It’s not easy being a driver here in Mumbai
After experiencing the train, I know that without their services, the whole of Mumbai would be at a standstill.
This is also a true when using the Rickshaw and Taxis; without them, again. Mumbai would be immobile.
Before I arrived, I had a real ambition that I would buy an Auto Rickshaw, and drive it around town. This ambition was quickly squashed, when I was told that I could not legally drive a three wheeled vehicle as a foreigner living in Mumbai. However, I was told I could drive a motor cycle or car. I was a bit put back with this news and the fact I can only drive a vehicle with an even amount of wheels has deterred me from driving altogether.
Since living here I must admit that I have been guilty of using the internet taxi services, Uber, which can be easier. However this method of transport is nowhere near as much fun and can be without character.
I have a good friend back home who is a London Black cab driver and is struggling since the arrival of the internet services competitors. And, just like at home, the only true characters you meet driving cabs and taxis are the people that are trained and have been doing it all their lives.
The same applies here in Mumbai. I have had some of my most memorable experiences using the Rickshaws and Taxi services.
It is sort of important to know that the Rickshaw (3wheelers) do not really compete against the taxis. The reason being is the Rickshaws are not allowed into the centre of Mumbai; only taxis can be waiting in the streets. The same is true with taxi drivers, not many are seen waiting in the streets outside the centre. However taxis can take a fare out of the centre to the suburbs.
I have meet some really interesting characters. I will list them here, in no particular order of time or which I have remembered the most.
This was one, if not the first time, I had got into a taxi in Mumbai. This was certainly the first time I had been in taxi on my own. I was travelling into the city to meet the organisation that I was going to volunteer my teaching services to in the slum areas of Mumbai. I had realised that if I caught the train, it would be easier to start with, then get a taxi to the office block I had to go to in the centre of town.
After I left the station and fighting my way through the crowds where, incidentally, I saw a cow lying in the middle of the street. Nothing unusual there, except lying right next to it, was a massive dead rat. This was one of the moments where I came up with the title of this blog. ‘Only In Khush India.’
There, the taxis were all lining the streets waiting for a fare. I had been warned, unlike the rickshaw drivers, that have to use a meter; the taxi drivers have more power, and not always, but sometimes, a price as to be agreed before taking the ride.
To the first taxi driver I see, I shout out of the name of the train station nearest to where I wanted to go. I have decided to take a taxi because I couldn’t risk going all the way to this railway station by train. I would have had to change lines twice and I didn’t fancy the danger factor of this, hence a taxi was needed.
I first realised that there could be language problem and after repeating the name three times, the taxi driver nodded his head. This meaning ‘yes get in’. So I am in, I realise by previously looking at the map it is only a 2km journey, so it shouldn’t be too much money. After a few arguments in Hindi and cockney rhyming slang, and a few smiles, the price is agreed. Rupees 50 (around 45 pence). I now know that this was too much to pay, but I was on my way.
The music was kicking out in the car of course in Hindi. And it seems the only way a taxi driver can play this is LOUD.
He starts to sing and is competing against the volume of the music. I sit in the back thinking he must turn this down soon.
He must have heard what I was thinking and turns the music off looks over his shoulder at me in the back of the taxi and says:
I then think this is the time, even though he is not looking at the road, where we could have a conversation. Oh no, he then turns back to facing the road, and the music goes on full blast again. The singing continues and even a few shoulder shimmies are introduced. I sit back and smile, no conversation I guess.
But no, music is turned off once again, the singing stops, the shoulders stop moving and the head turns around to face me.
Conversation I am thinking. No wrong again.
‘Traffic’ he says again this time louder.
‘Yes’ I say hoping I can talk to him and perhaps the music and singing will stop.
But no, he turns back to the front, puts the music on again and the singing starts again. He repeats this for the whole 20 minute journey.
The traffic rap comes to stop where he drops me off; my ears are ringing. I pay the money, and am really glad to be out of the taxi. It’s only when he pulls away that I realise I have been dropped off at the wrong railway station.
This is on the same day, and after finally making the meeting. I am told to go straight to the slum school that day to meet the teachers. So back into another taxi, and then a train.
I am armed with a piece of paper with an address but realise getting there over the other side of town isn’t going to be easy.
After getting out at the train station that I think is near to my first showing at the school, I need to get a ride. This time being in the suburb, it is a rickshaw that I need. I am more familiar with these and have used them many times before.
I approach a rickshaw, or ‘auto’ as they are commonly known as. I met the driver’s eye, I tell him in my London accent where I want to go. I have to make sure he understands my destination, I am getting tired and have now been transporting myself around for over two hours. I wanted to look fresh for my first experience of working in the slum school. I needed to be sure that this driver knows where he was going.
