No refusal

UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a potential customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this when earlier this year we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber.

The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.

In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some if them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way.

Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who avoid urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.

Bangalore Ubers and Olas are unreliable. Often they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app connected car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.

Autorickshaws are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore. Their plucky drivers are able to take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers but they get you to your destination relatively quickly.

Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will suggest an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling. Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.

Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will often foreigners something like:
“Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.”
Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, or …

Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted detour for shopping.

On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.

Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share in common is the wording “No Refusal” printed on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stop to pick up a passenger, are not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.

Taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they are allowed to operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, cabbies, but by no means always, comply.

Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present.

Picture: Taxis in Calcutta

A narrow escape

IN AUGUST 2011, MY WIFE was invited to attend a Loreto House school reunion in Calcutta (Kolkata). As I had never been to the city before, I accompanied her. While my wife took part in the daily activities with some of her former schoolmates, I explored and fell in love with Calcutta.

Throughout our five day visit to the city, the monsoon rain fell heavily and incessantly. I walked around Calcutta, often wading through filthy water that submerged my feet and lapped around my ankles. This hardly affected my enjoyment of the delightful decaying city, in some respects India’s own distinctive version of old Havana in Cuba.

One day, I visited Jorasanko, the palatial residence of the Tagore family, whose members included not only the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath but also artists such as Abanindranath and Gaganendranath.

After seeing around the fascinating rooms of Jorasanko, I sploshed through the flooded streets towards the Hooghly River. On my way, I walked along a busy street lined with shops and filled with crowds of people. A steady stream of rickshaws pulled by thin sinewy men and each laden with two or three passengers made its way through the busy throng. The huge wheels of these vehicles keep the passengers high above the water flooding the streets.

I noticed that some shops, often clothes and textile merchants, were giving hot food to some passersby. At one of these shops, I asked about the food distribution. It was explained to me that during Ramadan, it was considered to be a virtuous thing to feed the poor.

Eventually, after crossing a wide road clogged with slow moving heavy traffic, I stepped onto the Howrah Bridge, a gigantic steel bridge, a Meccano lovers dream, which traverses the River Hooghly. It was constructed between 1935 and early 1943.

At first, the bridge crosses over a large market that runs along the riverbank. Then, after a few yards, it is over the water. I walked along the downstream facing pedestrian walkway, dodging many porters carrying heavy and bulky loads on their heads. I took numerous photographs until I was two thirds of the way across the bridge and met a policeman with an ancient rifle slung over his back. Politely, he informed me that photography was forbidden on the bridge. By then, I had sufficient images stored in the memory of my camera.

Once over the river, I headed through the streaming rain and thick crowds to a boat station close to the Howrah railway terminus. My plan was to travel on a river bus downstream to a landing stage not far from Park Street.

I bought a ticket which was printed on very poor quality paper, that had to be kept dry to avoid it falling to pieces. I asked someone on the floating platform at the water’s edge if the boat that was approaching was heading for my planned destination. I received what I believed was an affirmative reply, and then boarded a relatively empty boat with plenty of free seats. We set off.

To my surprise, the boat headed upstream rather than downstream. Soon, we passed beneath the Howrah Bridge. We sailed a long way upstream away from the city centre. The banks of the river were lined with unattractive industrial buildings and these were punctuated by occasional bathing ghats.

I disembarked at the boat’s first stop. Had it not been raining so heavily, I would have exited the boat station to take a look around the area. Instead, I bought another flimsy ticket to return to Howrah. This time, I asked several people at which of the two floating embarkation pontoons I should board the downstream boat. I waited close to the water while a large crowd of fellow passengers gathered behind me. I wanted to be sure of embarking first.

The boat approached where we were all standing. I could see from afar that it was packed to the gills with people. When the boat was about 18 inches away from the pontoon, I felt a great push from behind me and I was catapulted across the water towards the approaching vessel. Luckily, I was able to grab something on the boat and this saved me from falling into the water and being crushed between the boat and the pontoon.

