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Taxi art is part of the Mumbai scene. Photo: Kabi Sherman
Taxi art is part of the Mumbai scene. Photo: Kabi Sherman

Playing spin the wheel

Mumbai's taxi drivers more than any other group have always had ringside seats to changing India

For residents of south Mumbai, in a faraway time before Arvind Kejriwal and Arnab Goswami, the taxi driver was this somnolent constituency’s only link to national politicking.

In the short drive from Nariman Point to Malabar Hill, the Navbharat Times and Yashobhoomi reading taxi driver could introduce you to his India, one where citizens didn’t pay taxes and yet knew exactly what the government had been up to. His Mayawati vs Mulayam Singh monologue was tailored to the duration of your drive and the level of your interest. God forbid some English newspapers had convinced you that life in Bihar had improved dramatically with the rise of Nitish Kumar, he could easily provide the counter view. If it was your lucky day, he would dismiss the idea of a Hindu Rashtra with a cynical: All these political parties are useless. Everyone’s a %*@#%. If not, oh well, it was a healthy debate, certainly more so than those snappy Twitter altercations.

Just writing this above paragraph made me cold turkey for some politics-at-the-wheel so I dialled my favourite Mumbai taxi driver. “Thank you for calling Sudhakar, please wait your call is being answered," an electronic voice announced. Encouraged by the thought of more business if he “upgraded", Sudhakar traded in his Premier Padmini for a Santro a few years ago. This week’s cover story, “Bye bye, Premier Padmini taxi", explains why taxi drivers like him have mixed feelings about the change. It’s also an obituary to a way of life for those Mumbaikars who for years commuted in rickety taxis on sweaty red velvet seat covers with an ornate “chandelier" light just above their foreheads.

As soon as Sudhakar answered, I demanded my fix: “Who’s going to win the 2014 elections in your state?" After a 5-minute soliloquy on caste politics, he concluded: “Looks like the BJP has a chance this time."

Why just politics? Mumbai’s taxi drivers more than any other group have always had ringside seats to changing India. Long before couples made out in the Delhi Metro, they were doing it in the Mumbai taxi.

I’ve used this space to write about the taxi with the advisory “No Screwing" sprawled across its rear windscreen but mostly, taxi drivers never play moral police. In a city that doesn’t make space for first love, official love or illicit love, everyone sneaks a moment or two in the relative privacy of a taxi. And the driver couldn’t care less as long as his meter keeps running.

Mumbai encourages braver immigrants like Sudhakar to walk the tightrope of change. I’d like to believe that the city’s rich history of no-nonsense working women convinces them their daughters must be educated and self-reliant. I could be wrong of course. So I promise I won’t write another taxi column (this is my fourth) until I see if Sudhakar’s political forecast hits the target.

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