I say my destination, he repeats its name. I am thinking that is a good sign.
He repeats again and then again. I say ‘you know where you are going?’ He says ‘yes’ and keeps repeating the destination.
He speaks a bit of English, that’s good I am thinking. He repeats the destination for the fourth time. ‘Are you sure you know where you are going?’, he replies in perfect English.
‘Yes, don’t worry’.
I sit back and he is still repeating the destination. Oh no, not another rap song with the destination being the title. I am thinking.
‘Ok’ I say
‘Yes no worry’ he replies.
The journey continues. After 5 minutes he stops the rickshaw.
‘Ok’ I say
‘Yes, no worry, sir’
Then he doesn’t continue, he looks me in the eye and says
‘Sir, Google Map?’
A line of Rickshaws, the black ants of Mumbai
Horn Of Plenty:
After sussing on how to get to the voluntary schools site, life seems part of a routine. It took me a few weeks, but I realised it is really important what side of the railway track you leave the station by. By leaving on the wrong side, a rickshaw might have to drive 10 minutes up the road to a bridge that crosses the track. That lessons was learnt on one trip going to school.
Anyway, after a few mistakes, I had realised that if I did get out of the train on the correct side of the track, I could catch a rickshaw and it would only be a ten minute ride to my school site. But the other thing I didn’t realise that the rickshaws on this side of the track were shared. You paid rupee 10 (around 8p) and you are driven to the slum compound, where I work. The rickshaws here only go back and forward from the slum to the station.
So after a day’s teaching on the compound, I made my way to catch a rickshaw back to the station something, as I have said, was like a routine. However this particular time it wasn’t.
I walked across the road and I could hear a loud speaker from somewhere. I then realised it was coming from the rickshaw that was approaching me. It looked to be in mint condition and it was sparkling. The young guy behind the wheel was smiling, even though the sound from the machine was deafening. I knew at once this rickshaw had my name on it. He stopped and smiled. He then pressed a button that had visible wire connected to it. It was his horn and he was proud of it. He had wired a sound machine horn to the speakers that were protruding from the back of the vehicle. He pressed it again and smiled, as if to say what do you think? It reminded me of my youth and when I got my first radio cassette player wired up in my first car. But this wasn’t Luther Vandross hitting the air waves; this was one almighty electronic horn and similar sound to the vuvuzelas that were used in the South African world cup, and because they were so loud they were banded.
So I am thinking, this should be a bit of a laugh, until from nowhere three middle age women appeared. I was sitting in the back covering my ears, when I realised that I now had to share the Horn Of Plenty with other riders. I was squashed in, flesh on flesh squeezed against the rails of the Rickshaw. Just above my head there was a sign saying ‘max. passengers 3’. Yeah, right. So off we go with a loud horn to show we were on our way.
The driver slows down and sees a friend and shouts out in Hindi, which I can only guess means what do you think of my new horn and a second blast is given. The three women are not amused, and to be honest, I am not sure I am either. A ten minute ride to the station and it seems he just couldn’t help but continue to press the button. He stops again and another friend just shakes his head as he hears the piercing sound. But this time the horn seems to have attracted more attention. More people seem to want to enter the already overcrowded rickshaw. His smiles and thinks to himself ‘this horn is helping my business’. I am thinking this is just a coincidence. But for whatever reason more passengers are ready to embark.
A rickshaw usually takes four people, sometimes a friend will sit at the front with the driver and not pay, making a total of 5 people in the rickshaw.
But the Horn Of Plenty is ready for more, and two women and a man are keen to enter, I am not sure they are even aware of its sound capacities. The Horn Driver looks at his mate, as if to say ‘look at me’. We have to shuffle the pack, and I am moved to the front of the vehicle next to the driver and the other man goes on the other side. It is so cramped, I am not even given a piece of seat to sit on, and I am just balanced next to the driver. We are all ready to move on, but not without a Horn blast. It is then I realise that this thing has speaker at the front as well – the noise is unbearable. I try to smile through gritted teeth, all the other passengers are silent and in fact, not at all amused by this young guy’s new toy.
We arrive at the station and get out and pay our rupees 10. The Horn of Plenty has doubled his income on this journey. He smiles and gives us one last loud blast before he leaves, skidding away looking for more fun.
This memorable experience occurred when the boys and I had to get a taxi home from their football training. The journey home is never a good one and at 6.30pm, the traffic is terrible; the journey can take anywhere between 20 minutes up to 1 hour. It is also never easy to get a taxi to go to the other side of Mumbai.