The boat was stuffed with people. I am sure that sardines are less tightly packed in tins. I wanted to try to take a photograph to capture an image of this crowd, but I could not because so great was the pressure exerted by those around me that I was unable to raise my hands from beside my body.

I looked around and noticed there were few life saving flotation items. Had our boat sunk, few on board would have survived.

It was a great relief to disembark at Howrah. I was drenched, somewhat shaken, and hungry. I decided to take a taxi to Flurys in Park Street, a European style tea room that served what I was yearning at that moment: toasted club sandwiches.

I boarded a battered yellow Ambassador taxi in a car park near the railway station. We moved forward into a mass of other similar taxis. The crowded taxis were so close to each other that it felt that they were all welded together. It took almost an hour for my driver to skilfully manoeuvre his taxi a couple of hundred yards on to the bridge.

At last, we arrived at Park Street, where, slightly drier because of sitting for ages in the taxi, I settled down at a table in Flurys. I ordered my sandwich and savoured the peaceful atmosphere in the tea room.

On my third visit to Calcutta at the end of 2019, we visited Flurys but, sadly, we were disappointed to find that its food and service was no longer as good as before. Fortunately, the scruffy Nizams at New Market, which serves parathas stuffed with meat and omelettes, remains as good as it was in 2011 and many years before.

Despite my near escape from severe injury or worse, my enthusiasm for Calcutta and its people continues to grow and grow.

DEATH OF A DRIVER

THE PEAK OF MOUNT KANCHENJUNGA was covered with snow and clearly visible from our bedroom window in Gangtok at 630 am on the 29th November 2019. By 900 am, it was hidden by clouds.
Our taxi driver collected us and we set off for Darjeeling. Although he was born in Sikkim, his parents are from another part of India. Almost 90% of the inhabitants of Sikkim are not Sikkimese and do not enjoy the special privileges afforded to ‘Sikkim Subjects’, people whose ancestors originated in Sikkim. These privileges include owning land and not paying income tax.

The majority of people who now live in Sikkim arrived there after it was absorbed by India in the mid 1970s.

From Gangtok the route is mainly downhill to Rangpo, the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. The winding road follows the River Rani downstream from Ranipool. As we drove along through the wooded valley, our driver told us about ‘D’, one of the two drivers he employs.

‘D’ was the fifth husband of a lady who owns a restaurant and bar. One night, well after midnight when D’s wife had closed her eatery, D decided to give her a driving lesson.

She sat at the wheel, and just before her lesson was to begin, D dashed into the restaurant building to relieve himself. While he was away, she rashly decided to show her husband that she knew how to drive and did not actually need to be taught by him. When he came out, he saw that the car was moving steadily towards the edge of the road and was about to topple over the edge and drop down onto a very steep slope. He ran to save the car and his wife but he and the runaway vehicle toppled off the road and fell down into the darkness below.

D was killed but his wife, who was sitting in the driver’s seat survived unscathed.

Driving without a licence is an imprisonable offence in India. To avoid risking this, her family, D’s in-laws, arrived and placed her dead spouse in the driving seat so as to make the police believe that he, who carried a driver’s licence, was driving the car when the accident occurred.

We were horrified to hear about this event which had occurred less than a fortnight before we set off from Gangtok. It was clear that D’s employer, our driver, was still stunned by what had happened.

Our driver’s careful driving gave us no cause for concern. However, as we neared Darjeeling and had rung our host to give directions for finding his homestay, our journey struck problems.

First of all, our driver told us he had never before driven to Darjeeling and had no idea about its geography. Secondly, we discovered that taxis with Sikkim registration plates, such as ours, were restricted as to where they can drive in Darjeeling. The result was that our driver had to stop at Jorebunglow, quite a few miles outside Darjeeling. We had to wait there until a local taxi driver took us into town. Despite this, the scenic journey between Gangtok and Darjeeling is a joy to experience.

Foolish on foot

Taxi!_240

 

Years ago, I had friends who lived south of Hampstead Heath in South End Green, near where the writer George Orwell lived during the 1930s. I often visited my friends there and usually stayed with them until long after public transport ceased working late at night – those were the days long before 24 hour bus services. In those days, I was a student with limited means. Taxi and minicab rides to my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to the north of Hampstead Heath were costly and if used too often would eat too deeply into my meagre funds.

