Over the last few months, I have been fortunate enough to dabble in a host of things that I previously would have never found time for. These include learning a language, attending screenwriting classes in New York, writing a book and pitching screenplays to production studios in Mumbai. Since I had time on my hands, I also undertook a few more new things: teaching at a college, performing dog-sitter duties (my favourite) and working as an Uber driver.
Last week, I listed these things in a short post on my Facebook profile and was pleasantly surprised to see many well-wishers encouraging me on this journey to pursue the (clichéd) dream. Apart from these public exhortations, a few friends mailed and texted me personally. Most of them referred specifically to my chauffeuring stint. Why had I chosen to work as an Uber driver? Why would I, who, till recently, had been leading a marketing team within a company, want to drive people around?
Signing off on the class, my screenwriting instructor in New York had said that to be a better writer, one must have new experiences, however uncomfortable they might be. It seemed a great piece of advice and, after having come back to India, I made a list of things I wanted to experience. Driving a car for passengers was one of them. I had no inkling then that this stint would evoke more reactions at weekend parties and conversations than anything else I did—or did not do—in the past eight months.
Very few people asked me how tough Mandarin was. Or how difficult (or easy) it was to write a screenplay. Rather, they wanted to know how I was doing as a driver, how many hours I was spending behind the wheel and how much it paid me.
I am not sure that, in their place, I would’ve have been any different. As a people, we Indians don’t regard chauffeuring as a “decent” profession and we’d want to know why anyone would go down that road.
Conversely, when I was in New York, Austin and Los Angeles, it was quite a matter of course to be picked up by MBAs from Cornell and Princeton, who were working as Uber drivers between jobs. One driver, an investment banker, told me he was scheduled to return to India shortly and had taken to driving for Uber to make the most of the working hours available. Women who held day jobs doubled up as Uber drivers at night to earn a little extra. A recently divorced grandmother said she had taken up driving for Lyft because it took her mind off the mess in her personal affairs. None of them had any issues about picking up strangers from their doorsteps.
To be honest, though, I must admit that when I first considered driving commercially, I was a little taken aback my own reluctance. It didn’t help that my first passenger—a man I picked up from Indiranagar, in Bangalore—turned out to be a former business partner. But once I overcame that wee bit of awkwardness, it got me thinking: We’d probably be better off as a society if we could all be a little less concerned about what other people think of our occupation.
And, as if on cue, I met Ajay, a 25-year-old Uber driver in Gurgaon.
Ajay hailed from Kolkata and had spent the last two years trying to set up a fiberglass factory his home state. Things hadn’t gone to plan, and he had to shut down the factory in November 2015. Though from a family of means, he did not want to fall back on them for money. So he transported his Swift Dzire to Gurgaon and began working with Uber.
“I’ve told my folks that I work in administration in a manufacturing plant, there’s no way they’d allow me to work as a driver,” he told me, adding that he was working 15-16 hours a day to save enough money to start a new business after paying off his old debts. “I can’t let them know (I drive for a living). My brother works for Accenture. They wouldn’t like me doing this,” he said. I could see his point of view.
As India takes on the mantle of being the fastest growing economy in the world, the quality of labour available across manufacturing, agriculture and services is bound to come under pressure. And for that quality to improve, people need to be a lot more sensitive to the dignity attached to labour itself.
We don’t like to see our friends as drivers, bartenders, delivery boys or even store staff. Attaching a different nobility to different professions throws us right back to the dark ages. And if the educated in this country carry this unspoken stigma in their heads, how will the others ever adapt?
Rabindranath Tagore in one of his poems in Gitanjali had written:
Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground
and where the pathmaker is breaking stones.
I can’t say it any better. But I know we all can do better.
A marketer by profession, Issac M John fiddles with new experiences in films, sports and travel.