Many cities around the world are dense with the small indignities of daily life.
A lean man pumps his legs to draw you, in a rickshaw, up the lanes of a neighbourhood. The vehicle, an overgrown tricycle, has no suspension to speak of, so every pothole and speedbump launches a jolt to your spine. No matter. This is the common mode of transport in the interior of residential districts, and it costs little. When you climb off, backbone freshly aligned, you hand the man twenty rupees. He glances at the note. He says the fare is twenty-two.
Twenty-two? Just last week it was twenty.
The man grows irritated. He demands that you ask anybody, you ungrateful passenger, or says nothing at all, looking squarely ahead until you give in. And you do give in, but not without a sour feeling of being cheated. Rickshaw fares are written nowhere. There are no meters. The system is rigged against the passenger. But you look at this man, his muscled calves, cloth pants hitched to his knees. You recall the sweat on his back as he leaned forward to pull you up a slope, and in haggling with him over two rupees, you come to feel not only that you are being cheated, but that you are cheating him, too.
Being middle class in Kolkata means this and a dozen moral struggles every day. The hardships of individual life are made flint by class friction. They ignite, over and over, in public encounter.
This is authentic life, though it is not the poetic authenticity in which one feels uplifted rather than beaten down. But many cities around the world, like Kolkata, are dense with the small indignities of daily life. In these places, the romance of such authenticity is a joke.
Excerpted from Electric Literature.