So, often I used to walk through the darkness to my home, a distance of well over 2 miles. Most of this walk was across the wooded stretches of Hampstead Heath. Even back in the 1970s, this vast expanse of urban woodland was far from safe. Murders and attacks were not unknown. My parents and others would have been horrified to learn that I was risking my life to save paying a cab fare. Was I scared? The answer was both yes and no. I was concerned because of the news stories I had read. Yet, on the other hand I was not so afraid.

I felt that anyone encountering me on my nocturnal wandering deep in the secluded heart of Hampstead Heath might have had one of two reactions. Either he or she might have imagined that I was up to no good and possibly on the prowl for victims and would therefore steer clear of me, or that the person  whom I encountered was up to no good. If he or she was ill-intentioned, the person would have still had to be a little bit cautious because I might have turned out to be more than a match for him or her. This reasoning would have done me no good had the person I met been severely evil. 

Fortunately, luck was on my side. I never encountered anyone, innocent or evil, on my nocturnal strolls. However, I would never even dream of making this kind of journey across Hampstead Heath again, and would not advise anyone else to attempt it because London has become more dangerous than it was in the 1970s and before.

Hard currency

currency

Back in 1983, I visited Bulgaria. I had been advised that it was very unwise to exchange currency in the country any other way than by using the state’s official foreign exchange desks. So, as soon as I disembarked at the railway station at Sofia, I changed some of my UK Pounds into Bulgarian Leva. Even at the official exchange rate, one Pound had a more than adequate spending power.

My friend and I took  a taxi to the city centre. When we arrived, the meter , I asked the driver how much we needed to pay. He answered:

“One Deutschmark, One Dollar, One Swiss Franc, or one Pound.”

I said that I wanted to pay in Bulgarian Leva. He said:

“Two Leva”

But, I protested:

“The meter says only one Leva”

The driver turned around and said:

“Two people: two Leva”

I repeat this true tale to emphasise how little local money was valued in comparison with so-called ‘hard currency’. Also, in a few months when the UK leaves the European Union, probably without a trade deal, the Pound, which is already sinking in value, might cease to be a hard currency. Who knows, but here in the UK we might prefer to be paid not in our own currency but in one of the harder currencies such as the US Dollar or the Euro.

Afghan cab drivers

Dolmus driver_240

 

A few years ago, we hired a mini-cab (a type of taxi) to take us from Kensington to Golders Green. When we entered the cab, we heard music being played on the car’s cassette player. It sounded Russian to me. I asked the driver about it and he confirmed that it was Russian. He told us that he was from Afghanistan and had lived in Russia for a couple of years before settling in London. We began chatting as we drove northwards towards Golders Green. He told us that during the day he sold shoes in his own shop and drove his cab in the evening. We engaged in an amicable conversation.

When we arrived at our destination, I asked how much we owed him. He said:

“Nothing at all.”

“But, we must pay you something,” I said.

“No, nothing. You are my friend. I cannot ask you to pay me,” he explained.

For a few moments, I was flummoxed, at a loss as how to proceed. On the one hand, he said he did not want to be paid. On the other, he had done a good job for us, which needed rewarding. Then, I said to him, handing over a £10 note:

“If we can’t pay you, take this as a present for your children.”

He accepted the money without objection. £10 was the normal fare for that journey in those days.

We booked another mini-cab for our return journey. By coincidence, it was driven by someone from Afghanistan. Although he was not as friendly as the outward bound driver, there was nothing to complain about him. When we arrived at our home, we asked him how much we owed. He answered:

“Anything you like.”

I paid him the £10, which we usually pid for that journey, and the driver was happy with that.

