Conversations with Cabbies #1

Introduction

Uber & Ola (India) have introduced a new dimension to our lives. As a user, of course, the convenience of calling a cab to your doorstep. The bigger change, however, is to the life of the drivers.

The popular mode of private public transport was the auto rickshaws in many cities till the advent of these cabs. Infact, the only place that did have cabs was Mumbai, fondly called ‘kaali peeli’ describing the yellow and black coloured cabs.

However, the arrival of app-based cab service turned the ecosystem upside down. Cab  and auto rickshaw drivers typically were on the low-end of the earning scale. Rickshaw drivers were also perceived as time wasters, who bought an auto and just worked when they wished like.

With Uber & Ola, suddenly the earning potential exploded multi-fold. I’ve heard stories from the older cabbies about earning more than 60 grand a month (the salary of a 3-4 year experienced IT techie – one of the most coveted jobs in India). Infact, I did have conversations with many cabbies about how they not just earned enough to pay off their car loan, but were able to buy a couple more cars and were running it with part-time or full-time drivers.

This rags-to-riches stories attracted people from smaller towns and soon, we had a a ton of people flooding in to be cab drivers. And then reality set in. Companies yanked incentives, the drivers had to work insane hours but the legend lived on. And so they continue to work as cabbies.

When you meet as many people as a cabbie does, there are bound to be great stories. I’m sharing some of the ones I’ve heard directly from them.

Story 1:

The journey was for more than an hour. It was close to 10.00 PM or later, but there was a bit of traffic (when isn’t there traffic in this city!).

“I was just getting ready to switch off the app when your call came in,” the driver said. Now, this is a story that I’ve heard before, and sometimes leads to requests for extra money. My typical answer to this the question “Where do you stay”.

He said he didn’t have a house in Bangalore. Infact, he bought the car 4 days ago and had come in to the city 3 days ago from a little town about 3 hours away. He had been sleeping in his car for the past two nights, and bathing at the public bathrooms when he got a chance.

I had heard stories of such newbie drivers before but most of them had a friend in the city where they could crash for a couple days.

“I don’t really want to stay with anyone. I actually don’t want to stay in this city itself. I’m going to head back tonight.”

He went on to say that he was sick of the city, the attitude of the passengers and the incredible chaos.

Manju was a farmer. The delayed monsoons a few months ago hit his family hard, and he claimed that he had to get tankers ‘from far away’ to water his fields (which smelled a lot like bullshit). He bought this car because the money from the farm was low, and thought he could earn good money. After 3 days, he realised that he would rather work on the farm instead of being yelled at by passengers, find a hovel-like house where he could sleep and spend all waking hours fighting through the nightmare of Bangalore traffic.

Manju’s Last Words: “People don’t have patience. They want you to come to a location and come right now, even if they can see that the road is blocked. They want you to find a place that they do not know. And they yell at you no matter what.”

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The City, The Country & Others

It was quite early in the morning when I stood on one corner of MG Road. The air was still cool and the traffic was yet to get harrowing. There were no honks on the road and the loudest sound was the local merchant beating out his welcome mat for the day.

The only thought in my head was how much the landscape of Bangalore had changed. Even the building I was standing next to had been replaced in the past couple of years. There was a coffee shop and Bombay Store. I can’t remember what was there before Coffee Day… Lakeview and those other joints existed next door, but now housed in a new-resembling-old building.

The Bengaluru Metro was finally launched a couple of days ago. Everytime I see it, I feel this giddy happiness in my heart. It is weird. The metro runs between two places that I rarely have the occasion to visit anymore. But I still feel… happy. I saw it ferrying a tram-full of people a couple of days ago and it reminded me of all those movies and trams I had seen in other countries.

Of course, judging by the queue for the metro today, which went all the way past MG Road, I’m not the only one who felt this way. I haven’t yet stepped onto the Metro yet… that can perhaps wait. But here’s to a Bangalorean’s pride.

***

Bangalore’s always in a hurry. Honks are the order of the day everywhere and I wonder where on earth are people off to. Why no patience to breathe for a minute, change gears and then move? Literally. I’ve begun to often wave to people to stop honking, particularly at traffic lights. I guess they all think I’m quite crazy.

