Thursday, July 29, 2004

Two for the road…

Over the years I've used several euphemisms for the Bombay Curse. 'Reading time', 'thinking time', 'nap time' – I've called it. But there's no escaping the tedium of the daily commute. On most days I stoically submit to the three-hour bedlam, but on two occasions last week, I was almost grateful for it.

Episode 1: Taxi Philosophy
Time: 9:00 p.m.

A steady drizzle pounded the pavement. I made a dash for the solitary taxi parked close to the office entrance. When he heard my destination was the nearby railway station, he disdainfully waved me away. I was about to mutter darkly when impatient honking interrupted me.

Another taxi had appeared and the driver was craning out of the window, beckoning me. Half-expecting to be refused, I belligerently called out the destination. He nodded and turned the meter.

His uncharacteristic willingness already had me on the back foot. And then his next statement knocked me over.

"Insaan apni maut nahin chun sakta, to savari kyon chunta hai?"
(A person can't choose his own death, so why get choosy with passengers?)

Coming from a Mumbai cabbie – a species known for their hauteur – that was profound. I checked for signs of inebriation, but he seemed sober. If anything, he was lost in thought as he negotiated the traffic.

"Madam, Bharat ki aabadi kitni hogi?"
(What's the population of India?)

I had barely recovered from the previous statement.… 1 billion, I blurted.

"Billion matlab? Mujhe karod samajh mein aata hai."
(What does billion mean? I can understand crores.)

I wrestled with the numbers a bit and then said, 'Billion matlab sau crore'.

"Aur Amreeka ki aabadi kitni hogi?"
(And what's the population of America?)

I felt like an unprepared contestant at Mastermind.

"Tees karod," I bluffed confidently.

He mulled about this for some time, while I braced myself for the next salvo.

“Sirf tees karod? Wahan ki gaurment har aadmi ki acchi dekhbal karti hogi, na?”
(Only 30 crores? The government must be taking good care of the people, mustn't it?)

And then having worked it all out, turned around and triumphantly told me, "Aabadi his sabse badi majhboori hai, madam."(Population is the greatest disadvantage.)

I was expecting a rambling debate on politics, but his simplistic deduction was beguiling. I couldn't help smiling. The conversation would've been interesting if I didn't have to alight just then.

I was pulling out the change, when he started honking again. A couple with a sleeping child had just been waved away by another fickle cabbie. He beckoned them. Without waiting to hear the destination, he turned his meter.

Episode 2: Auto Philanthropy

Time: 1:00 a.m.

I was headed home from a dinner that had gone on a little too late. We were passing a deserted stretch when I noticed the auto driver peering at me in the rear view mirror. I've done a few late nights in advertising to know how to handle creepy drivers. I stared back coldly.

He anxiously asked, 'Madam, time kya hua?'

Without taking my eye off him, I told him it was one in the morning. There were icicles hanging on every syllable.

He looked almost relieved, "Mujhe do bajhe tak vapas ana hai. Mera kutta biscuit khane aayega."(I've to return by two a.m. My dog will come for his biscuit.)

Was this some sort of code, I wondered?

I didn't have to speculate for long. He happily told me. He usually parked his vehicle outside the colony, from where I had got on. At 2 a.m., he'd make his way to the tea stall and when he returned, he'd unfailingly find the driver's seat occupied by a stray dog!

No amount of prodding dislodged the dog. Finally, he'd pull out the biscuit bought at the tea stall. The dog would climb down onto the floor of the auto, munch on the biscuit and then go off to sleep. The driver would squeeze into the back seat.

What happens if you get a passenger and can't return in the night, I asked?

He smiled, “Woh mere liye subah tak rukega. Isliye main wapas aane ki dekhta hoon.”
(He waits for me until the morning. So I make sure I return.)

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