Shortly before that day of Afghan mini-cab drivers, I had finished reading a book about travelling in Afghanistan., An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliott. In it, he describes shopping in rural Afghanistan. The customer is not quoted a price, but has to make an offer. If the offer is too low, the seller will look insulted and hurt. If it is too high, everyone else in the shop will laugh at the customer. I suspect that it was on this basis that the two mini-cab drivers operated with us. They must have detected our familiarity with eastern ways and customs. Had we been typical Anglo Saxon customers, they might have simply quoted a price.

Slow down

taxi

My late mother lost two front teeth in a car crash in South Africa during the 1930s. Ever since then, she was both a nervous driver and an apprehensive passenger.

In the early 1960s, my mother was one of the first drivers in the UK to have seat belts installed in our car, which, like all other cars at the time, was sold without seat belts.

When I used to go on holidays with my parents, we used taxis wherever we were: water taxis in Venice and automobiles elsewhere. The places we visited most often were Italy and Greece. In both places, drivers manoeuvred at higher speeds than in the UK and far more adventurously. I remember one occasion in Milan (Italy) in the 1960s where our taxi driver drove along the tram lines on the wrong side of the road, so that trams headed straight towards us. And, in Athens (Greece), if a driver saw a space on the road some hundred yards ahead, he would take all kinds of risks to reach it. In all the years that I travelled with my parents in taxis we were only involved in one accident – no injuries, fortunately.

Well, all this dangerous dashing about in dare-devil taxis did not do anything positive for my mother’s nerves. Consequently, wherever we went she made sure that she knew how to say ‘slow down’ in the local language. Whenever I am being driven in India, where traffic is very exciting to say the least, I often think that had my mother experienced it, she would have died of fright. Oh, by the way, the Hindustani word for ‘slow down’ is ‘aasthe‘.

Some know, others don’t

I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.

London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.

In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.

I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.

It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.

One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”

I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.

So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.

TAXI DRIVER

Like London, Bombay is heavily dependent on workers who were not born in the city. This is the case for most of Bombay’s multitude of taxi drivers. Many of them came to the city from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

During a long journey from Colaba in South Bombay to Bandra, we spoke to our cab driver, ‘P’, from UP. A well educated man, he has been driving his black and yellow taxi in Bombay for well over 20 years. For most of the year, he drives for 14 hours per day, 7 days a week. His wife and children live in his village in UP. Much of the money he earns pays for his children’s education.

P owns his taxi and has a small house in Bombay. Occasionally, his family come to visit him in Bombay. Thrice a year, P visits his village in UP. There, his family have land where they grow a wide range of vegetables such as carrots, cabbage,potatoes, aubergines, rice, wheat, and more. While he is away from Bombay, he hires a driver to work his cab.

P feels that the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is good for India because he seems to be reducing corrupt practices amongst the country’s civil servants. Another good thing that Modi has done, P told us, was to ensure that everyone including humble village people have bank accounts. In the past, state benefit payments were given to the panchayats (local village councils) to be distributed amongst the intended recipients. The panchayats usually deducted an amount from the beneficiaries’ payments and kept it for themselves. Now that everybody has a bank account, the state pays the people without intermediaries and be sure that the recipients receive the whole of the amount intended for them.

In P’s words, the Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi is “… lacking in talent”

P said that people in UP spend too much time worrying about what their neighbours have achieved and criticising them jealously instead of getting on with life. As he put it: “They don’t care about what they eat in their own homes, but instead what their neighbours are consuming .” People in UP are lazy, P said, they do not want to work; they just want to drag you down. In contrast, he said, people in Bombay are too busy working, trying to make a living, to care about what their neighbours are up to.

Although P has prejudices, which he barely concealed, he is intelligent and knowledgeable. At one point in our journey my wife mentioned two brothers, whom she had once known, and said that they were named after twins in the Hindu myths collected in the Mahabharata. “Madame,” the taxi driver said politely, “They appear in the Ramayana.

Later, when my wife told P her name is Lopa, which is short for ‘Lopamudra’, our driver immediately recounted the mythological origins of that name.

P, like many other drivers of black and yellow taxis in Bombay, is keen on conversing with is passengers. In contrast, most of the drivers of Uber cabs in Bombay, whom we have encountered, tend to be sullen and reluctant to chat.