 extra buttons on the instrument to awaken the tuk tuk Beast of Deceit; the MI6 Hall of Famers who will glance suspiciously at every other vehicle they pass, with special x-ray vision scans reserved for when they halt at traffic lights. The ones that are big fans of external trappings, their carriages outfitted with WiFi, a DVD player, a 15 inch monitor, sanitizer, a tissue box and, wait for it…. seatbelts! The nervous, anxious ones driving barely intact tuk tuks that groan and whine in anguished protest – (I tend to tip them the most generously. My sentimental, rooting-for-the-underdog knee jerk reactions continue to be alive and well). The Goodwill Ambassador who will, over the 10 minute ride, deliver a heart warming speech on the goodness of his countrymen and the many wonderful bounties of his paradise isle. Then there are the tenacious shopping mall 3-wheeler brigades with ethics that are as dubious as they themselves are territorial – one has to be forcefully belligerent to get out of their clutches; also probably the only contingent that all the other tuk tuk drivers hesitate to lock their … headlights with!
This endearingly sensationalist lot also believes in pithy, public declarations of the meaning and gist of their lives, emblazoned as they are on their autos. There’s a sweet, almost nostalgic obsession with certain historical personages and quaint adaptations of favored English idioms: Like Che Guevara who always wants the tuk tuk contingent to rebel; Bob Marley who would like them to forget their woes in most likely, a moonshine-steeped, reggae-rocked weekend. Then there is the tuk tuk driver throwing out a barefaced challenge asserting “if you’re bad, I’m your dad“; or the one who’s had it with arrogance saying “fly not high so you fall not low“; or the myriad others who loudly declare that their hearts are up (on their tuk tuk behinds) for the taking, and as many more who have publicly closed themselves to love… certain lady passengers always being an exception!
On wet days, of which there are many on this tropical island, the rickshaw drivers will race home largely oblivious to the desperate hails of rain-soaked pedestrians. The ones with a flair for a bit of perverse drama, will even pretend to slow down and then rev up almost immediately, leaving momentarily buoyed spirits crashing into the puddles forming all around; revelling in the reversal of the supply/ demand structure for the course of the monsoon torrent. I have tended to see the comic relief in this too as I have been lured and then abandoned by the fickle advance and departure of an unoccupied tuk tuk. Like they say, everyone needs some catharsis sometime!
As colourful and varied as the character spectrum is on these public carriers, they, one and all, manage to go where no other/ bulkier vehicles can. Through nooks and crannies, brushing, with millimetres to spare, past a lumbering sedan, racing down paths barely wide enough for 2 people to walk abreast. There is something of a mild urban censure of these contorting asphalt plyers – a menace on Colombo’s narrow roads that are already burgeoning with their automotive burdens, many say. But for us, the carless, environment-preserving lot (inadvertent as this reduced CO2 footprint state of being may be!) they are our reasons for remaining happily mobile across our neighbourhood geographies.
And so, as I spend my days roaming the city in between bouts of reading, writing and grocery shopping, I have formed an almost affectionate bond with the tuk tuk posse of the metropolis. Despite the ravages wrought by the pandemic of 2020, they remain optimistic, enterprising, courageous and cheerfully defiant on the roads. I still call them out for over-charging, they still respond with outlandish excuses but together we go pitching and careening across the city in a haze of mutual appreciation.
Getting around the island by Tuk or by Crook!