The Infamous Cabbies of Mumbai
by Vinita Radhakrishna
“I am never getting in these kaali peelis again.” Over the years, I must have heard this line umpteen times. Being born and bred in Mumbai, it has always been a love and hate relationships with these cabbies. Every person in Mumbai has the same story to tell- an eternal tug of power and war with the cabbies.
The humble black and yellow taxis are a staple of Mumbai roads and unlike its British counterparts; there are no indications to tell whether the taxis are occupied or vacant. Take for instance: You want to go somewhere and you stand at the end of a road or a junction, trying to flag down a cab. The cabs can be like an oasis, seemingly vacant from a distance but the closer they get, you realize they were occupied from the start. Now, in Mumbai, an empty cab is not the end of a struggle. You have to hope that your destination is alluring enough for the cabbie to want to go the distance. And, god forbid, you have competition! Now, imagine, one vacant cabbie and 4-5 desperate customers wanting to go to different parts of the city- it will not matter who flagged him down first, the destination which appeals to the cabbie will be the lucky passenger and the rest, well, better luck next time.
Now, with apps after apps for booking prepaid cabs to any destination from the comfort of your home, the struggle to find a cab has reduced a little. Call me old fashioned but unlike, say, even my 5 year old daughter; I still prefer the kaali peelis to their prepaid counterparts. Undoubtedly, at times, the prepaid cabs are much more convenient and safer, the kaali peelis will always remain my go-to in everyday life.
I might fall under that 0.1% category who would probably never criticize a Mumbai cabbie. In fact, some of my most interesting encounters have been with cabbies. It was just yesterday, I flagged down a cab who recognized me as the sister of a passenger who used to ride with him for years. Indeed, my brother who now lives abroad used to use this particular cabbie for his daily commute to and fro from work. I was surprised that he recognized me as my brother stopped commuting in India decades ago and I was a school-goer, probably not much older than my own daughter when these commutes happened. When I questioned the cabbie on how he recognized me and related me with my brother, he told me we looked the same! At the end of the journey, he didn’t even charge me for the hundred rupee odd fare that it cost to cover the distance.
A few years ago, I had lost my wallet and didn’t have a single rupee with me. This was long before the era of smartphones and prepaid cabs and I wasn’t sure how I would reach an important meeting. I flagged down a cab and when I sat down, I hesitantly told him that I had lost my wallet and that I have to reach this meeting urgently and I would pay him back the same evening. I would not have been surprised if he had told me to leave the cab and find another one. But what he did do next, surprised me the most- he did nothing.
He started the meter and drove nonchalantly, after reaching my destination, he told me, “Don’t worry, madam. You can pay me back whenever you have the money. Insaan hi insaan ke kaam aate hai.”
The cabbie, in his thirties or forties, told me that he was going to night school to learn English and complete his tenth standard. He was married for over twenty years and now his kids want him to get a better job, for which he has to be educated. He had been a taxi driver from the past 15 years and was all he knew to do but now for his kids, he was striving for a better life. He asked me whether his English was correct and I could only nod, dumbfounded by his story and astonished on hearing such things from a cabbie.
In Mumbai, girls are not really afraid on traveling alone. I don’t mean disrespect or pass judgment on any particular city or country but Mumbai has always been relatively safer than the rest of the country for women. One particular night, it was quite late and despite living in a moderately crowded area of Mumbai, past 2 am, all roads are invariably isolated and empty. I had been shuffling in my purse for most of the journey back home, searching for the comforting jingling sound of my keychain carrying my home keys. I had not spoken a word to the cabbie and was busy texting and searching in my purse for the 20-25 minute odd journey time it took to reach home. My keys were not in the purse and the spare keys were with my husband who was going to take another 30 minutes after me to reach home. Once we arrived at my destination, I paid the amount and was about to exit when the cabbie asked me if everything is all right. I told him about my dilemma and that I waiting for my husband. He told me to wait in the cab till he arrived. He said, “I will off the meter but you can wait in the backseat. It is not safe for you to wait alone at this time of the night.” After my husband arrived, we offered him some remuneration for his kindness but he said “Nahin, yeh mera farz tha” (No, this was my moral obligation, my duty.) and left.
Over the years, I have had so many encounters with cabbies and despite what people say, I have always found the Mumbai cabbies to be much more empathetic than anywhere else in the world. I have traveled extensively across the world and used cabs everywhere but encounters like the ones I narrated above are the reasons why I love my kaali peelis.
Undoubtedly, some of these cabbies are rude and arrogant. Of course, I have had my share of rejections and tiffs with cabbies. But the goodness in most of them, makes up for a few rude ones. Each taxi driver has a story to tell. In the humdrum of the city, it is so easy to forget that they are just one amongst us, people earning and struggling to get by in their everyday life. They are people with families and dreams, stories and struggles, aspirations and wishes like all of us. Most importantly, over the years of my bittersweet encounters with these cabbies, I have learnt that if I measure the intelligence and kindness of a person based on their education and literacy then I am the real fool.
The best of the people I have met have been, at times, illiterate, poor and struggling but that has not sucked out the humanity from them. In fact, those have been the people who have inspired me to take a leap of faith from time to time. ***