Everyone who’s visited Mumbai has a tale/take about the city’s black and yellow taxis. They are an integral part of our popular culture—most recently we spotted them in the ongoing television series Vicky ki Taxi (where the starring taxi is called Jaaneman) on Real and in the 2009 film Barah Aana (though Meter Down from 2006’s Taxi No. 9211 was my favourite modern-day cinematic moment inspired by a Mumbai taxi). They’ve been used on cushion covers and trays; in art; and, of course, in video games and fashion (though I still haven’t seen a cab on a tie).
They are smelly, dirty (think cockroaches crawling up your leg and blackened vintage cushions positioned just so they nuzzle insistently into your freshly-shampooed hair), rickety and have weird signs on their rear windshields. In all my years of living in Mumbai, No Screwing, stretched boldly across the glass, was the funniest one I ever spotted. Mumbai being a city where space is definitely a final frontier (you can see I’m cold turkeying for the new Star Trek movie), couples have often been known to “check into” a taxi, tinted windows rolled up, for a long drive. Some taxis actually strive for that love motel effect with red seats and a baroque “ceiling” light.
Minimum fare: Good conversation is guaranteed. Vijayanand Gupta / Hindustan Times
But even more iconic than Mumbai taxis are their drivers. Surly and sweaty, they are the politically somnolent city’s most aggressive/cynical political animals (maybe because many of them come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar).
Yet, even though they’re cynical about the future of this country, the corruption of our politicians and the state of our roads, I’ve never met a taxi driver who has lost hope. Until recently, that is.
He was probably just having a bad day and needed a good listener.
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He was from Jaunpur in UP and began talking almost immediately. His son was in hospital for an appendix operation and he needed Rs2,250 by the next morning. A friend had promised to lend him the money, but when he went to pick up the cash, the friend of 15 years informed him that he would have to charge him 10% interest on the loan.
The taxi driver quickly rattled off the break-up of his daily earnings—of the Rs500 or so he earned, Rs250 went to the “Sardar” who owned the taxi and an additional Rs180 or so was spent on CNG. “The rest is mine. Now how can I pay him interest with this amount?”
Like most Mumbai taxi drivers, he pulled a 12-hour shift (another driver worked the remaining 12 hours). According to the Bombay Taximen’s Union, the city has 55,000-56,000 taxis and 100,000-150,000 drivers.
My guy said he had been driving a taxi since 1975 (FYI, that’s one year before the Scorsese movie came out) and he always advised people to stay away from the profession that had ruined his life: “Yeh line mein mat aao, meri puri life khatam ho gayi hai.”
Every day I plead with God to end my life, he said.
I pointed out that he was beginning to sound like a bad Bollywood movie.
“No, really,” he said. “And I don’t care how my family does after I’m gone. I’m fed up of providing for them.”
To cut a long story, I lent him the money. His face lit up, he touched the Ganesh and Sai Baba idols on his dashboard and swore he would return it by the end of the month (I’ll keep you posted).
Clearly a con artist, declared my mother. How does it matter, said the husband. We give only to make ourselves feel less guilty, my mother-in-law said. Nobody really understood that I gave him the money because I couldn’t bear to see a Mumbai taxi driver without hope.
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