Of Taxis in Kolkata

This morning a friend forwarded me a sentimental article about Kolkata, which was a poetic exaggeration. The article however made no mention of taxis and I pondered. Talking of Kolkata, the taxi drivers deserve a mention. Just like the Howrah bridge, the yellow cabs have been synonymous with the city!

Kolkata Yellow Taxis
Yellow taxis of Kolkata

I want to comment on the driving skills of the cab drivers, they are really skilled drivers. When is the last time you have read in the newspaper about a taxi getting into a road accident? (Think of buses, autos!). The ambassador is no small car, yet they manoeuvre it deftly in the serpentine lanes of the city and its suburbs. Earlier the profession was dominated by Sardarjis, now it is Biharis mostly. All of them drive like gentlemen on the road. A cab will ply rather slowly if it is looking for a passenger. Honk once and they will let you overtake. Once it gets a passenger, they will speed away. They won’t overtake you unless you are driving slow. In a congested city like kolkata, driving is all about good dynamics between fellow drivers and the cab drivers display this spirit. On the road, they are humble, understanding and accommodating – all essential traits of a good driver.

The autos are a different story. These unsafe vehicles create havoc by driving recklessly, putting everyone at risk. Unlike designated auto stands, there are no defined spots for cabs to wait. Police often harass them for stopping by – the practice started since Mamata came to power and has stopped recently eyeing next year elections.

If the autos are a menace, the unruly biker is no less of a villain – they are often overtaking others from the left and right without the slightest of warning! Of late, I see bikes violating even the red light at crossings. The other day, while I was waiting at a signal, a taxi was coming from the opposite side and was about to cross me, when a bike tried to sneak in front of the taxi by squeezing between it and my car. The taxi gave him no space and drove ahead. This infuriated the biker and his friend, they started hurling abuses at the driver. The taxi driver wasn’t shy of a confrontation and challenged them – gaali kisko diya? The biker duo got down, tried to drag him out and a fistfight broke out between the sides. I honked twice hoping they would disengage. Soon others came and separated them. I was impressed by the resilience of the driver, and not to mention, disgusted by the audacity of the bikers who were wearing branded clothes and shoes.

The cab drivers are infamous for their refusal, but then that is part of a bigger socio-economic issue affecting Bengal in general, which is beyond the current talking point. I have often picked up a chat with the driver while taking a ride in a taxi. I knew a driver from Exide area who would bring me home at 3 am in the night from the hospital if I called. I had to pay him 50 rupees extra on the meter. One night my phone was out of charge. I walked till Exide and enquired for this man. The other drivers present recognized his name and rang him. They asked me to wait for 10 minutes and let me sit inside one of their taxis as it was a winter night – they didn’t know I was a doctor.

They are hard-working souls braving many odds throughout the day – maintenance costs, eating outside food daily, an insanely hot ambassador engine that makes the front seat unbearable in summer, police excesses, lack of enough public toilets. I can recall a poor soul who had almost refused me saying he had to attend the nature’s call, but then hesitantly asked me to get aboard. On the way the poor chap stopped at two Sulabh toilets and found all the latrines occupied. By the third Sulabh we came across on the way, he was in a pretty bad state. Luckily he could find a spot in the third one.

Quite often, they are living an impoverished life. Once in the hospital, I was shocked by the eye sight of a driver and asked him how he could drive at all. He replied – sir raat er belay ektu osubidha hoy! I was like “ektu?!” and advised him to get his cataract operated at the earliest.

One morning, I took a cab to the hospital and the frail elderly driver started chatting. On hearing I am a doctor he narrated how his granddaughter recently got discharged after suffering from a deadly attack of dengue. Buying the medicines and fruits have cost him several hundred rupees. His license had been confiscated by the police and he couldn’t drive for days – he needed 1000 to get his license back from the police station. That day he took a risk and took the car out without his license, hoping he would earn just enough by the end of the day to pay for the license. He asked for some money. On principle, I never give alms to people. This time, I went out of my way, and paid him his fare and then 200 rupees extra.