He looks old to me, his eyes are rheumy, and his hands are stiff on the steering wheel, which he holds the way I was taught to hold it – with both hands planted on either side. I put the taxi’s meter flag down for him, got in in the front seat alongside him, the old geezer seemed okay, driving smoothly, without jerks. Then I am in two minds: should I; shouldn’t I? I mean, I like to talk to taxi drivers, but not this one, suppose he kept silent and asked me to mind my own business.
But being the impulsive guy I am, I spoke.
“How long have you been driving a taxi?”
“Fifty years.” He warms up instinctively to conversation.
“Fifty years!” I say incredulously.
“And how old are you now?”
My God! Brijpal Singh Yadav, that’s his name, is a marvel of modern medical technology. I am sure he is being kept alive with tablets and such like. At his age father wasn’t very alert, he was eating a lot of medicines at this age: blood pressure, diabetes, heart blockages.
“What do you eat? You must be having a lot of pills to be so healthy.”
“I have only vegetarian food, lot of milk, don’t drink, no cigarettes, an occasional Paan is all I have. I have never been to a doctor in twelve years.”
I calculate mentally. Fifty years meant it is the golden jubilee year of his taxi business. He must have been a cabby right from 1948, a year after independence, and nine years before I was born. Seventy-six years old meant he was born in 1932. My God! This man has been around even before Indian independence.
“How was it then?”
“Petrol was Rs 5 a gallon (a gallon is 4 litres), a new taxi (Fiat, Hillman, Morris Minor) was only Rs 10,000, and for just one anna (six paise) you could have a full meal. Taxi far started at a minimum of half a rupee. For five rupees you could eat in a hotel for a month. I used to earn around Rs 15 a day, on a good day, that is.”
Old man sure has seen better days, I think. Petrol is now something like 60 rupees a litre (I don’t know the latest, but close), today a new taxi costs around two hundred thousand, and a meal costs nothing less than Rs 50, five days’ earnings of the rheumy-eyed man driving me so steadily to my office. The minimum taxi fare is Rs 13 today. He has kept his taxi well maintained, its interiors are upholstered, there aren’t the usual wires sticking out of the panels.
“What you are talking!?” I am amazed by his sharp memory. It seems this man doesn’t forget, he is a storehouse of information.
“Yes, I know you are incredulous, things have changed so much. It’s a dog’s life now in this heat. Yet I have educated my three sons, one is in Life Insurance, one is in a bank, and another is in the stock trading business.”
“What was it like in those days?” I am excited. I want to probe deeper. Here is the rare man, I felt, who is willing to talk openly about his past. Most people, especially cabbies are too cynical to talk, their minds are like closed books that will never be opened. So was my father, he never spoke about his old days.
“All these roads and buildings you see didn’t exist in those days. New Marine Lines and what you call Nariman Point weren’t born, the sea came up to the Oval Maidan and Churchgate station.”
“You mean all these roads we are passing through were empty, er, was actually the sea?”
“No, there were a few buildings here; I don’t remember all of them. There was Malabar Hill, Colaba Causeway and Worli. Bombay was a small place then, not many people around.”
He must have been through the periodic riots that are a trade mark of the city that leave many dead in its wake, been through the bombs that blasted crazily through trains, the floods that rendered cars immobile for a whole night, killing many, many people. Yet he seems so complacent and untouched by life. If only I could live a life like him, a simple uncorrupted life, I am in the wishing mode. Yet there is hope: my father too lived a simple uncorrupted life like him and died at eighty-four.
“And what is your wish for the future?” I reach my office and couldn’t stretch our conversation any further. My world beckons me.
He thinks for a moment, his hands working to put the taxi’s gear into neutral.
“I want Bhagwan to grant me this simple wish: lift me up while I am still doing my job. I ask nothing else.”
I pay him a generous tip, turn the taxi’s meter flag twice so that it was again in the upright position and he wouldn’t have to exert himself to do it himself. I, too, want to live a simple uncorrupted life. I walk away.