It was my first visit to Kolkata. My friend Sangeeta who was accompanying me was familiar with the city, having lived there a couple of decades ago, for close to four years. As we walked out of the surprisingly deserted airport that morning, I spotted a yellow Ambassador taxi. “No Refusal”, it proclaimed in bold, black, capital letters. I squealed, inviting a quizzical look from my friend, who had clearly not been infected by my enthusiasm. An Ambassador! It was like spotting a dinosaur. “It says, ‘No Refusal’,” I informed Sangeeta, who had obviously seen the proclamation but had the wisdom to not take it seriously. She looked at me with a deadpan expression, amused at my naivete, and convinced that I would know better soon. Hers was a different kind of optimism.
We hired a prepaid taxi and waited for our turn. When the Ambassador stopped for us to board, I couldn’t conceal my excitement. The cab driver, probably not used to the infantile behaviour that I displayed when I slid into the tattered seat, grunted. With great reluctance, he heaved our bags into the boot, banged the door shut and started the ignition. As Sangeeta waited for me to calm down, I noticed that the door to my right had no handles. “Where?” he grunted. “Ballygunge Phari,” we chorused as my friend handed over the receipt to him. “I can’t drive through so much traffic. Why didn’t you ask for the bypass route?” he thundered. Not fazed by his soreness, Sangeeta let out a volley of protests, all in Bengali, his native language, which she later translated for me: “How could we have known that there were two routes? I didn’t know about the bypass!” The cab driver softened a bit and offered to take us via the bypass if we paid him an extra amount. We agreed, lest we infuriate him after having committed our first mistake immediately upon arrival. As we saw him swerve to the left and then to the right indiscriminately on the congested road, muttering under his breath, we were relieved to take the bypass. Only for a moment. The next, we were flying. “Easy,” we implored, but the cab driver had suddenly developed a hearing impairment. Of course, there was enough space in the Ambassador for our bodies to take the knocks, and when we reached our destination in one piece, I realised that the “No Refusal” declaration was open to interpretation. His was to not refuse you anything but do as he pleased.
One morning, we got into a yellow Ambassador again. This time, there were four of us. While I understand that it takes Herculean effort to preserve anything on its way to extinction and that sometimes it is well nigh impossible to succeed, I had never been this closely associated with a dying species. The hinges of the cab were rusty and creaking. The doors groaned. The windows made a sound that grated on my nerves. As I struggled with the broken handle, which now made a bleating sound, the cab driver turned back, looked at me with a mixture of pity and derision, and then ignored me. There was neither an apology nor any inclination to help me roll up the windows. The jagged edges of the torn rexine seat covers poked us. This vehicle belonged in a junk yard. The cab reminded me of Archie’s jalopy and as we zigzagged across the streets, I was sure the doors would fall apart, the tyres would spin out and the steering wheel would get dislodged at the next turn we took. The driver was oblivious to my fears and his faith in his vehicle bordered on the devout. But, when an at-all-times undaunted Sangeeta let out a flustered, “Ohhh…” I knew my fears were not unfounded.
On the day it poured, we were sure nobody would ferry us to the workshop we were attending. We had heard that some roads were badly water-logged and as we boarded the cab, the driver warned us, “Main paani me gaadi nahin chalaoonga. I won’t drive through water.” We nodded, glad to have found transport. As we charged through the wet roads, the driver looked straight ahead. All attempts by our friend to make small talk with him were met with silence or a smirk or a grunt. Then we saw the water. “I’m not getting off here. I can’t possibly wade through so much water,” Sangeeta announced. I waited for the cab driver’s response. There was none. With robotic efficiency that overshot the requirements of his vehicle, he drove on, cutting through the water. Not a muscle on his face twitched. He was either coerced into submission by the two shrieking women on the back-seat or inspired by the other drivers steering their vehicles or moved to kindness. We tipped him generously as we arrived dry and in one piece. There was no acknowledgement. Not even when we thanked him. This was the language of silence. It needed no words. Only a deep understanding. I would soon be an eager learner.
Just when I had decided to not engage in a conversation with the cab drivers in Kolkata, I met Baidyanath. I had engaged him to take me for a drive through Southern Avenue. As we drove through the streets, he started pointing at the Rabindra Sarobar, a rowing club, and the Ramakrishna Institute. Then, he parked the cab outside Vivekananda Park and informed me that this was the place to have puchkas. Unused to such camaraderie, I ventured cautiously and asked him if he would show me around. He seemed pleased. As we embarked on our sight-seeing tour, Baidyanath was transformed into a guide par excellence providing a wealth of information and cultural and historical insights that left me spellbound. He spoke of politicians and the corruption of the traffic police in a matter-of-fact tone. All through, he stuck to his lane, not once stepping on the accelerator or honking angrily. Even as an errant cab driver hurtled towards us from the wrong side of the road, Baidyanath applied the brakes with the calmness of a sage. This was vintage driving. As is my habit, I voiced my anger at the driver’s recklessness. “Madam, tension mat lo, tension do,” he said, as I alighted, and thanked Baidyanath profusely. I knew better but looked at him for a moment, just in case. But, I was right. He did not smile. He was a true yogi, Sthitapragya.
They may have driven me round the bend, but Kolkata cab drivers have attained a state of equanimity. They have arrived in the true sense of the word.