When I got to Delhi, I took no chances: I checked into a “nice” hostel (air conditioning, no visible bed bugs, overhead lighting), drank only from water bottles that passed my seven-point seal inspection test, and limited my meal consumption to foods that were charred free of taste. Anything yellow on my plate was isolated, dispatched into a napkin and deposited on the floor. There would be no more gambling on grub in India. My first night in the hostel, after buying my train ticket to Agra and witnessing an impromptu stray dog war (I’m talking West Side Story numbers, like 40 dogs), I laid in bed reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, communing with my still-grumbling stomach.
I spent the next day touring Delhi, and headed to Agra the following morning. There I was badgered into accepting the services of a bicycle rickshaw driver by the name of Salim. Salim was a thin man about my height with a thick mustache, sunken eyes, and a lantern jaw. He wore a heavy, long-sleeved cotton button-up shirt, jeans, and sandals, attire that seemed completely inappropriate for anyone – let alone someone who peddles people around all day – in a heat so dry it chapped my lips to cracking within an hour of sunrise. “Hop in,” Salim said when he saw that I was finally caving to his sales tactics. He pointed to his rig, a large steel-and-cloth enclosure on high tires attached to a rusty bike. “It’s my helicopter,” he said. “Hop in.”
All day, Salim peddled me around in his rickshaw from site to site, waiting outside in the swelter at each one, taking only an occasional break to smoke a cigarette and drink the piping hot (!) chai tea sold by roadside vendors. He never broke a sweat, and when I offered him water, he politely declined. Meanwhile, sitting in the shade in the back of the rickshaw, I was drenched and guzzling water like I just got out of The Box. Lawyering Mike felt like a milquetoast.
As the day wore on, Salim and I got to talking about our lives. It turns out we were almost the same age, though a life of hard labor, smoking, and whatever else made him look quite a bit older. He had a wife and a newborn baby, and every day Salim would peddle an hour into the city on his “helicopter,” work for as long as he could find customers, and then peddle home at dark for dinner and sleep. He had been saving up to buy a rickshaw from the man he borrowed his from, but thieves had stolen the borrowed one from him while he took a bathroom break and so he now worked twice as hard for half the money to pay his boss back and keep food on the table. “I am a strong man,” Salim said, slapping the thighs that turned the pedals to carry me and however many others up hills and through crowded streets day in and day out under the unforgiving sun. “Sure are,” I said.
That night, after stopping at a few shops so Salim could get paid for bringing a customer by, he dropped me off at the train station. We shook hands and I paid him, and then I headed into the station while he rode off in the direction from which we came, his load a little lighter. That night I lounged in the air-conditioning and finished Bonfire, letting my thoughts drift occasionally from the words on the page to Salim; I pictured him peddling home, locking up his rickshaw and kissing his wife and baby hello; I wondered if his life was going as he planned it, as he wanted it to.
The next day I met up with my friend and we set off for Khatmandu, off to be tourists somewhere else. I don’t think I mentioned Salim to him.
It’s mind-boggling to think about how arbitrary it all is: Salim was born where he was and I was born where I was and because of that he was peddling me around his city for less than what it costs me to buy a good meal in DC. Staggering, the odds of fortune. Whether you’re born to billionaires or junkies, in a country with an established rule of law or crushing despotism, with phenomenal athleticism or a stifling deformity, with green eyes or blue – it’s all a lottery. And by extension, so are the opportunities you have in life, as well as whatever success you encounter. Heck, even your talents and abilties are only meaningful in the context of the time and place you live in. Yes, individual effort plays a part in success; but individual effort requires mediums to channel it through, and people to encourage and guide it. And whether you have access to those things is a function of the genetic lotto. There’s no moral dessert there. It’s random, and if you’re reading this, you got lucky. Because it could all be another way.
Keeping this in mind is hard but valuable. It breeds humility and gratitude; when you realize how much of where you are is due to factors you had no control over, you tend to toot your own horn a little less. And it breeds empathy too; you tend to judge people a little less harshly when you realize that you could just as easily be them, and if you were you’d probably act the same way they do. These are good qualities worth cultivating. And keeping the improbability of your circumstances on your mind as much as possible is a great way to do it. I would even say that if you were looking for a cornerstone for any religion worth adhering to or any social policy worth implementing, this would be it. But that’s just me.
These ideas are not new, of course. Better minds have thought them. But they’re still worth discussing for those who haven’t encountered them, or have forgotten them, because they’re not intuitive. One has to be shown, over and over again, how amazing one’s life looks when viewed from Salim’s helicopter.