Bombay’s cabbies are not necessarily the most politically aware; that honour belongs to my friend’s four-year old son in Delhi who knows exactly which candidates from which parties are campaigning for the municipality seat in his locality. But Bombay’s cabbies are certainly the most entertaining I have met. Now admittedly, I am not extremely well traveled, but in my meager experience, cab drivers all over the world have a their own traditions regarding service and a specific quirk that is either likable or irritating depending on your mood at the moment. In Bombay, that quirk is conversation; our cabbies love to talk — weather, the traffic or even the budget speech in parliament. They are your link to the pulse of Bombay on the roads. Recently I had two conversations worth mentioning.
The first conversation took place during a short drive to Matunga circle where I commented on the new Indica Taxis with a carrier on the top. Would they be able to take the weight of the luggage of many a passenger from the airport? (words of wisdom from another cabbie in Bombay) So began my cabbie: Madam, they are no longer making the Fiat/Premier Padmini. It is a sad day. Now no parts are available and no taxi is available. You show me the Mercedes or any fancy car like the Honda today and I would still prefer the taxi. (So intrigued, I asked, how come?; try this question with other cabbies in Bombay it seems to be their favourite grouse of late) Well madam you see, the taxi has speed and if you take care of the engine, it will serve you well for many many years. These other cars only look fancy and have AC. They will be more expensive to run. What other car can do 18 – 22 kms/litre on Bombay’s roads? (Now I was impressed even though he was referring to diesel not petrol). Now my father used to work for Tata in their car garage (by this he qualified that his father did not exactly work for J. R. D. Tata and family directly, but as a mechanic in one of the many service centres for Tata Motors). He was an honest man and he always said that there was no engine like the Fiat engine for longevity and I believe him! I once had a friend who traveled Bombay to Nepal in five days!!! (I’m no expert, but even that seemed far-fetched for me, but I let him have his moment; what else can it do? I asked). Well, I heard of a taxi driver that was once driving something for bhai-someone-or-the-other in his taxi . The policewallas chased in their fancy cars but never caught up with them! (Suddenly I began to look for an escape route; this sounded like too much information, but then came the clarification). Look madam it was not me who drove, I just heard about how the policewallas were sweating and sweating in their fancy cars and could not catch up with the humble taxi!
The second conversation was when I had just reached Bombay and was intent on calling EVERYONE I knew to to tell them the good news – I was home. The cab ride was from Bandra to Dadar and was taking well over an hour for the inevitable reason – traffic. I had just finished my Nth call when the cab driver began his conversation: Madam, if you don’t mind me saying, you have not stopped talking on your mobile telephone since you have sat in my gaadi. Red-faced I acknowledged his observation but said my calls were urgent. To this he observes: but madam, each call was at least 15 minutes long. Alright, I said slightly miffed, whats your point? Well, says he, it seems you can’t live without your telephone! (ouch!)
He then began: I remember a time when I used to work for a sa’hab who owned a Mercedes and worked in an office. (His sa’hab, it seems had a family which included a wife, daughter, son and I think a sister.) At that time this mobile was not in existence in India, but the car had a telephone from which sa’hab used to make many important calls which were very expensive. Then one day sa’hab got a mobile phone which was as big as the house telephone with calls at Rs. 22.00 (or thereabouts) per minute and a charge for incoming. At that time madam only the rich people (he felt rich meant a big house with a garage with Mercedes car in it) could afford to pay Rs. 22.00 for a phone call. You see madam, vegetables were still very expensive then and all I could afford was a call from a PCO (Public telephone). But slowly sa’hab’s wife acquired the instrument to talk to her children and make sure they were safe. But then she couldn’t talk to her children directly because they did not have phones and so the inevitable happened – sa’hab’s children got phones so their mother could call them to find out where they were and when they were coming home, and should she send the Mercedes to pick them up? And then, all of a sudden, the economy changed (our cabbie lost his job as sa’hab could no longer afford to keep his Mercedes or Rs. 22/minute mobile phones, and was hence no longer rich). The phones began to get smaller and lighter. BPL and Orange (now Hutch, then who knows what?) reduced their rates and finally Dhirubhai Ambani’s sons made sure everyone can afford a phone.
So I ask the inevitable question: Of course that is a good thing isn’t it? Don’t you have a phone? Yes madam, but no charge (he replied with a twinkle in his eye); this way the wife can not contact me!