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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A Letter to The Cab Guy

Dear Taxi Guy,

I’ve been a loyal customer since you were a mere company, not a brand. Despite various people complaining about the company and their ‘pathetic’ service, I had no reason to complain and I hung around. You have been with me through late night parties, emergency cabs to work, trips to the airport and more for the past 3-4 years.

And then you became a ‘brand’. I started seeing your logo on movie promo posters, at concerts and whatnot. It was kind of cool to see a company from my hometown grow up and compete with the biggies out there and able to keep pace.

Then we started seeing hoardings all around the city, screaming about cab rides at 49 bucks. You were trying to take on the biggest public transport service providers – the auto rickshaws. I wondered about how you were going to sustain your operational costs. It wasn’t like the fuel had gotten considerably cheaper, for starters.

But I had your app installed on my phone, and I loved the interface as well. Except, almost everytime I booked a cab in the past few months… pretty much since September-Oct, the booking would get confirmed and then the cab would not turn up. Your Customer Care would apologise profusely and then the same thing would be repeated. Once. Twice. Thrice. Four Times. Five Times. And that’s when I decided to say to hell with you.

I had to scramble to find another cab service to head to a college reunion. I had to sit on the sidewalk and wait for an hour for another cab to come and pick us up after a concert because your ‘confirmed’ cab did not turn up. I had to scramble to get home at 10.00 in the night because your cab wouldn’t turn up. I nearly missed a flight because your cab did not turn up.

And I had to speak to your rude, annoying customer care at 1.00 in the morning who called me 3 hours after my booking time asking if I wanted to take the cab now, since one was available.

And through all of this, the only thing that was consistent were your apologies and that ‘you will try to serve us better’.

I booked a cab again yesterday afternoon, buoyed by the news that you had launched this new ‘mini car’ cab service. I was curious, and perhaps a glutton for punishment. The mini car was not available yet, so I booked a Mini and true to your brand – you did not disappoint me. The Cab Did Not Turn Up.

This time, thanks to your new updates on the app, I could call the driver directly. And the guy says “Well, I did get a message about the booking and then another one saying it was canceled”.

So I booked another cab – and this time a cab did turn up and imagine my surprise – it was a Renault Duster.

I wondered how you had classified a Renault Duster, a car that costs at least 10 lakhs, on par with the ‘Mini’ class, which was typically a Tata Indica. And then I realised – this is what you’ve come down to – you are scrambling to keep up with your promises and promos.

You have a shortage of good drivers. You are losing control over your drivers, who have gone back to choosing (like always) rides to the airport, which are longer and have less traffic. Have you resorted to desperately hiring anyone who is willing to drive for you, which perhaps accounts for the untoward incidents being reported all around?

Your drivers are pissed off with you because they are barely able to make ends meet when you’ve chopped their revenue share to a bare minimum. As I heard one of your drivers say, he would rather go back to driving an auto because he would be in control.

Now, with 1000 new cabs on the road, this time funded by your own money, how do you intend to really keep up the brand? Because after all the ads and the articles, you do need to keep your customer happy.

This was a tale of great potential, which has now become a big question mark. True, the Indian loves a good deal but we are also growing up to appreciate quality and service.

Perhaps it is time that you realised that.

Sincerely,

A Customer

Studying Indian Schools

Much has been said in recent weeks about the schools in Bangalore, India. One of the private schools came under the public microscope after reports of a 6-year old child being sexually abused by teachers were published in the media.

There were protests, petitions and more asking for justice. People asked for PTAs to be more empowered, CCTVs in all classrooms and many such measures to be implemented.

And people seem to be finally waking up to the fact that there is something extremely rotten in our education system. Forget the syllabus. The functioning of these organizations is extremely flawed.

My parents have been teachers for decades. And I’ve seen plenty of parents come home and pour their woes out to them. I’ve seen students who are fighting with their parents come to my mother for advice. My mother, I am proud to say, is one of the rare teachers who actually listen. She treats the students as human beings, which is actually quite rare in the Indian education system.

Though we proudly say that we like to teach and our Indian education system is among the best, the teachers are not really the best. I’ve sat through boring classes where we were made to read through textbooks, some of which were factually wrong. I was blessed to have parents who encouraged me to think, and some teachers who nourished that as well. But for most part, you were expected to listen in class, take notes, memorize them and pour it out on the exam sheets and score the best possible marks.

Thinking was not particularly encouraged by most teachers.

And then came the breed of private schools who claimed to promote the new, innovative concepts of education like free-thinking, creative process etc. They charged a hefty fee for this process, and then there were hidden charges.

But if you are a parent, you would want the best for your child and you would send them here, no matter what. 

Today, we are forced to ask – how valid are these schools? How qualified are these teachers to actually educate children? 

