30 Apr 2017 17:00 IST

Have you had a kindness shown?

Thank god for taxis but the taxi driver’s job’s no easy ride

One of the advantages of having studied in a school run by Christian missionaries is that you learn a lot of songs that don’t require you to be a trained musician and so you end up fearlessly singing them, and they tend to remain in your subconscious over the years. Lately, I’ve been reminded of the lines:

Have you had a kindness shown, pass it on

‘Twas not given for thee alone, pass it on

What triggered the memory of these words, which I discovered only now are actually part of a hymn composed by a Henry Burton, is a taxi ride. Taxi rides. This past fortnight, I’ve been taking many taxis because my old faithful Maruti Alto K10 has been in the workshop after it got hit in the back by an irate driver who asked why I didn’t look back before applying the brakes. But that’s not the story, that’s just the reason for the taxi-taking spree.

Whatever the economics and politics of Ola, Uber, Fastrack and all the other taxi services, they have certainly made life so much easier for city-dwellers. However, no ride is like any other: after all, the vehicles and their drivers more or less reflect the wider population of drivers and their beasts. Some are smooth and smooth-talking, some silent and no talking, some clunky and chatty, some rough and not-so-ready, some stuttery and muttery. But no one’s as yet been rude.

Taking so many taxis made me reflect on the job itself. Indian roads are not exactly a bed of roses. The traffic’s chaotic, rules are observed in their breach, the noise, the smoke, the heat, the two-wheelers weaving their way in and out like lives are never on the line, the two-legged and four-legged cross-roads invasions… This is not your ideal work environment. Yet, this is the only work environment that will be available to taxis. The peakier the traffic, the greater the likelihood of taxis getting hailed.

The work starts top of the morning and goes on for about 14 or 15 hours. “I’d rather drive home late when the traffic’s abated than get caught in it,” one driver explained. Well, where would we be if they weren’t available late at night? Or at any other time? It begins to seem more like a kindness they’re showing by being available than a trade they’re plying. They ply for us. The young ones have parents worrying about them, the older ones have families dependent on them, children waiting to see them before they go to bed, and a hundred other commitments, responsibilities, dreams, same as anyone else. But their jobs depend on their being on the road as long as possible, we depend on their being on the road whenever we need them.

This young man told me he drove the taxi, his dad’s, only on weekends. We were on the beach road (Kamarajar Promenade) on a Sunday night and it seemed as though all of Chennai was out there. As we waited to crawl ahead a couple of inches, he said, “It’s the end of the month. How come so many people are here on the beach?” That completely broke the tension ice. He told me he had an engineering degree and was looking for a job. Meanwhile he drove his dad’s taxi on weekends, and he had only recently got used to driving in heavy traffic.

As if on cue he got a call. He picked it up. I could hear it was his dad. “Are you driving or parked?” his dad asked. “What is it, Appa, tell me?” the young man replied. “Tell me, driving or parked on the side?” the father asked again. The driver replied the same way. “Okay, call me later,” the father said and hung up. “I only pick up my parents’ calls, just in case,” the taxi driver said. And I thought: “Yes, he’s a young man, with parents who worry about him.” Just like that lovely Tamil proverb says, literally, for the crow its own babies are golden babies, but you get the drift.

By the time I got dropped off, I had given him a lecture on applying to different places, and how good the experience of driving was for him in terms of the driving itself and in dealing with customers, and made him promise he would get someone to look over his resume for errors before he sent it off.

Another time the driver who picked up spoke in English. He explained that he owned the taxi; he was driving because the regular driver was unwell. He owned seven taxis, four of them on lease. According to him, he made about ₹30,000 a taxi a month, and his drivers made about ₹45,000 a month. He himself had an MBA degree and was looking to eventually do something else.

“You know what the worst thing is, ma’am,” he said. “It’s the way people talk to us. Firstly, they never take our names. After all, when you book the taxi, the name shows up. But no, it’s always ‘driver’ or ‘ei’ or a gesture. And if I were to take the customer’s name — your name comes up too — they’d get so mad, they’d shout at us for being rude. Why, ma’am?”

Why, indeed? Will remembering the kindness help us get over our classist feelings? Or is that just a sop? Looking for answers I checked out the rest of the hymn. The second stanza goes like this:

Did you hear the loving word? Pass it on, pass it on

Like the singing of a bird? Pass it on, pass it on

Let its music live and grow, let it cheer another’s woe

You have reaped what others sow, pass it on, pass it on

So, we’re not just reaping what we sow, are we, we’re reaping what others sow. That would be good to remember. As it would be to remember that everyone is somebody’s someone.

So the next time you call for a taxi and it’s a little late coming, maybe the driver’s having a bite to eat?