***

Pakistan was finally voted as a non-permanent member of the UN. Surprisingly, the news hasn’t been done to death in the Indian news media yet… but my instinctive reaction to the news – “oh shit” – suddenly brought to mind my globalization class a few years ago.

The class had people from every nation (well, a lot of countries). There was just ONE person from each of these countries, except for Turkey (two) and Australia (ditto). So we were all representatives of our nations in an extremely combustible class. There was a guy from North Korea who was involved with the government, and a cop from Saudi Arabia etc.

The issue was the day was India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty. As an Indian, I never thought we should sign it. I mean… who the hell decides that we do not get to keep nuclear weapons or whatever, right? I’d argued various other things from a so-called global attitude but I never ever thought about the other side of the coin.

So then this girl from Costa Rica goes “Well, I really think India has to sign it. I don’t particularly feel very safe knowing that there is this country that openly vetoes the whole treaty and says that yes, it will have nuclear weapons and such.”

I began to laugh it off saying that we’d never use it. We just have it because well, you know, Pakistan does too and we just need to sorta have something up our sleeve. We’ll never use it on another nation. We love peace and all that jazz.

And then I looked at the guy from another such nation across the table… and I realised that this was sort of similar to their argument. Every nation argued that they’d never use it, they just want to keep it. Which was sort of like a guy saying that he wanted to breed rottweilers or some such thing and train it to fight but would never set it on people.

Even if that is true, why should anyone else trust you? True, we had never attacked anyone and all that but if I were living anywhere else… would I feel equally safe?

I’m not sure what Pakistan getting a seat on the UN Council actually means. India has long been fighting to be made permanent. And as an Indian, I think we should have a say. But perhaps every Iranian, Iraqi, Japanese, Korean and African guy feels the same. We all like to believe that we are important.

Of course, I did find it funny that one of the articles read:

Pakistan’s victory, he (Pakistan UN Ambassador  Abdullah Hussain Haroon) said, was an acknowledgment of the country’s services towards the maintenance of international peace and security. 

Umm… international peace and security? Really?! Huh?!

I’m not sure if this merely a reaction of me as an Indian, or perhaps a slightly broader perception of Pakistan’s role in global politics over the past few years. I would like to believe it is the latter.

The Midnight Bangalore

Officially, the city of Bangalore shuts at 11.30 PM. No restaurants, pubs or other establishments are allowed to be open post this deadline.

Cops patrol the roads, forcing stragglers to move on, restaurants to shut and of course, earning their commission from those who want to stay open a little longer.

The small problem with this, though, is that Bangalore is a 24-city. We are the capital (or used to be) of outsourced markets, so there are tons of call centers and BPOs running around the clock. Which means that at least 40 percent of the population is awake at night. And another 40 percent perhaps wrap up work only by 10 PM and barely have time to unwind.

Given the direction the government is headed in, they do not care much about things like ‘unwinding’.

But in India, like many other countries, there is a little space between what the government orders and what actually happens. If you are one of those who are lucky enough to stay awake and out past the Cindrella hour, you see this city morph into something that was not believable in the early 90s.

Though the city does boast of being one of the most expensive ones in India and states that much of its population earns 6 figures incomes, it sadly forgets the population that caters to keeping up this infrastructure. Every person cannot afford a cup of tea at The Leela or one of its equivalents.

The most prominent fixture of these hours is the chaiwalla. They are available at particular street corners, known to every cab driver in the city and many others. He is generally on a cycle with two bags hanging on each side – each holding a vessel/flash containing tea and coffee. He also carries cigarettes and in certain cases, other substances.

The cops know the necessity of these people. They sip the same chai too after all. But they also take a cut of the profits, the ‘fee’ to allow these guys to serve one of the necessities in the city.

Then there are the food carts, a lot more rarer than the tea cycles but equally important. The one that I was familiar with was just near the flyover on the old Airport Road. I could often smell the fresh omelette or some such dish as we drove past him, finishing a long day of work. Cops often shooed him away but how long could they keep him away. Every person who knows where to look finds these places.

The alternative – you need to know the restaurants that stay open past the deadline. I used to be surprised how the cops never came here… there would be a line of cars and enough people for one to think it was the latest club. But I guess hefty fees keep them away. After all, people do need to eat after a heavy clubbing night.

These restaurants even offer car service… you stop near the restaurant and one of the waiters take your order and money and return a few minutes later with your order, all neatly packed in containers. Finding a spot to eat is your problem (more so, since the cops do not appreciate you lounging around in these times of terror).