After a few tries, we managed to find a driver that was willing to take the fare. He seemed a friendly guy and as soon as we entered his taxi, it seemed he was keen to speak.
As before, the opening gambit for a taxi driver’s conversation is ‘Traffic’.
’Traffic’, he says.
‘Traffic full,’ I say, a phrase I had learnt from a previous taxi driver…. Then the fun starts.
‘Traffic Problem’, he says.
‘Bad traffic problem. Mumbai Traffic Problem’.
‘Yeah, bad this time of night’
‘Much Indian problem’ he continues.
We continue to move slowly in the traffic, the rain making the journey even slower.
‘Where you from sir?’
‘Ha! England problem.’
At this point I can hear the boys starting to laugh in the back seats.
‘England politic problem?’
‘Yeah’ I reply thinking where is this conversation going? But by now this guy has put a smile on my face.
‘England profit problem?’
‘Yeah I suppose so.’
‘India profit problem and India politic problem’
We move slowly on; we see a policeman trying to keep the traffic moving.
‘Police problem’ he says…
We can’t help but laugh.
At this point, a van passes us in the slow traffic, and some young guys realising we are foreigners, poke their heads out of their vehicle’s window and, in a friendly manner they shout out:
‘Where you from?’
‘England’, I reply.
‘Youth problem’, the taxi drivers says.
Then the van just by chance back firers. We all laugh. The boys are now laughing so loudly, the guys in the van, me and the taxi driver all join in, and we are all laughing.
The van backfires once more.
‘Bomb problem,’ the driver says solemnly.
After a few minutes of no more problems, the conversation slows down. I am now thinking we certainly have a few problems, and the driver’s vocabulary as moved from ‘profit problem’ to ‘bomb problems’. So I wonder whether he can he hold a conversation without using the word ‘Problem’
We drive through a really busy area; this is the time to see if he really does understand.
‘Sir, where are we?’ I say.
‘India’ He replies.
So at this point I realise I can’t continue a conversation during this journey, without anymore ‘Problems!’
Twice a week I have to get a rickshaw to Michelle’s school to pick the boys up, and then get a taxi to their football training.
On this occasion, I walked out of our apartment to the busy road, this is the best place to flag down a rickshaw to make the 20 minute journey to school. We had just come back from a Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka, so this was the first time I have had to get a rickshaw in two weeks. I realised after approaching the first rickshaw that he didn’t understand where I wanted to go. This has happened on many occasions, and I find myself changing my accent to be understood. So another rickshaw approached; I repeated my destination this time with what I think is an Indian accent, again I am not understood. Two more rickshaws join and they all look at each other, not knowing where I want to go. It seems being away from India for two weeks has killed my Indian accent altogether. I have had 4 rickshaw refusals but I keep walking, hoping my accent will improve and hoping soon someone will understand where I want to go.
I approach a line of rickshaws where the drivers are either sleeping or playing cards, and once you reach this part of the main road, you have less chance of getting a ride.
I kept trying to say where I wanted to go, but no luck. Two more drivers simply don’t understand me, or don’t want to understand me. I have now been trying to get a ride for 15 minutes, and I am thinking that I am going to be late for the boys that are waiting for me. I think one more try and I will have to phone Michelle and say I have forgotten how to pronounce the area where your school is.
Then one cheeky, dirty looking driver realises that I am struggling, and see this as his way of earning a few more rupees. I am aware of this; I feel like an injured wilder beast just about to be eaten by a lion, knowing I have no way out of this desperate situation. He doubles the price of the journey and says ‘no meter’; this is illegal, he knows it and I know it.
But he has seen me struggle and is going in for the kill.
I agree his rate, knowing I am going to be eaten alive, so I shout at his offer with disgust, but I still enter his domain, and get into the back of the rickshaw. But I don’t feel good, and I am still agreeing his price as he drives away. He is obviously saying in Hindi, ‘take it or leave it’. I am thinking ‘I am late, I need to get to the school’ so I am still fighting my last remaining part of dignity.
He drives, mumbling and me arguing, and this point, I hear the siren of an ambulance just about to pass us. He pulls over to let the ambulance go by. Well that’s what I think he was doing. At this point he then starts moving the steering wheel back and forward, swerving all over the road, He is now shouting; I am thinking it will take more than that to scare me. I shout back, if it is a problem and we can’t agree a fare, maybe I can get out, and you can wait for your next passing wilder beast. He is still shouting, and so am I, no fare is worth this. I say forget it, you don’t need to scare me into paying your overpriced fare, I will just be late.