How many teachers today have chosen the field because they really liked it? Most people I know are there because they couldn’t go anywhere else. I know teachers who suck at teaching or anything related to it but they’ve been awarded ‘Best Teacher’ awards by the government and affiliated bodies.

Today, it is one school under the microscope. They are being pulled up for their fee structure, lack of safety etc. But this is the story with all schools. Who are they accountable to? How educative can they really be? How qualified are their teachers?

If I had a kid, I would not be worried about how fancy the schools is. I would want my kid to have a chance to play in proper fields, get a little mud on the uniform, build crazy things in craft classes that might not be practical but show good vision, to be a part of any number of projects the kid wanted to be in, to be able to play as long they wanted to and yes, learn a little bit about history and science and all those things in a way that would interest them. Personally, I do not give a damn how many awards the school has won or if the kid scores a 96 percent on his / her exams (actually, a 96 percent in normal circumstances would be a little disturbing). 

Perhaps we are to blame for this situation. The rat race that we are all forced to be a part of. The intense competition for higher education, or even basic colleges… where each kid to expected to score no less than a 100. This is what we are building to and these schools promise to deliver. So what if the instructors are masochists, pedophiles or just not suited to the job. They manage to deliver and we are ready to pay through our nose for that. For that 100 percent.

The Politics of Language

More than a decade ago, when it was proposed that every bus in Karnataka had to have the bus number in Kannada as well, I thought it was ridiculous. Buses are for the public and there are plenty of people in the state who cannot read Kannada. Hell, even people who read Kannada take a minute to decipher the numbers as we are so used to the English numbers. It was then proposed that it be made mandatory for everyone living in Bangalore to learn Kannada. I thought this was a little silly too. Then they said let every kid in school learn Kannada and I merely shrugged. Kids can learn more languages easily and one more language is always good.

But when I heard that Nandan Nilekani, the former chief of Infosys and current Congress candidate from South Bangalore, tried to give an election speech in English and was booed out of the auditorium, I strangely understood.

English is a language I use more than Kannada. I write in English. I talk more in English. Yet, it was somehow blasphemous that a potential political candidate would use English in his speech.

There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, South Bangalore is one of the oldest parts of Bangalore. Though there is a mix of people from other cultures – Tamilians, Telugites etc, Kannada is the predominant language in this reason. Most people know and use this language to interact with neighbours, regardless of what they speak indoors.

Secondly, Kannada has been struggling against the massive influx of other languages. The Kannada pride, as that may be, is much lesser than seen in other languages. We do not insist on parading the language, or insist on being fanatical like some neighbouring states. The dialects in this language are also quite varied. For instance, a person from South Karnataka can barely understand the Kannada spoken in the northern regions of the state, though they are both technically speaking the same language.

The cultural support that exists for the language hurts it more than it would have perhaps if there was none. Most people who are locals shudder at the thought of watching a Kannada movie, particularly in the theater. The film community, in an attempt to ‘safeguard’ the language, have various restrictions that include no dubbing of other movies into Kannada, no taxes for Kannada movies and reserving a certain percentage of movie screens across Bangalore for Kannada movies alone.

Despite these moves, much of the upper middle class rarely watches a Kannada movie in the theatres. The reason? The movies have bad storylines, worse acting, over-the-top sequences and are made by a monopolistic family. New talent in the field has to have the approval of the ‘first family’ of the industry.

Movies increasingly are the one way to sustain and show cultural changes, and Kannada movies seem to be a couple of decades behind. (Okay… slight exaggeration).

For most people in Bangalore, knowing Kannada is an afterthought and not a requirement. The basic respect for the language and the locals is being trampled by stronger outer influences. Which makes the locals quite nervous about their cultural identity, hence antagonistic about these outside influences.

Bangaloreans, by nature, are easy going to the point of laziness.

But this unspoken and subtle threat against the identity is causing a subtle shift in the easy going nature and making way for impatience and frustration. The easygoing nature, as one person said, is often mistaken for stupidity.

Naturally, when the person who is supposed to represent you, thereby your identity, to the nation, tries to speak in an absolute foreign language, you would get booed out. It does not matter if you think that half your audience is made of “other” people. While you do have a responsibility to them, you also hold an equally important responsibility towards the identity of the state, its culture, heritage and language. You cannot completely alienate that by talking about ‘issues’ to a global audience. This is not Infosys, which is an Bangalore-borne Indian company, supported by several identities.

The sheer lack of respect for the locals has been grating for a while. The slight wrinkling of the nose when one talks about “Bangaloreans” or the locals is quite pissing off. The slight pause in conversation when I claim to be a Kannnadiga to someone who is talking about all the ‘modern’ things of clubbing, partying etc. Bangalore would not have been known as the pub city if its residents were truly orthodox. They’ve definitely grown orthodox, perhaps as a reaction to the crazy invasion of other cultures. The invasion of rudeness. The invasion of jugaad. The invasion of ‘it is okay to hit you car and then beat you up’. The invasion of people who think that the locals are slow and stupid because they were polite to you.