Shivajinagar food street – the one place that stays open regardless of the season or the political climate. Perhaps it is driven by sheer need of people but there’s always decent food available here. It isn’t pretty to look at and many might be put off by the dingy surroundings but the food is as good as any restaurant in the city.

Some fuel pumps stay open as do remote medical stores. Try getting an aspirin or a pain killer in the city post 10 PM and you’ll learn to stock up on medicines.

Surprisingly, the city does not have a 24-hour tow service or a service that’ll help people with flat tyres. But if you are lucky and a little bold, any passing cab would help you – if you have the nerve to stick your thumb out.

The government is apparently making all efforts to make the city safe. There are road blocks where you are ruthlessly questioned about your papers and asked “why is a girl like you out so late”. Cops are not aware of women working late in the night, I guess, least not beyond a particular set of women. But these blocks and patrols are so marked that you know where is a safe spot and how often cops come around.

Cops do not make me feel particularly safe, especially after some harassing incidents in recent times. But the concept of ‘we try to make Bangalore safe’ continues to be a joke.

The severe lack of after-hours infrastructure drives the city towards creating its own structure.

Public transport still continues to be a joke. No buses post-11.30 PM. Autorickshaws charge an arm and foot to ferry you, and you learn to pray seated in those three-wheeled death traps.

But the roads remain empty, some traffic lights working and most of them blinking amber. You see white cabs zoom past you, reminding you that there are other awake souls like you. Dogs rule the roads, chasing your car or bike like you invaded their territory. You enjoy the empty roads, the peace and hope you are not stopped by a cop to answer ridiculous questions about ‘your purpose on the road’.

Bangalore to Bengaluru

Last night’s post about Gurgaon got me thinking about my own city and how much we have grown since the days we were ‘Bangalore’ and not ‘Bengaluru’.

My neighborhood still looks the same… mostly. There are a few more of the ‘food malls’ around rather than just the local grocery store where I could drop of a list of groceries and it would be brought home. The quality would mostly be assured and the prices weren’t so bad that I’d have to sell a room in the house every time. And customer service was at its peak… the guy would go back and get me the brand of my choice, if he had forgotten or I changed my mind. All this for no delivery charges.

I do get home delivery now, with additional tax for delivering, for the plastic bags, for the fuel and some other random things.

I interact less with my neighbors. No more walking across the street for a cup of sugar – and yes, I did that often enough as a kid. I would be mortified to go and ask but my mom would shoo me out of the door with a cup in my hand and my neighbors wouldn’t think that was strange at all. Now, all I do is wave across the street when I’m leaving, if I accidentally run into them.

My favorite hangouts in city – that were my favorite because they were cheap – are gone. Or raised their prices way tooooo much. Let’s see –

Koshys – the same old menu but the prices are as bad as elsewhere in the city. I wonder why because they still have the same old paintings and tables and uniforms for their waiters. Oh yes! Now it is ‘the’ place to be seen if you want an intellectual tag.

The avenue opposite MG Road – sacrificed for the metro.

India Coffee House – Sacrificed for… development? Well, I do know that they exist. But the cramped half a room thing they have on Church Street is simply not the same as the spacious two-floor thing they had on MG Road. You feel compelled to leave in the new one because it feels crowded. The earlier Coffee House, you could linger upstairs with a book, rose milk/coffee, dosas and samosas and still feel some money in your pocket when you left.

Premier Book Store – Not a food joint but hung out there quite a lot, digging for books. It was like a treasure hunt and you were always a little wary that the pile of books would just topple and bury you under. It was a delicate operation to extract a book from the pile and there was always something interesting here.

The British Library-turned-Barista-turned-HRC – Well, the building exists, like everything else. Except now it is HRC, which is cool enough. But I remember the days when it was a library… there was something truly awesome about going into that huge stone building to read a book. And then, a Barista coffee shop, which was one of the few places that had live music.

Tiffany’s – I never went here much but I always felt a sense of pride when I saw this beautiful building. Now, it is replaced by a you-can’t-miss-it, garish Coffee Day Square. UGH!

***
Some people ask me why I miss these places? How can you not? They were quiet, great food, you could hang around for hours and nobody would give you the evil eye and nobody cared what you wore.