However he stills continues with the shouting and swerving of the steering wheel. He gets nearer the side of the road. I am thinking this guy is mad, no argument can be worth this. I am thinking about planning my escape route, one more last kick to get away from this lion. I think about jumping out of the moving rickshaw, then all of a sudden the rickshaw stops.
This is my time to get out and run to the plains while I have the chance. I get out of the rickshaw, waiting for my last fight with the driver.
All of a sudden, the rickshaw collapses and the front wheel falls off, the lion is beaten. There is a god!
Another rickshaw approaches. I seize my chance of getting away. This time I concentrate before I speak. My accent has returned, the new driver understands me perfectly. The meter is switched on, and off we go. I look back over my shoulder and I see the lion holding a spanner looking towards the heavens for an answer.
Fancy A Massage?
Again this experience happened after the boys’ football training. We got a taxi from our usual place and we have realised that if we walk 5 minutes down to the highway, it can save us 30 minutes of our journey, because all the taxi drivers that are not near the highway will go the slower, longer way to collect more fare.
So we enter the taxi, me in the front, the two boys in the back. This driver starts to speak as soon as we get in, so we know this is not going to be a quiet ride. He asks where we have come from; we tell him the football training school up the road. He asks straight away, ‘why have you walked down here?’ We explain we want to go straight onto the highway as it is quicker and cheaper. He says that it is wrong and wants to drive us back to the training ground and use the slower more expensive route. We all say ‘no highway!’ He is not happy. He says we are lucky to get a fare this way; we reply that we do it every week, and that he was the first driver ever to mention that there is a problem.
He can’t believe that we have used our experience to save money and time in the taxi world. He is a bit surprised how clued up we are. When we entered his taxi, he saw white foreigners that he thought would be easy to get more money from. He now knows that perhaps by picking us up it was not a good move. The meter is on, and he says ‘can he now turn it off, it’s a long way to go to where we want to go and he might not get a fare back’.
‘No’, we all say.
‘Where you from sir?’
‘You must have lots of money’
‘I have American friends that pay me in dollars, do you have dollars?’
‘No, sorry only rupees, and I have no money’
‘You must be rich, living in England’
‘No, I am poor, that’s why I live in India’
By this time the boys have started to laugh in the back of the car again. This guy is after the money, anyway he can get it. What’s funny he is not in the least embarrassed for asking for it.
‘How is my driving sir…good?’
‘I suppose so’
‘If driving good, you need to give me a tip’
‘If your driving was good you might have got a tip, but the fact you have asked for one means I will probably not give you a tip.’
‘Don’t be like that sir, driving good? I have been driving for many years’
We continue to follow our route, he asks what I do. I say I am a teacher and all us teachers are all poor, but he is not buying that one.
‘Driving good?’ he says…
Just as he is looking in my eye, wanting to get personal, thinking this is the only way I am going to get more money from these foreigners, he loses concentration and nearly hits the car in front.
‘Driving not good’ I say.
‘You have family?’ I say.
‘Yes one daughter, she is 13’
‘Does she go to school?’
‘Do you pay for that, sir?’
‘You must have lots of money then sir, you must be rich so I won’t have to pay you all the fare?’ I say with a smile.
He looks at me, and goes quiet. He is now thinking I have tried the friendly approach and the good driving approach. How possibly could I get more money from these English?
We are nearing home, and he says.
‘Do you want a driver, back home in England?’
‘Why, I could be your driver’
‘No, we don’t have drivers back in England, we drive ourselves’
‘Really, no drivers?’
‘Only the Queen has a driver.’
‘I could be your cleaner, back in England.’
‘No we don’t have cleaners, I clean myself, I am very poor.’
I am thinking that he has tried really hard, and there can’t be many tools left in his bag to help him get more money from this fare. But I was wrong.
‘I am a driver, but also I am a masseur.’
‘Really’ I say, ‘no, surely not’.
‘I have very good hands’
At this point he lets go of the steering wheel with one hand and massages my hand, then arm.
I can help but laugh, the boys are in stitches in the back.
I encourage him.
‘That’s really good’ I say.
That’s all he needs – he lets go of the steering wheel and with both hands goes for my shoulders and then the head.
‘Please watch the road’ I squirm.
‘Good driving and good massaging means good tip?’
I was thinking exactly what he had just said, but he had no embarrassment in saying it. This guy had tried everything to get his tip.
So when we stopped the tip was given, he smiled and was a bit disappointed.
‘Did you tip him dad?’ Andrew asked
‘Yes, I did. But not as much as he wanted. Why? Did you think his massage was worth more?’