I’ve heard often enough that it is easier to get an auto if you speak the local language. That isn’t really true. But yes, sometimes it helps us to establish our ‘localness’ and knowledge of the place and the fact that we aren’t going to bargain for a ride. It helps us to tell the driver to put the meter on and not hop into it agreeing to whatever price is quoted and fight for it later. The autos do overcharge, but they do it because someone brought in the culture of bargaining here. Because someone discounted the price of fair and hard work. I grew up in the city where an auto driver would ferry a woman and her kids home without any extra charge or fuss because it was raining cats and dogs. I grew up in the city where people would stop and help you figure out what was wrong with your vehicle if you were stranded in the middle of the road.

I grew up in a place where the neighours would happily feed your kids if you were late from work. I don’t know when that niceness was interpreted as “stupid”.

Moral Policing in Indian Hotels

It has been a hectic few weeks of travel. As much as I love to travel, today I will enjoy the comfort of my bed, my quilt and quietness of the city. I do like traveling… the meeting new people, discovering new roads, new food joints, different things about each city… I even like the airports and some times, the bus stations.

The toughest part of traveling currently are the hotels. Real estate in the Indian metro cities is expensive, thereby expensive hotels. Staying in hotels like The Grand Hyatt, Marriot, The Park etc is way out of my budgets. What I can afford would be reasonable, small hotels in clean areas. I do not mind roughing it… all I ask for is a clean bed and a sparkling clean bathroom, and yes, safe.

I’ve done a fair bit of work-related travel in the past few months, with my partner and colleague. Being your own boss means you need to make your own arrangements for everything, and I’ve also grown a little wiser and would rather book rooms ahead of time instead of trying to come up with a place on the fly. Just keeping things simple.

But three times now, in different cities, we have been denied a room for a simple reason – they do not rent rooms to unmarried people. Okay, that’s  not true. They are perfectly happy to rent two rooms but refuse to rent a single room to two people of different genders.

It does not matter if you have a prior booking that clearly states your names. It does not matter if it is a corporate booking. If you are not married, you cannot share a room. For “Security Reasons”.

The first time this happened, we were amused. When we called to book a room for two people, the person on the other end clearly stated they do not rent rooms to ‘unmarried couples’. 

The second time, we were rather indignant. The manager at the hotel in question said the ‘government law’ does not allow unmarried people (a man and woman) to share a room. When asked about unmarried foreign couples renting such rooms, he said the law is not applicable to them. So the government is either trying to protect my chastity or doesn’t give a damn about foreigners getting into trouble. Of course, the manager added, if our parents would call and vouch for us and say it is okay to give us a room, they’d be quite happy to give us a room. My mom is more powerful than the government. 

The third time this happened, we were rather pissed. We were traveling exclusively on work, had a prior confirmation. The hotel, of course, assumed me to be a man. The duty ‘manager’ mumbled and mumbled without giving us any answer about our reservation till we nearly shouted. Then he mumbled that since my last name did not match my partner’s, they could not give us a room. “We do not give a room to couples unless they are married.”

The problem here was he did not even bother to check if we were married. He just assumed since my last name did not match my partner’s, we weren’t married. Or if was “modern” enough not to change my name, I couldn’t get a room. We were furious. But how does one argue with illiterate people manning the desk of what calls itself to be one of the most ‘exclusive corporate hotels’ in the city? 

His idea was that my last name did not match my partner’s. What other proof does one have to show they are married? Your marriage certificate? Your marriage photographs? In today’s world, how many women change their name officially? The number of documents you would need to change your name, and the attestations for each and the time you need to spend on each of it… the mere thought is frightening. Most married women I know wear the mangalsutra only on certain occassions, and rarely everyday. Yet, it seems you need to do change your name. For what? So you do not get insulted and harassed the next time you book a hotel room and the hotel things you are a couple out to have sex in some hotel room, no matter if you are booking the room for a fortnight.

I would have probably let this go, but it happened again. Again with a hotel where we had a confirmed booking. This time, I was traveling with a colleague and it was embarassing for both of us to stand there and have the receptionist tell us “sorry we cannot give you a room since you are not married.” We had requested for a room with two separate beds. Sharing a room saved a lot of costs. The woman claimed that this was for ‘security’ reasons and refused to elaborate. We tried explaining to her that we were here on work and were quite delayed. We offered to get her written / call confirmations / approvals from whoever she needed. Yet, she refused. Because the hotel has ‘security’ issues and they seem more related to the fact that we are not married, we would be sharing a room and oops, we could do something ‘immoral’ like have sex. 

