Saturday, August 28, 2010

Street Smart!

During the zillion cab rides around Mumbai, I have closely observed many cabs and cabwalas alike. I always found it strange when my father made petty conversations with cab drivers when I was a child, inquiring about where they were coming from , which part of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. As he would say he was from village X he would immediately remark that others coming from village Y were all ‘tadipar’ or escaped convicts.

It was only after a few more years that I discovered a similar tendency, to make little conversations with cab drivers, these mostly took place during my journeys from home to my Italian classes at Worli, n then from Worli to VT to Times of India building where I worked in the international sales team.

This was at a time when the cabbie scene was changing drastically in Mumbai. There were some comfy air- conditioned, phone a cab services opened up , moreover , the old defunct fiats were now being replaced by newer cars in the market such as Maruti Suzuki models like Van, Alto, Zen, 800, Wagon R etc. This change was gladly welcomed by passengers and drivers alike. Though the drivers had to take car loans and work harder to repay the loans and maintain these cars, they did admit that they could now drive tirelessly for more hours, as they no longer had to use the painstaking hand gear. The passengers were also thrilled to use the newer cabs and I was no exception.

One of my first rides I recall was on one rainy morning at 7:30 am from SV Road Khar, I spotted a Fiat Siena cab from a distance and a confident looking man with a reddish brown beard. I knew that instant I had to take it. I felt privileged to sit in this rare cab just as the driver was proud to own it. After finishing an Italian grammar exercise quickly, and clearing my throat to satiate my curiosity I started bouncing my set of questions at the cabwala. I found out his name was ‘Patel’. I called him Patel Chahcha out of respect for an older person.

Aap ne ye kabhi li? When did u buy this car? Enthused he relied, “I was one of the first to buy the car after receiving the letter from the Mumbai police although I had more time in hand. I jumped at the opportunity and bought the Fiat Siena at Rs. 6 lakhs down payment.” I was amazed! I could not resist asking more questions. It’s a wonderful car I remarked! “Yes it is. I bought this car and I got another letter from the traffic police saying that this car cannot be permitted to be used as regular cab as this is a luxury car”. Patel Chacha pointed out to the traffic Police that the notice did not state which models were not permitted, it only stated that the cabs that have been used for more than 26 years had to be replaced within a given time and hence he had sold his old Fiat Premier to buy a Fiat Siena. The police demanded a handsome fine before they could allow the cab to run on the roads. He paid the suggested amount to free himself from more hassles. The traffic police then made a correction and issued a new notice to cabwalas, stating the car- makes that were allowed to replace the defunct old Fiat Premiers. I was spellbound by his story but he had more to share. Patel Chacha went on to say that he had select customers every day. He only drove those who called him. He finished his duty by 5 in the evening. He also gave me his mobile number, if I had any emergency or needed his services, he would be happy to ply if he was available. I saved the number on my mobile phone and thanked him.

The next few days I was on a roll to use more new cabs and continue small talking with cab drivers. I sat in a Maruti Alto a few days later from Worli to my VT office. When the cab driver started a rather amusing conversation with me. We were passing a crowded busy area called Kalbadevi when the cab driver pointed out a spot and said, “ I picked up a young boy about your age from here this morning. He worked with ICICI Bank had a wheatish complexion. His mother was educated and a retired IAS office. The boy did stop for a smoke though. I dropped him till Andheri”. I said to myself, “Fantastic the cabwala turns cupid”!
It was only some days later I took a Maruti Wagon R. the cabwala drove quiet fast as it was 11 in the night and the streets were empty. At Peddar road he asked me “madam I hope im not driving too fast?” I replied, “Fast is fine but please drive safe!” He replied , “Madam I have to drive safe, I’m more worried about my car I still have to pay Rs. 1.5 lacs of car loan!

These were some of the most striking of the many endless conversations I had with cabwalas in Mumbai in the year 2009. I was amazed at the wisdom among these men who had come all the way from North and Central India to make a living. Who drive day and night to support their family. They are happy to drive in a New India with free roads and new cars but only wished for more tolerant political leaders in this city.

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