There are many reasons to recommend Mumbai's fleet of taxis, but my favourite for choosing them over other forms of commute -- like driving oneself to work, say -- is the free neighbourhood information service that comes along with it.
In the little over a year I have been driven from home to workplace and back, I have learnt things I could not have come to know otherwise. Right from the antecedents of the man whose name marks out the entire area I live in, to the fact of a Bollywood superstar who may have dropped in like gossamer and vanished just as easily.
As I said, Mishraji (a popular surname among the taxi drivers of my city) came into my life a little over a year ago. At the appointed hour he would pick me up without fail, and in case it was time for his annual visits to his wife and children back in Uttaranchal, he would make sure there was a replacement on hand. Never one to quibble over small change he was a welcome relief to me, since my perception of the tribe had been skewed ever since one of them took my old dad on a city darshan so many years ago.
But for Mishraji's loquaciousness I never would have known how he and others like him were hit by the court verdict that set a deadline for phasing out old vehicles -- a decision I, like so many members of the middle-class, welcomed in our mistaken green zeal. Or what kind of woes he was going through in a city that was short of CNG petrol pumps and which nevertheless forced taxis and autos to convert from diesel or die.
This urge to converse, to share information was not a trait peculiar to Mishraji. Hanifbhai, my charioteer in the pm hours, was equally communicative, and at least once this trait impacted what I do.
It was the wee hours of a Saturday. As I got into Hanif's waiting cab he casually mentioned to me: "Abhi Hill Road mein bahut hungama hua [There was big trouble on Hill Road]." Why? "Saab, Salman Khan ne daaru peeke char log ke oopar gaadi chala diya.'
The news of the day tumbled out of Hanifbhai's mouth so casually. Thanks to him the Web site I work for could announce it to the world, and for this alone I am willing to overlook many of his deficiencies at the wheel.
One morning I saw increased police activity in my colony and happened to mention it to Mishraji. Who grinned his trademark grin, and explained to me why.
Seems a yuppie couple got into an altercation with a flower vendor and slapped him around. Now the colony where I live is under the control of a man who runs the place as his private fiefdom, albeit from behind the shadows. No one can operate in the area without his say-so, which comes at a reasonable price. Taxi drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, vendors and hawkers -- all pay a weekly amount (hafta) to his men in return for which they are allowed to ply their trade in an uninterrupted manner, and promised safety. The only dictum is: behave yourself.
The yuppie couple, by taking the law into their hands, had violated the man's assurance of safety. And his followers wasted no time in entering the complex where they live, drag the couple out into the open, thrash the daylights out of them, and ruin their car. As Mishraji narrated this replete with his Hindi idioms and the like my mouth fell open. I could only ask: but what about the security guards? All buildings in our colony have good security....
"Arre chhodiye saab, kya bataoon aapko," he countered.
Apparently, one of the conditions imposed by the man on builders planning projects in the colony was that only his men would be hired as security guards in the buildings.
For those who believe taxi drivers are by and large indigent -- like I did before encountering Mishraji -- the truth could be that the man at the wheel has wealth that doesn't translate into cell phones, flashy clothes etc. Now how did I realize that?
It was after one of Mishraji's hurried trips back home. When he got back I asked him what took him away. Family wedding, came the reply, and he went on to describe the groom's and bride's families. To keep the conversation going I asked him if dowry etc were rampant in his part of the world.
"We don't demand, but we give, we don't let our daughters face tears in her new home," was the cryptic reply. So what did your family give, I asked. "Zyaada kuchh nahin saab, ek tota diya aur samosa, aur ek santra."
I was quite tickled. Wow, what an awesome country this is, I thought to myself, a parrot, samosa and orange as dowry, and the girl is happy! Uttaranchal sure is liberated, I told myself.
As the vehicle trundled on, Mishraji pointed out to me: "Dekho saab, tota ja rahi hai. [Look, there is a tota]."
I craned my neck to catch sight of the parrot on the highway but couldn't spot one anywhere.
"Lagta hai udgaya, Mishraji [Seems like it flew away]," I told him apologetically.
"Arre saab, yehi hai, baaju mein jaarahi hai, dekihiye, tota kaalis."
It was a Toyota Qualis he had been referring to. The other parts of the dowry were a Tata Sumo and Santro.
One fine day Mishraji was excited as hell, I could see while getting into the taxi. He had this grin on his face that said 'ask me, ask me', but I decided to wait for him to volunteer the information he was dying to tell me.
Ten minutes into the drive he asked me, "Saab, koi badi heroine ka naam batayiye na [Sir, tell me the name of a big film star]."
I rattled off a few for him: Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Kajol, Madhuri Dixit, Priety Zinta...
"Kya bataoon saab," he started off. Saturday evening, as he was driving past, the watchman in one of the hottest complexes in the colony called him over. When Mishraji went over he found a woman standing in the shadows, next to a car. She had to go to Juhu.
"I can tell you this much, saab,' Mishraji ran on. "One look at her and I knew she was not from this area. She was the most beautiful woman I can ever think of, god obviously took his own sweet time to make her."
So who was she Mishraji? What was she doing in your taxi? "I asked her saab, she didn't say who she was. She told me she has her own car, but that day seems the driver bunked work, and she had to go to Juhu, to her place."
Okay, anything to distinguish her apart from her beauty? "Saab, I noticed in the rearview mirror she had eyes like Mandakini."
There was only one Bollywood actress I could think of who had eyes remotely like that but I wasn't willing to confirm or deny anything to him. Not yet.
Finally Mishraji dropped her off at a bungalow in Juhu and is the custom with him took exact fare from her, returning the change. She then took his contact details, and said if she needed a taxi in future she will get in touch.
As the gates shut behind her Mishraji got off to inquire of the watchman his passenger's identity. "Saab, usne itna hasa, itna hasa, kya bataoon [He laughed so much]!" So who was she? "Naam barabar yaad nahi saab, usne Aaswariya aise hi kuchh naam bataya [Don't remember the name properly, sir, but it was some Aaswairya]."
The penny finally dropped, but the thought has been nagging me ever since. If it was indeed her, what could she be doing in my part of town? Many possibilities, true, but no certainty.
Since then Mishraji has been the butt of jokes in his local fraternity, for not being up-to-date with movies and movie stars and missing out his famous passenger. And of course, he is questioned at least once a week by me if his precious fare has called.
He has been away for the last two weeks. Who knows what tales he will return with this time!
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