“You can’t travel alone at 2am and then say Delhi is not safe.”
Delhi Police commissioner B.K. Gupta to a group of women on 9 July 2011.
These are roads where women have been raped, where an IT student was found lying in a pool of blood in May, and where, in 2008, a young working woman driving home was shot to death. Figures released by the Delhi Police in January show a woman is raped every 18 hours or molested every 14 hours in the Capital. In 2010, the city saw 3,074 kidnappings, 1,596 snatchings, 519 murders and 489 rapes. The police commissioner suggests that if you want to be safe, stay away from the streets late in the night. Spurred by his remark, we decided to drive through night-time Delhi’s southern areas.
Hauz Khas Village
The street lights are off. The headlights of passing cars briefly illuminate the faces of a chic crowd on the roadside, returning from Hauz Khas eateries. Our cab is speeding towards Aurobindo Marg.
In the cab: NH8
This Tata Indigo is one of the 400 Meru Cabs (a radio cab service that gave us a free ride) that zip through the city’s roads during the small hours. Driver Chand Choudhary was hired by the cab company early last year.
Turning towards the IIT flyover, he says: “We’re going to Select Citywalk (a mall in Saket). At 11pm, you get the most stick pick-ups in the malls of Rajouri Garden, Saket, Vasant Vihar and Gurgaon.” In cabbie-speak, the “stick pick-up” refers to customers who hail the cab on the road, while the “bidding pick-up” means getting a customer who has made a booking through the car company’s call centre.
Choudhary’s seat faces the GPS-enabled screen of the Mobile Data Terminal that blinks every time a prospective customer in neighbourhoods nearby calls for a cab. There could be many drivers in the same vicinity; the “bid” that has to be accepted within 30 seconds goes to the driver who presses the button first. On Friday nights, Choudhary gets around six bids, which net him Rs 4,000.
He steers left on to Press Enclave Road. The traffic lights are on the blink. “Once I had a pick-up from Gurgaon’s Sahara mall,” Choudhary says. “The boy and girl had just left the disco and were returning to Punjabi Bagh. By the time we crossed Mahipalpur they were exchanging jhappis (hugs). I was watching them in the rear-view mirror. When they started kissing, I politely asked them to sit at a distance from each other. The boy said, ‘Are you jealous?’ I said, ‘Look, there are five cameras in this car and a video is being made of whatever you both are doing.’” The couple instantly disentangled. Of course, there were no cameras.
Delhi’s traditional cab culture is one of neighbourhood taxi stands manned by drivers known to the families nearby. A young woman might think twice before getting cosy with her boyfriend if the driver knows her dad. The new cab services, professional and impersonal, offer anonymity.
A Saket mall
A queue of Honda Accords, Citys, Hyundai Vernas, Mercedes-Benz, and Audis is snaking towards the underground parking. A young man with long hair, rippling arm muscles and movie-star looks is standing at the autorickshaw stand, his eyes darting around. A middle-aged woman in a salwar-kameezsteps out from a chauffeur-driven red Accord. Talking on the cellphone, her puffed eyes briefly take in the man, who is on the phone. The woman crosses the road towards Khirki Village. The man follows. Putting away their phones, they chat.
In the cab: Outside a mall in Saket.
A tall, well-built foreigner approaches us. Choudhary starts the cab and moves on. “It’s risky to have a single man for stick pick-ups, especially on Fridays. They are drunk and sometimes refuse to pay.”
Choudhary parks the car in front of DT mall. I step out and stand under a tree next to a bus stop. A girl in jeans, tank top and high heels climbs the pavement, and stands a few feet away from the tree. Mumbling into her cellphone, she is staring at me.
Back in the car, Choudhary says: “At this hour you’ll find many girls looking for men here to make pocket money. Once, a foreigner collected a woman here and hired my cab. He directed me to a highway guesthouse in Gurgaon and asked me to wait. After 2 hours, I dropped the girl at her apartment complex in Munirka and the foreigner in Vasant Vihar.”
On the way to the PVR Saket multiplex
The cab runs through residential neighbourhoods. Some stretches are traffic-free. The bungalows are in darkness and the guards in the cabins are reduced to silhouettes.
The road outside PVR is bathed in an orange glow. Five girls are chatting outside the cinema’s box office. The adjacent pizza outlet is closing for the day. A couple of shadowy figures are flitting about the plaza. There are sounds of laughter from somewhere. Radio cabs are waiting for the movie show to end.
A view of motels in Mahipalpur.
Five adolescent boys are leaning against a white Audi. The car’s air conditioning is on. A sixth boy gets out of the Audi, and another one gets in. Next, the young man emerges from the car with two girls. They all begin to smoke cigarettes. Speaking in public-school English, their talk is sprinkled with words like “awesome”, “yaar” and “cool”. Gauche and giddy, perfumed and well-clothed, the children are living on impulse. It seems as if there is nothing they really want to do, and nothing they won’t do.
Outside Urban Pind, N-Block Market, Greater Kailash-1
Choudhary is having his home-cooked subzi-rotiin the back seat. People are leaving the club in pairs. A woman asks an auto driver to drop her to Malviya Nagar, saying in Hindi, “Meter se.” He says, “Double meter plus night charge.” A teenage boy is walking with a vodka bottle and two plastic glasses. Delhi’s night birds, armed with cellphones, cruise a city of malls, multiplexes, discos and sex. Painted with an advertisement for an American chocolate brand, showing an unwrapped nutty bar, the exteriors of our cab are a perfect metaphor for this new subculture.
“We rarely get customers between 1 and 3am,” says Choudhary. “After that, we get busy with airport drop-offs and pick-ups, which goes on till morning.”
NH8, the highway to Gurgaon and Jaipur, is crowded with cars, cabs and trucks. A Boeing is taking off from the airport’s runway, to the right of the highway. A black and yellow Ambassador overtakes us. Neon lights are blinking in Mahipalpur’s motels. Their lobbies are empty save for receptionists watching TV. Choudhary stops at a petrol pump beside Radisson Hotel. An overweight man in a black suit walks out of the hotel’s staff gate carrying a packet of potato chips and a Cola can.
On the way to Gurgaon
Zipping past Rangpuri village, two men in black dinner jackets and black trousers gesture desperately for a lift. Choudhary doesn’t stop. He doesn’t give lifts.
Dozens of radio cabs are parked outside the Sahara mall in Gurgaon, adjoining Delhi. Heavy metal beats pulse from the building. The pavements are crowded with omelette carts. Grim-looking children are beating eggs in steel glasses. Five ice-cream trolleys line the other side of the road. A Hyundai emerges from the mall, driven by a girl. Suddenly, a noise. A policeman is banging his baton against an ice-cream trolley. The children who were making omelettes quickly hide their carts in an unlit part of the alley, their precarious living threatened anew. The policeman is swearing, ordering the vendors to leave immediately. Meanwhile, a girl in shorts and top, accompanied by a boy in jeans and T-shirt, enters the mall. “They must be call centre employees,” says Choudhary. “They’ll party inside till 5am.”
Back on Aurobindo Marg in Delhi, Choudhary gets a bid for an airport drop from Green Park.
Hauz Khas Village
The trip ends. The dogs are barking. I’m alive, feeling like I’ve just finished watching a trashy low-life movie. If it hadn’t been for the driver, I wouldn’t have been out alone.