Sunday, May 20, 2012

A roof for the night

It was past midnight when my flight landed.  Late enough that the line for prepaid taxis was just a few people long.  I was out onto the parking lot, two slips in hand ('the white one is for you, the blue one for the driver') looking for license plate number 8445.  The driver turned out to be the chatty uncle variety, my absolute favorite kind of Mumbai drivers.

Driving through Mumbai in the deep recesses of the night has a surreal, post-nuclear-destruction sort of feeling. Streets usually bustling with chauffeur driven cars, dusty BEST buses, reckless taxis, and young men on motorcycles, lie now barren.  The odd stray dog walks triumphantly in the middle of the road, as if inspecting its spoils.  Streets where the airways are normally choked with honking cars, blaring music, hawker shouts, the whine and growls of non-stop traffic, lie now hushed.  The triumphant dog barks hesitantly, half-heartedly, as if to convince itself that it isn't dreaming, and it seems to disturb some deep stillness around.  The streets where the mass of humanity that calls Mumbai home jostle everyday, elbowing everything in their path so they can get to the 7:47 local, lie now empty.  No one to shoo the dog away, no one it needs to run from.

"Kis taraf nikaloon sir?" asks the driver.  He has left the airport area behind, and is now looking for specific direction.  We perform the little verbal pirouette we Indians do all the time in conversations, mixing dimensions in unspoken understanding.  Ask us a question about distance, and we will answer with time.  The right answer to "How far is the temple from here?" is "20 minutes", not "2.3 kilometers".  Similarly, the right answer to the driver's 'direction' question is not 'north', or 'to the left'.  The unspoken pirouette demands that 'direction' questions be provided 'landmark' answers.  "Near ITC Hotel" I say, and he nods in acknowledgement.

"Sir, do you know what the problem of ITC hotel is?", he asks after a minute of silent driving.  I didn't know there was a problem, I think to myself as I ask him, "what?"

"Location", he tells me confidently, like he has given this a lot of thought.  "See, good passengers want one of two things in a hotel".

I can't help noticing how his generic word for customers is 'passenger'.  "They either want some peace and quiet, a nice garden, baag bachicha; or they want to be right in the center of the city, or right next to the airport.  The problem with ITC is, it is neither.  That is why very few passengers go there."

Now, my apartment community is right next to ITC, so I am not taking too well to this 'poor location' prognosis.  So I try to look for any little chink in his story.

"What do you mean by good passengers?", I ask.

"Huhn?"

"You know, you said good passengers want one of those two things.  But what do you mean by good passengers?"

"Arey what sir, good passenger means 7,000 rupees wala."

"Huhn?" It is me this time.

"The rate at ITC and other hotels like that sir.  Rs.7,000 for one night.  Even more sometimes. Good passenger means someone in that category."

This gets me thinking.  If that is what the 'good passengers' want, what do the others want?  I ask him.

"Oh, that is simple.  Everyone has a rate sir.  And Mumbai has something for everyone, at any rate.  And you know what sir?  Passengers only know hotels in their category.  Ask them about hotels in any other category, and they wouldn't even know where it is.  Even if they pass it every day, they don't see it! It is only us taxi drivers that know hotels of all types."

"So what are the other types of hotels that you take passengers to?" I ask him.

He thinks for just a few seconds.  "Haan, just the other day, I had a passenger.  He asked me to take him to a good hotel.  'In what range?' I asked him.  And he said he wants something under Rs.2,200 a night.  Now tell me sir," he dropped his voice, like an expert raconteur, "where will you get a good hotel for under Rs.2,200?"

Where indeed, I thought, and tried to think of a hotel that might be in that price range.  I was drawing a blank.

""You know where I took him?" he said, after giving me a few seconds, "I took him to Subhash Hotel, in JB Nagar."  Clearly, his theory on selective visual impact was true because I had never heard of, let alone remembered seeing, any Subhash Hotel.

"It is a good hotel, sir.  Old.  But not so old that it looks very bad.  The passenger was very happy."

"But what if someone doesn't have even 2,000?" I push him.

"Below that sir, you can rent just a bed.  You know, not a room.  But there is a large hall, and they rent out individual beds on it.  I can find you one for Rs.550."

"What if I don't even have 500?" I push him harder.

He is getting into the game now.  I catch sight of a broad smile as we pass under a lamp-post.

"Below that sir, you get bunk beds.  You know, like in the trains?  They have three beds one above the other.  You can only sit on them sir.  If you try to stand you will bang your head.  But they are really cheap.  Only Rs.250 for a night."

About this time, incongruously, I am reminded of Antilia.  Mumbai, where 'passengers' are out searching for a bunk bed for $5 a night, also houses Antilia, the 27-floor building in South Mumbai which is home to billionaire Mukesh Ambani, one of the richest men in the world.  It is estimated to cost about $ 1 Billion, and is by far the most expensive private residence in the world.  The 27 floors are home to Mr.Ambani, his wife and three children, and his mother.

So, Rs.250 a night for a bunk bed, huh?

"What if ..." I start, but the driver cuts me off, laughing now.

"Less that that sir, there are a lot of places.  There is the railway station, the footpath, the pedestrian bridge.  Akkha Mumbai, sir!"  he says, taking great pride in his wit, having placed the whole of Mumbai at the disposal of the penniless. "It is a little noisy, and there are a lot of mosquitoes.  But you know what the rate is, sir?  Nothing!  Zero!"  he laughs heartily.

We are home now, and I have one last question.  "Where do you sleep?"

"Oh, apun ka night duty hai sir.  I work nights.  I will sleep right here", he pats his seat affectionately.

7 comments:

  1. Loved it, totally loved it. And I so love these garrulous Mumbai taxi drivers.

    May I please add an introductory para or two and run it on my blog - I love the way the cabbie has segmented his passengers.

    Incidentally, did he pronounce the word 'passenger' or 'pussunjurr' ? I've noticed that most of them use the latter.

    p.s. welcome back, been waiting for a new post for a while.

    Zen

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  2. Ambanis don't even live in Antilia as it has some Vaastu problem. Maybe there should be a penalty/punishment for wasting space and resources?

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  3. Cab drivers really know the pulse of the city but talkative taxi drivers are diminishing in number..may be not vanishing.Am never surpised with disparities.. someone lives in a $1 billion residence and someone lives on $5...well maintained pets live on organic food..street dogs eat leftovers..this is all part of life.When I was a kid in school..i was often told that Everyone is equal..happy that at that time I used to believe in that and realistic cynicism hadnt crept in.

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  4. Now, my apartment community is right next to ITC, so I am not taking too well to this 'poor location' prognosis. So I try to look for any little chink in his story. metal roofing

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  5. "Less that that sir, there are a lot of places. There is the railway station, the footpath, the pedestrian bridge. Akkha Mumbai, sir!" hier

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