One of the great pleasures of living and working in Bombay is that you can hail a cab or auto anywhere, anytime. I’ve drunk deep of this pleasure, never feeling the need to get a car when I can get a cab. Lately though, I’ve fallen out of the habit of hailing a cab and into the habit of pressing on an app button.
Perhaps it is the seduction of air-conditioning. Or the reassurance of a guaranteed cab when there’s a flight to catch early in the morning.
Then I took a kaali-peeli the other day after a while. My destination was hard to find, and locating it became quite the joint adventure. We encountered several contemptuous security guards who gave us monosyllabic directions, including one who rudely said — “Can’t you see it says No Entry?” My cabbie tartly responded, “Hamare time mein English nahin hota tha,” making me laugh out loud. “Impudent pipsqueaks,” he muttered. “I’ve also got a uniform, but am I behaving like an ass?”
Illustrations /Uday Mohite
On the return trip, the old Sardarji driving the kaali-peeli ushered me in as soon as I waved. “You know,” he said, “I have one dubious quality. I never ask the destination before taking a customer. Five minutes away or other end of town – my job is to take you so what’s to ask?” A conversation followed, about his life and work, how his brother got stuck in Bombay during Partition, and then, unable to go back to what’s now Pakistani Punjab, set up business here. Other siblings followed. Now, there is an empty house in Faridkot and home is Bombay.
In this, rather khataara, certainly non-AC car, we shared a particular urbane moment — two strangers, without pretended intimacy or denial of difference, connecting briefly as we went about our jobs in the city.
I rarely have such conversations with app-vala cab drivers, for a reason. The app based service sells us that James Bond fantasy of convenience – one press of a button and down the global superhighway we zoom, hair and lipstick intact. Sometimes this does happen. Often, though, the two minutes to arrival claimed by the app end up being 20 or 30. The two minute calculation seems based on some theoretical factors. Drivers don’t seem to receive training in how to read maps or use GPRS. Some claim they don’t receive the customer information on time from the call centre, causing the delay. Consequently, I spend increasing amounts of time guiding cabs on the phone, my frustration rising with the delay. By the time I get in the cab I’m too stressed and angry to talk.
Complaining to the company, behind its call centre mask, elicits only the responses of smiling fascist bots: we appreciate your feedback. Thank you for choosing us. Like Brie, in “Desperate Housewives” nothing in the response acknowledges the problem. Talk about pleasantly hostile!
This embodies the philosopy that non-technocratic structures are messy, inefficient and jugadu, while technology is clean, optimal. The impersonally identical cabs, aim to symbolize efficiency by erasing individuality. But technology is not seamless. Under its shiny surface of false equality lies human labour, often of the working poor, human needs, human variation. The pretence that this does not exist fuels an expectation of life without discomfort and a certain arrogance in consumption.
Without false nostalgia and joining in the grumbles about recalcitrant cabbies, there is a certain realism and a potential mutuality in the kaali-peeli experience — which ideally benefits service provider and user — though it does not keep your hair neat. And Ole for that, know what I mean?
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com