Spreading joy on the streets

by Gautam Raja

If you want to spread joy on the streets of India, here’s a quick tip: carry lots of change. When I lived there a couple of years ago, I had a bowl of coins saved over many months, and would sometimes carry a pile of them to pay for little things on my day’s travels. Surly bus conductors would break into beaming smiles as I produced stacks of coins to pay for the fare, and practically hugged me when I offered to exchange extra for notes. Shopkeepers who’d been distantly transactional for years were suddenly full of conversation and gratitude when I took out that jingly plastic pouch.

Anywhere else, it would be a pointed insult or at least cause for an eye-rolling sigh to hold up a line as you count out small change. In India, the lack of change can be real cause of stress to both customers and small business owners. The onus to find change is on the customer, and many shoppers in India have not-so-fond memories of walking from store to store, autorickshaw driver to autorickshaw driver, coconut stall to “kaka shop” (imagine a supermarket scaled down to the size of telephone booth), looking for someone who will break a 100 or 500 rupee note.

Breaking notes is generally not a problem in the US, unless you’re walking around with a $100 note, at which point you might as well not have money if you’re wanting to make small purchases. Yes, the same thing can apply, although for a different reason. Safety.

And so I’ve found a very different way to spread happiness, and it goes by the name of Larry vs Harry Bullitt. It works best when combined with a large dog. The Bullitt is a cargo bicycle based on the Long John or bakfiet design, which has the cargo compartment in the front of the bike. It’s designed to carry loads up to 130 kg, and I’ve really got it to take our dog with me on bike rides. I pretended to myself of course that I would go car-free in the neighbourhood, and use it to go shopping, but that doesn’t happen very often.

As you can imagine, Gunther loves going out on the bike. He sits up in the front compartment, and leans a little to the right, sometimes even propping up a front leg on the side, like a lolling gangster. The sight of him in this bright orange contraption (the colour that Larry vs Harry calls Clockwork Orange), get a range of joyous reactions in the street, from broad smiles, to points and waves and ooh’s and aah’s, and even outright happy laughter. Cyclists circle round to start conversations, car drivers stop ahead to film us approaching, and there are a lot of photo requests. Passing road cyclists often joke: “Can I trade places with him?”

I’m sorry but cycles are just like that. They are happy, positive, affirming inventions, and cyclists are constantly up against a barrage of negativity at odds with my story on the street. America is at a point of reckoning with its relationship with the car, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the next ten years play out in terms of city design and friendliness. When I carry loose change, or ride with my dog, I suddenly have a sense of being a part of a positive human structure, rather than one where we’re constantly at odds with each other, and yelling at each other. One day, cities will actively encourage this, and I hope it’s not too late to bring every day happiness back.

First published in Gulf News, November 21, 2017