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A Bombay taxi

The Philosophers of Bombay

One of the richest experiences of holidaying in India, and here I refer to my home city of Bombay, is the exchange with taxi drivers of the yellow and black cabs.  These beaten-up vehicles with interesting shrines on the dashboard are ubiquitous and very affordable. Conversations strike up very easily and my Hindi is enough to communicate, though when it comes to the finer and more subtle points, I cannot match the eloquence of my fellow conversants. Last night, Javid Pratapgadhi, quoting a kalam in Urdu and Awadhi, made my tongue feel uncouth in comparison to the silver utterances from this performance poet.

All the taxi drivers that we have met in Bombay come from those populous states of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, part of the Northern Hindi belt. They are mostly from farming communities with large families. Javid was married at fourteen as his mother had died and his wife-to-be would then be the female to care for his four siblings. He himself then had four children before he even knew about the ‘birds and the bees’, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. He is a short, roundish man with a round face and a persistent mischievous smile. With eight members at home, one has to marvel at how he could have acquired the knowledge and wisdom that shone through our hour-and-a-half exchange. ‘Mujhe kitabon ke sath mohabbat thei’- I was in love with books. When I asked him how he had acquired his passion, he replied, ‘Yeh to khoon mein hoti hai’- ‘It’s in the blood’. 

How can I begin to capture the flavour of the depth and insights that he shared? Hailing from a Muslim family, faced with the current atmosphere of India when religion is being used to divide, he answers with: ‘Where would Akbar be without his Birbal?’ (The Mughal Emperor Akbar needed his wise and crafty Hindu Chief Minister Birbal to sort out complex issues and conundrums.) While I am getting on my high horse about the rising Hindu nationalism, Javid is calm and says that there has not been a time in history when such injustices have not been committed. ’It has happened before and will happen again’, he says. With reference to the conflict in Gaza, he replies with ‘We are all Adam’s children, it is a fight between brothers like Cain and Abel’. These are not mere words but genuinely felt.

Javid has a great interest in religion and could express the essential of Buddhist thought with: ‘Buddha did not believe in God. He said that we should improve ourselves, so that we ourselves can be God’, and: ‘What we think we become’.

Nor is Javid ignorant of politics or about what is happening in the bigger picture. He reads a daily newspaper and gets on-line his news from the BBC, Al-Jazeera or Ravish Kumar’s You-Tube Channel (ex-NDTV Senior Executive Editor who resigned when the channel was bought by the Adani Group). I can imagine any government propaganda slipping off the duck’s back.

The choice of driving a taxi and being a mushaira poet and performer gives Javid the freedom to take invitations to mushaira gatherings. (A mushaira is an event where poets gather to perform their works). ‘I can drive straight to the venue and park my taxi outside’, he confides. He says he wouldn’t necessarily be offered opportunities by elite programmers as he hasn’t the connections to the moneyed classes, but he does receive a steady number of opportunities from the more humble mushaira festivals. Moreover, he believes that he is performing a service for people, ‘I pick people up from the street and take them to their homes’. ‘If the politicians can receive a salary and a pension of some lakhs and call themselves kar-sevaks then why not us?’ (Kar-sevak: someone who offers their services free for a religious cause).

Javid Pratapgardhi may be the star of this piece, but there were many other encounters with taxi drivers from whom we learnt much. The earlier taxi wallah was not such a man-of-the-world; he said that he had no interest in films or cricket, he was after a ‘simple life’. Yes he did listen to bhajans (devotional songs) and could quote from Tulsidas (the sixteenth-century Hindu poet). He was still paying off the loan of 22 lakhs (2,200,000) that he took for his brother’s cancer treatment. His own take-home is only Rs12-15,000 monthly.      

Politics is always a live topic – on a previous visit the taxi wallah bringing us back from the airport was scornful of the new industrial-corporate class, ‘they are not the gentlemanly class of Tatas and Birlas’. The current climate favours the middle to the richer classes. The situation of those below has not improved, he tells us. This is the indictment of the current regime. My taxi driver will never be able to secure a loan to buy his taxi, although he has been driving for eighteen years. He will remain exactly in the same spot.

Thank you taxi drivers for your insights, humour and commentary on the social and economic landscape of the Indian nation. You truly have your ear to the ground.