I do have a couple of coffee shops in the city that I hang out a lot at… but that’s only because of the lack of other options. The music, which used to be nice and mellow, changed to hip hop and rap because of public demand.

As much as I appreciate the availability of nutella and snickers in every grocery store, I guess I could have done without them as well if it meant the absence of these tall buildings that replaced the trees.

The fanaticism that has taken over Bangalore… sorry, Bengaluru, is yet another worrying thing. What is with all the ‘learn Kannada in the first year you are here’ thing? This is a cosmo city… and it is ridiculous to push your language down other people’s throats, particularly when the most popular medium of language-enhancement = movies – is super lame.

Rains…

The paper said that monsoons are officially here.

It has been raining for a couple of weeks as I remember… but yet, it doesn’t feel like monsoons are here. There was that one day when the roads were flooded and the city shook under the rain.

But there I was, huddling under the thin plastic of a shop, waiting for the rain to stop so I could head home…

I like Bangalore rains. The city turns into a huge pool, the traffic crawls to a stop, electricity disappears till the next morning and trees are often found on the road. Yet, there is such a charming beauty. The buildings look more beautiful, the yellow street lights (if they are still burning) look beckoning like a flame to a moth. Everything looks mysterious, and you can almost believe… looking at those empty roads that Bangalore is still Bangalore and not the pushed-down-our-throat-Bengaluru that is more fake than Chinese goods.

I miss open air cafes in Bangalore… those places where you were away from the rain, yet in it. Those little cheap tea stores where tea cost 5 bucks, not so much that you wouldn’t have the bus fare to go home.

I miss that little avenue on MG Road, where you could sit, smoke and watch the world go by. There are so few places in the city like that now.

People everywhere, loud noises everywhere. Every cafe and restaurant feels compelled to play music way too loud in an attempt to drown out the meaningless conversations happening around it. And bad music at that. On repeat.

Remember those times when meaningless conversations were the order of the day? We discussed politics, politicians, the horrible state of the government, the wars, the environment and dreamed that we would bring about change. We argued like our lives depended on it and fought like we would be enemies for a lifetime.

More serious issues took over our lives – earning a wage, buying a car, building a house and such things.

I guess sometimes rain does make me a little melancholy. But at least those empty roads can make you believe, if only for a moment, that the city I grew up in and loved still exists underneath all the chaos.

The Weekend

There has been blogging silence for a while. Perhaps the lack of interesting topics to talk about or the reluctance to talk about things on this not-so-private platform.

Had a much relaxed and different Saturday night in a while… different in the sense it wasn’t my usual crowd and usual hang out spot. I graced the streets of the city centre after months, only to being hyperventilating a minute after stepping onto the main street.

I was all excited and eager to be there but in the joy, I had forgotten that it was Christmas and every mother’s son and daughter would be on the street ‘celebrating’ the day. But since i was already there, I figured the only way to really deal with it was Pink Floyd and plugged on my ipod and literally jumped into the crowd. It was a little like jumping into an ocean of black heads and backs. You cannot see anything beyond a step in front of you, and if you are lucky, beside you too. So you need to know where you want to go and plan accordingly and the crowd carries you till then.

The most surprising part was that people actually managed to walk in groups and not lose each other in the madness. Guys made use of the opportunity to cop a quick feel while others tried to get out of there as fast as possible.

Ironically, the other pavement was only half crowded. I don’t know what laws of the universe states that this side of the pavement has to be always crowded on this street. That’s how it has been as far as I can remember. Perhaps people just cross into the street and don’t want to cross over to the other pavement. I don’t know. But as I had to take a left, I walked with my head down and Pink Floyd wailing that we don’t need no education till someone literally yanked me into the corner and said “hey”

So we – a friend and me – stood at an intersection and talked, without really blocking anyone. That’s another way this place works… there are little nooks where you can stand and chat.

And because it was Christmas, there were piles of Santa hats being sold. The fashion of the season. Almost everyone was wearing one or was dressed in red. For once, I was glad that I was not wearing red…. I wore non-Christmas colours, I realised surprisingly. The cafes were crowded and even the staff wore Santa hats.

