(Published in October 2014, The Equator Line, Volume 4| Issue 1)
Having spent the last thirteen years in Delhi, I have rarely been in a taxi alone. While auto-rickshaws, the Metro, and even buses have often been part of my daily wandering around the city, there has always been something unknowingly scary – or inhibitive – about the kali-peeli taxi; I don’t think I have ever flagged one down. Perhaps they are never flagged down but called in. Even in the newer, branded ‘cabs’, I have always travelled with people, and for relatively short trips. This by no means implies that I haven’t travelled or travelled late. I spent most of my college years in theatre rehearsals after classes which extended late into the evening and at most times, the night. Living in Dwarka, the south of South Delhi – in the realtor’s lingo, a good two hours’ Metro ride from the university, I’ve often been questioned whether I live in Delhi at all. The only two options were to laze around, almost alone in the ladies compartment of the last metro for the night, or to camp out at some friend’s place on campus. It was understood by me and my parents that taking a taxi home is not an option. Now that I think about it, I don’t really know why. We never talked about it.
When MNC cab companies like Uber and Ola started cruising along the Delhi roads in 2010, my idea of cabs, along with a lot of other people, started changing. For the moneyed, corporate youth, it meant having the comfort of a car without having to drive; it meant mobility on the late nights travelling back either from work or parties; it meant freedom without having to worry about the safety of a designated driver. The new players had technology on their side as well. The rickety old Fiats and Ambassadors had little going their way in public perception: ill maintained cars, unruly drivers, and incorrect meters started to transform with the arrival of posh, easy-to-book radio cabs. The familiar sight of even a Santro painted black and yellow had metamorphosed into shiny white vehicles with the tiny, lit ‘Taxi’ board on their top – the board albeit black and yellow.
When the ‘Uber Rape Case’ – the city’s recent talking point from the prime-time breaking news and newspaper headlines – happened, the entire country, especially its capital was distressed. It wasn’t just the fact that the incident took place in the capital, it was that it happened in an Uber – a taxi taken to be a more sophisticated and safer alternative to the kali-peelis that years ago were an integral part of your ride to the airport or railway station. An inseparable part of the Delhi landscape, the ramshackle taxis slowly faded out of the picture and out of the roads with the coming in of the multinational players with expertise, technology and deeper pockets to indulge in a price-war. The drivers and their decades-old stands that ran these taxis not only needed the city and its people to survive, they knew them and their destinations without the need for the GPS mapping device. The city too needed them – affordable, below your balcony on a winter night, minutes after a call from your MTNL landline. The sturdy men from Punjab – despite years of city living, they had about them the whiff of the wheat-fields of Kapurthala and Bathinda.
Before they altogether disappear from the city’s ecology like the last gypsies, I decide one day to reach out to the kali-peeli taxis and the people that still drive them. Ironically, I end up in an Uber Cab with a friend and ask the driver if he can tell me about a few stands and anyone he knows whom I could speak to. He grunts something I can’t understand, picks up the phone, shouts into the receiver for a while, and does not reply to me. I wait for a couple of minutes and ask again. He asks me why I want to know and then tells me to go to the airport. He says they can be found at the railway station too. Then he goes silent.
I understand that he does not want to make conversation with the two girls in the cab with him – perhaps warned against it by his handlers in the aftermath of the huge controversy. Given that his job really is to drive us home and no more, there’s not much I can argue for. When I get off, I ask him his name. He mumbles something about the app and what I presume his name is before driving off. I would quote him but I do not know his name.