Even if I did want to have “illicit” sex in a hotel room, what concern is it of the hotel management? Why should they care about what happens between two consenting adults? And if the criteria is ‘security’, what is the basis? They are scared the guy might beat up the girl or vice versa? Or they could be involved in a molestation or rape case. 

If that is really your concern,  the hotels shouldn’t be renting rooms to two unrelated men or women. Rape happens even if you are homosexual. Actually, the hotels shouldn’t be renting rooms to two people. Because issues arise even among family members. Yes, even rape. 

So if the hotel is really having security issues, they should not rent rooms out to anybody. Each person gets one room and nobody else is allowed there. That should solve the issues, right? 

Or if the hotel management meant my moral character’s security, that is none of their fucking business. Literally. They provide a service. Of course, they could reserve the right of entry (or however that is phrased) but you cannot cast aspersions on my character and think we are just going to shut up and take it. If you want to do moral policing, declare it on your website. Mention that you do not rent rooms to unmarried couples / people of opposite genders wanting to share a room. And then we’ll see how much business you get.

The Hidden City In The City

I took a walk down a street well known, and discovered a turn I had never known.

The path less traveled it wasn’t. Crowded, dingy, chaotic were its names.

My feet beat down the trodden path, which told tales of woe, abuse and years of show.

It was poor but rich. Old but new. Faded but blooming.

The real business in the city does not happen in the gleaming, chrome-plated, air-conditioned offices of this city. That is where the people sit. But it is in this little place that money is doled out in plastic bags, gold stacked in gunny sacks and clothes shimmer from all corners.

The names of the place might be confusing to the uninitiated. There is a secret to be discovered every time you visit.

The bustling hive of Bengaluru, with its books, both old and new, pipes, paints, clothes, gold, silver, on clothes and on people, with its reams of paper, a thimble full of silence, a bucketful of dirty water, this is where the action is.

I had forgotten about this little place. I had been clueless about its hidden treasures.

I jumped drains, skipped across holes… and discovered this little place where you can find anything, if you just look long enough, they say.

Norman Parkinson

It was absolutely empty and the guard on duty reluctantly switched on the lights and the light sitar music.

The Norman Parkison Exhibition at Tasveer Art Gallery.

It had been a long time since I stepped into an art gallery. Exhibitions seemed a little boring, particularly minus the discussions, which I could never make it to.

I had not heard of Norman Parkinson before I heard about this exhibition. Fashion photography is not something I particularly lean towards, or least did not before today.

Parkinson’s photographs were quite illuminating. At first glance, it might seem like you’ve seen it all.

And then you realise that these photographs are at least 50 years old, shot on an analog… 35 mm? and did not have the magic of photoshop. When you add that to your perspective, things change.

I still do not know much about him other than what was on the little notice board there and what little was available on Wikipedia. But I did realise that I liked his sense of humor in photographs and the juxtaposition of his models with the stark Indian background. In some cases, it made the photograph too studied, like the one with a white model, a dark, average Indian kid with temples in the background and white pillars. The contrast seemed to stark and too strong.

My favorite were Wendy and the Cow, it conveyed humor and a sense of a memsahib on her rounds on unfamiliar grounds. I wondered about his technique… and realised that much of that format is still being followed, even if with a harder edge.

Some of that belief comes from watching some recent episodes of Next Top Model. I watch that for the photograph and often wonder what is the point of such juxtapositions. Many models and situations do not appeal to me, yet they are judged the best. Maybe I have much to learn in that area yet…

What did I learn from Parkinson?

That humor is important. Sharp lines, clean lines, the importance of background and clutter. The unreality of a situation mixed with humor can create quite an impression.

True, I probably expected more stronger photographs. But are photographs of old women, young boys and huge landscapes the only form of real art? It is easy to see the strong wrinkles of the face of a Tibetan woman, the innocent smile of a young monk, the sweeping slopes of a desert and the sting of a scorpion in sharp contrast.

Juxtaposition takes a lot more thinking, I realised, even if it isn’t my thing. Several people can think about placing objects against each other. But to create an impact, it needs to have the right amount of contrast. Not shock and awe. Just an impact. Perhaps that is what Mr.Parkinson was trying to do. Perhaps even tell a story… though I felt a little pulled back into the days of the Raj with his photos. These are posed and yet make you ask why is the woman there with the umbrella in what seems to be a market? Why is the woman there with the steps and was she overtaken by the young monks? Who are the people in the boat in the background?

Were these aspects that were planned and included in the photo or just happenstance?

My love for street photography invades some ideas here… and I have to remind myself that this is a ‘planned’ photoshoot. But if it makes one ask such questions, is its purpose achieved? Is the purpose of fashion photography merely showcasing pretty clothes and women or creating an impact, a sense of mystery and story in that particular image?

Even if I was not blown away by his work, it was intriguing enough to bring these questions to mind. And I guess that is purpose solved.