Sometimes I’m forced to wake up at some ungodly hour to get to school, at the time of the day that’s teetering between light and dark, as if dawn is still making its mind up whether to go to work today. I take a taxi to get to school and usually to get back, so I’ve met a fair share of taxi drivers in the city of Mumbai. From the nostalgic Premier Padmini to the swanky new Suzuki Eeco, I’ve seen them all in their various shades of misuse and destruction.
Taxi drivers in Mumbai can’t always be put under the same umbrella for stereotypes – they come from different religions, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. But the one thing you can safely say about all of them is that they drive faster than the speed of light. Traffic rules are merely a suggestion at 6 AM in the morning. They will drive on the wrong side of the road, straight into oncoming trucks and swerve at the last minute. They will jump through busy four lane intersections, scraping by oncoming buses, and make it out alive. They’ll overtake between two trucks coming together from the left and right. But then they’ll also stop and let children cross the road to get to school – so really, traffic rules depend on how the guy’s feeling. If there’s one phrase that defines their driving, it’s YOLO.
Amidst the putrid smells of the Mithi river (which happens to be Dharavi’s collective toilet) and the dusty, distant view of the sea link, the taxi drivers will swear at anything that comes within 10 feet of their car. This is the sole reason that my Hindi, Urdu and Bihari has been improving over the past year. The seats range anywhere from real leather to 1930s tarnished velvet lined with eons of Panparag. One of the weirdest things is their unwillingness to turn on the headlights when it’s pitch black. Occasionally when they think some stray dog or human is crossing the road two feet in front of them they’ll turn it on for half a second, swerve the other way (not slow down), and then switch it back off. There are people who I’m sure part-time as Indian iPods that sing Bollywood songs at Dhabas, people who’ve memorised every line in Sholay, drug dealers, and people who read the Hindustan Times. There are people who spit on the road every time they’re near another car, and people who own Galaxy S3’s
Despite this wide margin within which our beloved Mumbai taxi drivers manage to dwell, it’s still probably the best publicly run service in the city. Anyone who’s been to Bangalore will know how much better it is here. It’s not their unwillingness to ask for arbitrary prices or their knowledge or eccentricity that get to you; it’s not even their complete disregard for basic safety. Sometimes you meet someone you can actually have a conversation with and talk about their children’s education, talk about politics, or congratulate them on their second taxi. You’re not always guaranteed to reach your destination in one piece. But what you can always look forward to in this city, through the constant fear of death and inherent humanity in this humble, crumbling tin can of a car, is an interesting journey.