Born somewhere in India, making his living on the roads of Bombay, this native of hell has been genetically engineered to ignore all rules, weave in and out of traffic, and squeeze through impossible gaps at surreal speeds.
From the sometimes-tarred roads, from the steamy weather and teeming streets where even cars can’t breathe, there emerges an animal called the taxi driver.
You can spot him easily – he is the guy cruising slowly while straddling two lanes, and he is looking for you.
Ladies and gentleman, please welcome…
The Manic Monster
He’s the engine-gunning, accelerate-into-the-narrowest-gap, make-the-passenger-gasp variety. He’s usually young, sits in his seat slightly sideways with one arm on the steering and the other on the gear shift; has one eye checking out gaps in traffic he can squeeze into, has the other checking out the passenger at the back. He can do zero to sixty sph in 30, that is zero to sixty signals per hour in 30 seconds. He expresses his mind freely, often in colourful speech, if he doesn’t get past an annoying vehicle that is preventing the new world record he wants to set before his shift is over. He’s the chap who has got the latest beat coming out of his hidden-in-the-glove compartment stereo. He wears dark glasses and chews and spits paan furiously. Gets you there faster than you wished. Either close your eyes when you sit inside or develop a zeal for religion quickly. Avoid him when going to important meetings, unless your body is sufficiently deodorized. Seek him out desperately if you are late. Its easy to spot him, he’s got this manic look on his face. He may even smile as you slip into your seat.
Sixty plus. In no hurry to get you anywhere. Most likely to break out into a conversation. (Tip from personal experience – avoid controversial subjects. It gets his adrenaline going and he loses control. Sometimes of the car.) Has got kids in school (English medium) and college (he doesn’t want his kids to be in the same profession) or married daughters in Canada. Listens to music from his generation, doesn’t know who the Khans are (Aamir, Shahrukh, Salmaan), reads a magazine or newspaper when not driving, has a checked towel-like cloth draped on his shoulder or on the seat. Listens to devotional songs and lights up a few agarbattis when he starts off in the morning and at dusk to propitiate the gods.
The Nervous Rookie
Keeps his money with the owner, his ‘dhani’, his personal banker. Drives a beat up car. Slowly. Wears sweaty, wrinkled, faded hand-me-down khaki. Wears sweat perfume. Has an oil factory strategically located on his head. Is in his late teens/early twenties, a fresh recruit from the teeming villages and towns of northern India. Is not clear of your destination, nor he of his. Can be bullied into going wherever you want at whatever time you want to. Has that ‘blown’ and wide-eyed look all the time. No, he doesn’t consume narcotic substances. It’s because he has an average IQ of zero.
Mr. Spit & Polish
Has a new cab and insists on driving it. Has a clean, white uniform. Has a clean and dent free black and yellow or blue and silver cab. Has clean seat covers. Is polite. Is non-interfering. Is helpful. Offers you something to read, asks whether you would like to listen to music. Sometimes offers a choice of routes to your destination. And he is honest, the kind who will return the mobile phone you forgot in the back seat.
Find him at airports, railway stations or bus stands. Wears sporty looking dark glasses and has a Shahrukh Khan haircut. Leans against the taxi door, smoking a cigarette with one hand, swinging his car keys from a long silver chain with the other. Leans on his customers too, if they don’t give him the-waiting-for-4-hours-for-you fee. Never has change. Will take you to your destination by the longest route. He may look sweet and innocent but behind that paan stained toothy smile is a devil waiting to pick your wallet.
The Pimp, Pusher & Peeping Tom
Has got the extra wide rear view mirror installed to keep a glad eye on his lady passengers or lovers. Keeps photos and reels off contacts. Has a green tube light in his taxi to help you see his ‘catalogue’ at night. Will show you a good time whatever the time. Has a basket of goodies in his glove compartment, read pictures: from the sleazy cheap, to the she-could-be-my-college-going-sister, to the Bollywood starlet variety. Knows where to get booze or other ‘heady’ stuff after closing time. Savvy. Knows how to keep the law on his side. His trademark – spits a mean spout of paan from the gap between his front teeth a fair distance.
Has hired the cab from the owner “by the kilometer”. His ambition and reason to live – save fuel and fatten his take at the end of the day. Will turn off the engine whenever he has to wait for more than 10 seconds. He really comes into his own on sloping roads where he will turn off the ignition and coast as far as he can, then put the car into gear and jerk-start it. Only to turn it off again at the next signal. He prays frequently…for traffic pile-ups and vip convoys. Gives him more reason to save fuel for the nation.
The Fiddler On The Road
A mechanical genius who has tampered with the meter so that he can rip off both the passenger as well as the owner. Has another rate card, which he slips to unsuspecting souls to make an even bigger buck. Practices sleight of hand with five hundred rupee notes, magically turning them into hundred rupee notes to fool absent minded passengers into shelling out more. Considers anything and everything left behind as a gift from above. Always leaves immediately after dropping the passenger lest the passenger wisens up.
Chances are you have met more than one or all of these characters. However, if you have come across a species that I haven’t discovered yet, do tell me. I could do a sequel.
© Sanjiv Khamgaonkar/The writes of passage