The marked difference between predominantly Christian countries and India is that during Christmas every shop does have a tree and a mistletoe and perhaps even Christmas special menu but the goodwill is absolutely missing. Of course, in the U.S. or elsewhere, most of these shops will be closed. But here, nobody wishes you “Merry Christmas” when you enter the shop or give you candy when you are walking out. That sort of marketing just has not entered the retail mindsets here.

The only place where we were wished was this old Chinaman who took our order at a restaurant. I found his courtesy and the way he spoke to us utterly charming. The food was mediocre and the ambiance, worse. But the man made up for all of it and more.

Shopping was… unsuccessful to say the least. When you have specific ideas like I do about what you are looking for, it is really hard to find in a city that is a season behind the top fashions and even then factory-produces the designs. And then prices them outrageously.

It is disappointing to find that my favorite shopping haunts are gone or have become outrageously priced. Since when did a simple long woolen top cost close to a grand in a non-branded, rip-off place. Commercial Street and such are Bangalore’s equivalent of Bombay’s Causeway or Linkin Road. But the thing is… the prices and the quality simply cannot measure up to Bombay. The retailers realise that people are willing to pay in Bangalore. So what would probably cost 500 in Bombay costs double here. Worse, my favorite shopping haunt – Tibet Market – which is run by these displaced Tibetans is now one of the most outpriced places in the city 😦

They had simple, clean fashions that fit me (important factor). The quality was the same as in the stores (who would mark up their goods by 50 percent – as a retailer friend tells me) so Tibet Market was where all us college kids headed for good bargains. Now, they are perhaps more expensive than a store. Charity? Donation for a cause? I’m not sure I feel charitable anymore.

Oh well… it was an evening well spent. Church Street often reminds me of the back alleys of the most exclusive cities in the world. Or the slightly faded street behind the most exclusive streets in the world. At 11.30, there are autos parked outside every restaurant, which is every few steps, soliciting and bargaining with people. Autos are a terror in the city. But when buses stop plying around midnight or are few and far in between, not to mention about the safety part…

There were women dressed up in the shortest skirts, making me wonder how they were not shivering in the 8 degree temperature of the city. Men were drunk and loud. We got hit on several times in the short stretch of the road… I’m undecided yet if that could even be called “hit on” or be called “harassed” and if there is any part of it which is flattering that a 20-year old thinks I look young and hot; or how guys are such morons that they get a kick out of saying ‘hey hey hey’ till you look at them and then giggle and then approach you and say ‘my friend wants to talk to you’. And then laugh like hyenas when you roll your eyes and keep walking.

It isn’t an Indian thing. We got asked for a drink by Indian guys when we were walking past a club, we got harassed by a bunch of drunk African guys when we were leaving and an Iranian guy suggested we would like to join him an after party. Men all over the world really have no idea what a woman wants?

Sunday was perhaps more successful. A warm, sunny afternoon… wine, pasta and brilliant company after finding almost the very thing that you wanted. It reminded of the afternoon just a year ago spent by the lake in Melbourne. The sun makes you a little more drunk… and makes you lazy and just wanting to bask on a bean bag with a novel and just… snooze. Rare, such afternoons are. Particularly in winter when the sun sets early and the wind gets harsh. I walked around, feeling stronger, feeling calmer… and not thinking about those things that haunt your sleep.

A Government Office

The government office – maybe it is movies, maybe it is the few trips down to that part of town – but the image in my mind was on the lines of “ugh”.

It was perhaps the attitude, the building and the dinginess. But after having spent the past couple of days around them… I believe that we are on the fast track to the 21st century.

Of course, I am visiting other departments than what I was at 4 years ago… and the ones I am visiting are known to be a little better off anyway.

Like, they have computers  now! And they looked as good as the ones I have at work. Plus, the guy was watching a movie online – something most IT company employees would hesitate to do.

Yeah, the faded rickety tables, the pale yellow walls that some guy in history deemed “soothing and efficient,” the paper-loaded tables still exist… but the walls aren’t painted red with paan marks and they manage to find that exact piece of paper from the pile without needing centuries.

But one constant remains – the sleepy expressions.

While I was waiting, that is how I distinguished between the people who worked there and the visitors. Their movements are languorous, like they are on vacation… except the expression on faces is eternally bored.

Well, as long as they are helpful.

Photo of the Day: A slight change from the videos. I love this photo… the VW Beetle (it looks really cool ONLY in red), the composition of the picture…

two zero nine: Beach or Bust by Anna Gay