Going places has always been easy in Mumbai, thanks to its black-and-yellow cabs and trains, which is what this columnist misses most
I cannot drive. It is not for lack of trying. The minute I turned 18, on my mother’s instructions, my father got me a learner’s licence. Also on my mother’s instructions, my father took me to the family car every Sunday morning to teach me how to drive. The car was an Ambassador. This was the olden days, in the early 1980s if you want to be specific. My father opened the bonnet and we peered in. He explained all the engine parts to me. I was duly fascinated by radiators and spark plugs and ignition systems. I know all about carburettors but this is utterly useless information since multi-point fuel injection was invented. We never actually sat inside my father’s precious Ambassador with me at the wheel. Having watched me go through this experience, my younger sister went to the local Automobile Association and got taught how to drive by a professional.
Having gone through all the things I love about Mumbai the most, this is at the top of the list: A black and yellow taxi
A few years later, my mother tried to teach me how to drive in the factory colony where we lived at the time. My mother’s main knowledge of the car was the accelerator pedal. This made driving a very exciting if somewhat frenetic experience. She once drove from Malabar Hill to Marve beach with her basic info and without my father’s knowing. This short-lived experiment ended with my driving full speed in reverse, hitting the brake pedal just centimetres short of hitting our house. The flowerbeds never recovered but my mother and I were laughing all the way to them.
Then a colleague at work decided to teach me. We drove all over Nariman Point in the middle of the night. I suppose, if push comes to shove, I can drive in Nariman Point in the middle of the night providing there are no other people, cars, animals, trees and so on around at the time.
I lived in Dehradun for a couple of years in the early 2000s. I enrolled in a driving school and Mr Negi arrived every day at 7 am without fail. We drove up and down hilly roads with no problem at all. I was careful at bends, I honked when I should and didn’t when I shouldn’t. To be honest, early on winter mornings in the foothills of the Himalayas, no one ventures out of their homes. However, when we travelled down to the city to test my skills, even Mr Negi, who was ex-army, looked a little paler than usual as auto-rickshaws tried to avoid me. He then confessed that he absolutely hated driving and only drove to his students’ homes and back!
The point of all this is that living in Mumbai has spoiled me. I did not need to know how to drive. Every form of public transport was available within easy walking distance or at my fingertips when required. Yes, I complained because the bus service from Andheri East station to my home was very infrequent, but I managed with autos. Yes, waiting for a taxi in the rain is annoying but I would rather have rain than convenience.
Yes, trains could get very crowded and sticky. Yes, I did try twice to get off a Virar local at Andheri and made a nice round utterly pointless trip to Borivali instead.
But now that I live in Dehradun again, public transport is what I miss the most. I look out of my window and I see mountains. I wake up to the dawn chorus of the most beautiful birdsong. I can now differentiate between at least 20 types of flowering plants and no, not all of them are called bougainvillea. But if I want to move out of my house, I’m stuck. Autos are not allowed to ply on the hilly roads above municipal limits. There is only one private temperamental bus service that does not go where I usually need to go. There are no black and yellow taxis. And Dehradun does not have a proper public transport system of any sort at all.
Having gone through all the things I love about Mumbai the most, I have been stuck with this at the top of the list: A black and yellow taxi. And until driverless cars reach here, I guess I have to be satisfied with that damned racket those birds are making!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona