Sunday, November 05, 2017

A wordy ride

I am not overfond of long car rides, especially not in cities. Most people aren’t. What’s called a ‘drive’ in other locations is ‘the damn traffic’ in a metropolis; you can’t even complain because the only reason you are stuck in it is that you are part of it. 

There’s just one thing that leavens my frustration at such times: words. There are the simple, romantic words of a film song on the radio, or a news report, or the RJ’s sophisticated chatter and the hesitant voices of strangers calling in with anecdotes or trying their luck at snap quizzes in the hope of a gift voucher. And sometimes, you get lucky and you find yourself in a cab with a driver who is both respectful and in a conversational mood.

I’m not much of a talker, and very rarely open such conversations. At least, I didn’t until last year. But one of the positive outcomes of app-based cab and rickshaw rides, such as Uber and Ola, has been that it has subtly changed the way I interact with the drivers of these vehicles. For one, they have a name. They are not anonymous service providers, not a generic lump of men or “cabbies”. Each one is a distinct man (sadly, yet to meet a woman), with a face and a name. This is how he sees me too — not just as a nameless passenger, but a person with a name and a distinct voice.

With the knowing of names, and the inevitable phone call as you try to guide the driver to your precise location, it is as if the first step has already been taken on the bridge of conversation. After this, you can either go ahead and take another step forward — “Hot day, yes?” “Mad traffic, eh?” “Why do people drive like that?” — or you can retreat into your own head and ask for the radio to be turned on.

The other day, I had a really charming conversation with an elderly driver. I had asked him to pull over for a minute near an ATM, and that somehow led to the second step on the conversation bridge.

His spoken Hindi was dulcet, and I couldn’t resist asking where he was from. I’d already guessed it would be somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Then he asked where I was from and I told him. He’d spent some years in Delhi, doing odd jobs, but then he was drawn to Mumbai by the glamour of the film world. The way life turned out, he’s been driving for 35 years, 34 of them spent in yellow-black taxis. Lately, his children had been objecting to his driving the rickety old kaali-peeli, and told him that he must either retire or move to an app-based company. He was reluctant at first, afraid that the demands of smartphones and electronic map reading would disqualify him from a job he’s done smoothly all his life. But then, it wasn’t so hard, after all, and he realised that he really likes doing the long rides, cutting clean across the city. Just the other day, he’d done 250 kilometres in and around Mumbai.

I asked how many kids he had. He said, “Seven. By God’s grace, six are graduates, and one is normal.”

I bit back my smile and, for a few quiet moments, reflected on the many meanings of ‘normal’. At the end of the ride, I told him that it was a pleasure meeting him, and I meant it. And he told me, likewise. I think he meant it too.


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