My Cabbie Story

How often do you come across articles and vignettes of conversations with cabbies? A lot. Once a week at least, and if you are the sort who scans all editions of all newspapers plus the internet for stories, probably five times a day. Editors love this. But then so do greenhorn literati. Somehow for most writers (who are invariably journalists) cabbies seem to represent the ultimate truth, the final solution, the irreverent city, the real city, the true vox populi, and an enchanted mysticism of the world they live and represent. It’s amazing how a few words, that maybe dismissed when uttered by a friend, reach a record depth when nuanced by a cabbie in their hoarse voices.

“I live in Colaba.” Says the cabbie. Whoa! Thinks the journo. Colaba? What’s a cabbie doing living in Colaba while driving around in Bhayander? Surely the irony is too great to be missed. Is he living on rent or does he own a place. How big could it be? How many kids could this man have? 5? 6? 14? How much can he be earning driving around people day in or day out? Let’s do some math here (cut to the chase) a thousand bucks a day! Untaxed! That’s more than what I earn! So that’s why he lives in Colaba. He probably has a couple of flats on rent in Mira Road too. “Say, do you have a flat in Mira Road?” is the next question. The cabbie shoots a look and understands: a journo. He has been asked this before. Now is the time, quick, let’s short circuit his brain with a quote from Ghalib…

All this is made up, of course. What is not made up (and is therefore not funny) is the following conversation I had with a cabbie.

I decided that if I had to report small talk with a taxi driver in print (yes, fully planned, not serendipitously) I might as well do so in an exotic setting. No, I don’t mean Upperstall Blogs, I mean the setting of the conversation, which was Cairo, Egypt.

After tens of rides in cabs of all sizes and shapes (battered and bruised by recklessness, not one of them looked anything like their original shapes; which could only be guessed) I finally found the guy I wanted to talk to. He was – at the very least – 80 years old and without glasses (not that anybody sees how and where they’re driving in Cairo): a perfect choice. If he did not have anything quality to say, at least he had several decades of driving experience.

The cabbie was a numismatist. Coins of various nations were glued to his dashboard. There weren’t terribly many of them given that tourism is a major driving force in Egypt and the fact that he had been catering to touristy jaunts for a while now. In any case, handing him a 5-rupee coin for his collection proved to be the perfect ice-breaker. He asked where I was from, and I told him, dreading that generic instant Egyptian response to “India”: “Ah! Amitaaa Bachaaan” But no. The cabbie saliently nodded. He wasn’t much of a talker, or maybe his English was even worse than the average local.

I prodded him, saying Egypt was nice. “Like India,” he said. It wasn’t a question so I agreed. “But also very different,” he continued. How so? “Middle-class.” What was that? I wondered. The middle-class? As in the stratum of people? “Yes. Big middle class in India?” What an utterly strange thing to discuss! Duly noting it as a question, “Flourishing,” I said. “Big difference. Egypt got no middle class,” he pointed to a vast slum from the window, “Rich get richer, poor…” he swallowed, not needing to complete the sentence. I asked why? Wasn’t President Mubarak doing a good job. “No, no, no.” Did he vote him in? “No.” But how is the economy? “Very bad.” But isn’t Egypt an oil rich nation? “Yes. But Sumed pipeline. Israel import, then Gulf War. Now Saudi. Big pipelines.” That bit certainly did get lost in garbalation and honking, but he went on to explain that oil wasn’t much of a earner for Egypt, and was heavily subsidized for locals (about 8 rupees a litre) – but cars were extremely, extremely expensive, so the whole thing was skewed. Then we spoke about how tourism was the only real income for Egypt and most Egyptians (though it’s not really). I joked about thanking their ancestors’ idiosyncratic extravagance in death, but that too was lost somewhere between our seats.

How long, I asked him, had he been driving? 50 years. And even though I knew the answer to be in the range, there was something in the stale air of the cab as he said it. The way he said it, evinced a sense of great reverence. And then, with unexpected inevitability, he spoke about Amitaaa Bachaaan.

I jumped at this. I really had to know why was Bachaa, ah Bachchan, such a big deal. We discussed this at great length. So apparently, only Bachchan’s films from the 70s and early 80s are available for viewing. Nobody in Egypt has seen him in his new avatar (which might be a good thing, considering the disillusionment ‘Sexy Sam’ might cause) and they are clueless about the time frame of his films: most Egyptians believe Kaala Patthar to be a recent movie given all its special effects. In any case, with this discussion I pegged him as a movie buff. “Ha, he retorted, “I hate movies!” Appalled I checked and re-checked his statement, but he kept nodding his head. “No, no, movies not good. Waste of time.” Waste of time! And I just told him I was in the movie business. So much for Egyptian sensitivity.

“But,” he said making amends, “movies are magic,” I was sore, looking out the window, scrutinizing scratches on all surrounding cars, but my ears were tuned in. “Yes, magic,” he continued pretty much talking with himself now, “I was watching one of your movies some days ago. With Amitaa and pretty girl. Pretty girl. Very pretty. Very good actor. What’s her name, eh?” I tried to help – Rekha? No. Jaya? No. Parveen? No. What was the name of the film? I don’t remember. Argh. What was it about? Amitaa drinks. Sharaabi? Yes, yes, Sharaabi. Zounds! Sharaabi was my favorite Bachchan movie too. Jaya Prada, I asked? Yes. Ha – imagine hearing praises of Jaya Prada’s beauty and acting ability in Egypt.

“But that’s okay. No matter. No matter. I tell you why it’s like magic. They act, you watch. They cry, you cry. They laugh, you laugh. No control, eh! You turn on TV, to go somewhere else, and they take you there! Like a dream where they make you laugh, make you cry. And then TV off, and you back in taxi. It’s magic, eh?” He said this in a very cut and dry manner. Shrugging his shoulders, still mostly talking to himself, occasionally expressing the sentiment by drawing with his fingers in the air for my benefit.

That rounded it off for me. Mr Cabbie had spoken some firm truths here. Not only of the tribulations of the Egyptian people and a sagacious perception of cinema being exactly what it really is; but above all, he’d spoken for his tribe of cabbies of the world. May they increase!

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Director, Bangistan. Dog-loving, technology-embracing, whisky-cradling writer/filmmaker/argumentative citizen of the world.

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