The quest for an elusive, rare taxi stand fortunately ends by the next day. About a kilometer away from my home is a Mother Dairy with a reed-and-straw shack standing next to it. I have vague recollections of the ‘General Taxi Services’ sign over the hut but I’ve never bothered to look, let alone peer inside to see if there’s anyone there. An exchange with an older neighbour confirms my apprehension: rarely does someone walk up to the taxi stand to get a ride. It is more like a control centre which sends its cars running all over town. That stand, nevertheless, is where I begin from. I go there around six in the evening when I know the area will be filled by dog walkers, screaming children, and adults making groceries runs. I rehearse in my head what I’m going to say, how I’m going to introduce myself and what to do if faced with hostility. I walk past the hut thrice and decide to walk away and return with a friend. The panwari who sits in front of the stand notices my shiftiness and asks me if I need anything. Flustered, I nod my head and quickly gain the otherwise absent courage to enter the shack. I realize it’s empty.
My first conversation with Gurnaam Singh, the owner of General Taxi Services, dispels a lot of my nervousness and misgivings. Upon realizing the hut was empty, I took the number off the board outside and called him on my walk back home. He listened to my prepared speech for a minute or two and then cut me off to tell me I can come anytime the following week. He has a pick up and drop from Safdarjung Enclave next Friday but besides that he’s probably going to spend all his time in that shack. It is hard to imagine an empty week for a taxi driver in a city of ten million people on the move.
He curses at someone in the background, apologizes and then says ‘Madam’, the only term he has used to address me since then, ‘for my own sake, I hope you don’t find me there and I’m out on call. But I can tell you that’s not likely to happen.’
On Friday afternoon, I enter the shack yet again to find an old plump Sardarji lying on a cot. The shack has one desk on a corner near the entrance, and a couple charpoys facing a giant desert cooler. He jumps up when he sees me, looks surprised, and then we attempt a conversation while screaming to be audible in front of the giant cooler that seems to make the sticky, hot day more humid.
The elderly Sikh is anything but new to the taxi business. Not only has he driven a taxi since the age of 18, he grew up in a household that fed and clothed itself on the taxi business his father had started. Having spent a lifetime in this field, he looks melancholic. Gurnaam Singh doesn’t really know why I’ve come to meet him, yet he opens by saying, ‘Agar business ke baare mein puchna hai, to koi fayda nahi, yeh sab khatam hai’ (If you’re here to ask me about the business, there is no use, this is all finished). I tell him that’s exactly what I’ve come to speak to him about and he asks me, ‘The government permits that we have allow us to run taxis on ₹16 per kilometer and suddenly you have these cabs operating on ₹ 8 per kilometer. You tell me why anyone would come to us?’ His family moved to Delhi when he was five months old and he took over the reins of the taxi business at 23. He worked for six years in Vikaspuri, on the city’s western fringe; it was then mostly surrounded by fields. These were days when Delhi was much smaller, yet to explode and overflow into the neighboring states. After a long wait, he received a permit for a stand in Dwarka and moved to the new middleclass hub with institutions and shopping malls. He saw Vikaspuri’s fields give way to housing and industrial zones, and then witnessed the transformation of Dwarka from a barren expanse of land into a terrain packed with elegant apartments and affluent families. He also hints at this gradual socio-economics of wealth creation – everyone has a car now, and the dependence on the local taxi stand is almost gone.
In Gurnaam Singh’s first days, his stand was nondescript and almost invisible in the mass of shanties dotting around the place and men loitering around. But slowly he earned enough money to raise a reed shack. ‘And also the Government Approved stamp,’ he says proudly, and the familiar face of a delighted entrepreneur flits out of his weatherbeaten, downcast features. Despite the hopes he must’ve had then, Gurnaam Singh is very acutely aware of the big brands with their big money entering the airport-drop business in the years after the civil aviation sector opened up. I read about this but did not know one day I would meet a victim of new technology and superior and superior management methods. Since the rush of these companies on the Indian roads, there has been a steep decline in the use of kali-peeli taxis and makeshift taxi stands. With cheaper rates and aggressive marketing, the cab companies have tightened their grip on the Indian market. General Taxi Services, unfortunately, does not have the power of a trending hashtag, a mobile app, or a catchphrase spewing celebrity to promote itself.
These companies, on the other hand, have caught the fancy of the Indian middleclass and the urban corporate youth with their fancier cars and apps, aggressive marketing skills and most importantly, much lower rates. While you could still order a taxi at any point in the day before, you can now do so and even choose a car of your liking without having to even speak to someone on the phone. A swipe on your smart phone screen is all it takes. What you can’t do, though, is choose your driver. The sense of familiarity is the only thread left for drivers like Gurnaam Singh to hang onto a dying business.
What was previously a very lucrative employment option is now something no one wants to get into. Gurnaam says, with a lot of injured pride in his voice, ‘In my youth, all those years ago, being a taxi driver was a much sought after job for a lot of boys and men from villages wanted to do respectable work in the city.’ Now, he says, they’d rather be unemployed than work at a stand. This includes his son. While Gurnaam inherited his business from his father, when asked if he will put his son in the same line of work, he furiously shakes his head: ‘Par kaam hai kahan?’ (But where is all the work?). From having an average of seven ‘drops’ a day, it has come down to an average of two – if he’s lucky. While business for the MNCs is booming, the jobs they create are limited in comparison to those by the neighbourhood taxi stands only a few years ago. Moreover, although they claim to choose their uniformed drivers with utmost care and surety, the several Uber scandals around the world are proof enough that this method is inadequate, and that paper work and verification can be faked. A shiny car, catchy slogans, and an app that tracks your location can grant one a manufactured sense of assurance, but what corporate strategy cannot substitute is the friendly face of a local taxiwallah who doesn’t need to be told where home is.
Moreover, as Gurnaam points out, the kind of familiarity that he has with his men, spending the day in a reed shack in close boundaries, knowing about each other’s families and lives and troubles, allows for a lot more safety than the companies can even comprehend. Spend 12 hours a day with a few men and you’ll be able to tell the good hearted from the bad a lot better than any paper or facile psychiatric tests can ever. Proof of this are the last few regular customers he has left. Most of them have been his customers since the early years of him moving shop to this area and now employ him to drive the younger generation to and from work or social events. They find it easier to trust their children’s safety to a man whom they’ve known for years and who has seen their children grow, than to a corporation who will employ a different driver every time. There’s no doubt that companies like Uber and Ola are easy and convenient, yet neither of two those words mean safe.
From the morbid conversations of ever decreasing work, we move onto a much happier one in which he told me how he saw Vikaspuri grow and then Dwarka; of how the airport routes, Lutyens’ Delhi and Connaught place have changed but Old Delhi still remains the same; of how his village in Punjab has grown into a small town, but his home is and has always been Delhi. His face lights up when he sees my interest in a city which I nowhere close to understand. He tells me of his first few customers and the person he last dropped, and the scene suddenly resembles one in a book by Khushwant Singh or William Dalrymple. Sitting here in this little shack having a lively conversation with Gurnaam Singh, I finally understand why both these authors, and several others, have a taxi driver as one of the main characters to introduce the city.
While this is increasingly coming to sound like a case for the kali-peelis and the Gurnaam Singhs of the city, it is not really so. This story is a familiar one: the new displaces the old, newer technology sweeping over the traditions – horses over elephants, canons over muskets, steamships over the three-masted barques. This is a remorseless, irreversible process. Gurnaam Singh is caught in the crosshairs of two conflicting times, civilizational forces. While Delhi moves towards the shiny, impersonal technology-enabled options, not only does the original portrait lie forgotten, so do the people it consisted off. The distinctive is abandoned and the city slowly seeps into the territory of the global, homogenous urban spaces, all of which look alike and feel the same.
I remember, now, Khushwant Singh musing over this city, quoting Persian poetry:
‘…O little mother of ancient days:
Thou hast cunningly dyed thy hair but consider.
That thy bent back will never be straight!’
Is that what these shiny, new cars are for the city? A temporary paintjob over an olden charm? As it turns out, while I type the last words of this piece, I have a flight to catch for which I must make it to the airport some time past midnight. The metro will be shut, so I must take a taxi. And I know just the man to call.
The old order, like the ancient text on the palimpsest, cannot be easily rubbed off.