Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Bombay Taxiwallahs

Bombay's ubiquitous black and yellow taxis have been there ever since I can remember only their drivers have changed. Those days fiats and ambassadors were seen in large numbers. The taxiwallahs of yesteryear Bombay were mostly Marathi speaking from distant villages in Maharashtra  who came to Bombay to earn a living. They were polite, courteous and very protective towards their passengers and took you wherever you wanted to go without making a fuss, however circuitous the route was. Holding friendly conversations with them was a regular feature sans much probing. Generally a phrase often coined in Marathi ' kai haal chaal  chale ahe. The taxiwallahs seem to know everything about the city -----from politics and political agenda of various parties  to filmy gossip, to daily lives of the  passengers; he was a wealth of information. Many of the passengers would have their regular taxis  so they could continue their conversation of the previous day. Traffic was a smooth flow hence the focus was often not the road but observing the expressions of the passenger. Manouvring the taxi around was easy.  

With the influx of migration in the 60s and 70s to Bombay  people came  on business or with the intention of settling down. With them came others looking for lucrative jobs and among them were jobs as  taxi drivers . The change was  subtle that of taxi drivers changing hands . There were many Sikh taxi drivers who came from Ludhiana, Amritsar and  Jullunder with their kith and kin. They settled in areas like Sion and Wadala and other suburbs where cheap housing was available. They lived in ghetto like communities . Most of them were truck drivers also who drove both within the city and outside .Soon these settlements began to expand and one could observe almost every taxi being driven by Sikhs.  Many of them could speak Marathi but they didn't, others resisted vehemently . Thus began the clashes between the two sets of community giving rise to a mini gang war, causing disruptions in the long queues . These heated exchanges often took place  near railway stations, bus stations and other strategic venues .The passenger was totally confused . Gone was the bonhommie between the taxiwallah and the passengers . Instead there were sneers and swear words all the way.  As a college student I witnessed  several such heated arguments  and getting into a taxi of rival taxiwallah was always threatening. The Sikhs and the Jats ( by then they had also joined the gang) were rough and bulky  also rough in their language as compared to the puny local taxiwallah  for whom loud abuse was unheard of. But soon they were too hurling the choicest abuses !!! Idle taxiwallahs soon got into abusive habits  like gambling  and  eve-teasing . This was a major break in the relations between the passenger and the taxiwallah . There was no improvement in their behaviour . Occasionally one did come across a do gooder. 

The eighties nineties and thereon saw a spurt in UP and Bihari taxiwallahs  who are even more vicious, manupulative and abusive  though I have come across many who are so  aware of the situation in the city. I see many of them reading newspapers and holding discussions with like-minded folks . It is possible to hold a conversation with them on the especially on the trials and tribulations and the changing city scenario. Driving through the crazy traffic hour they have no qualms about talking on cell phones , stopping without the passengers consent for a paan from the roadside vendour  or gutka packet or even to use the urinal. Pelting Bollywood numbers from their stereo gives them a high  and one has to tell them to stop the infuriating music . 
Their mental makeup is so varied  Some sadists often peer in the mirror placed at an angle  to watch young couples sitting behind and the taxiwallah weaves his own fantasy and smirks wickedly . Others watching you with furtive eyes even when you are anxious to reach your destination. The Bombay taxiwallah is very very perceptive, mind you . He can tell a passenger from his talk and attire. One is always vary of him.  There are yet others who are helpful in calamities and crisis.   Their unions are powerful and can Strike during the most vulnerable moment and are always up in arms at a drop of a hat. Their territory is well defined and they have the upper hand if they do not want to ply in a particular area.They are rude most of the  times, moody at all times, and fleece you. So choose, folks want you want.
The Bombay taxiwallah, can we really do without them ----no we can't so endure  them and hire them as only can they lead you to your destination.    
(Image 1 credit : Blog ''karascene'')

(Image 2 credit :blog ''fortyredbangles)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Colaba Musings

Colaba in the 60's

Colaba Causeway was Bombay's elitist  area  in those  days.Even those living in far flung suburbs would head to causeway for an  whole day outing.The road stretching  from Regal cinema to Colaba market was a paradise for shoppers.Only a few shops lined the causeway of which  few have remained.But you got  everything you wanted.Majority of Colaba's residents were Sindhi's who had flourishing businesses in the area and owned shops. There were a fair amount of Anglo-Indians ,Christians and Parsis.
 The oil boom in the Middle-east saw rich  Arabs flocking to Bombay often luring the locals populace with their newly acquired wealth. This resulted in mushrooming of several seedy and cheap lodges near and around the Taj Mahal Hotel encouraging prostitution, smuggling and other anti-social activities One could see shops with desi-goods but if you wanted a particular foreign  item you could get it through the right contact.Smuggled goods were stocked behind some shops and under the staircases of decrepit  buildings and acquired only when the shop keeper was convinced about the customer.The more you frequented him the easier it became to procure goods, then sold clandestinely after a fair amount of bargaining.Cosmetics, fabrics like (American georgette  chiffon, crepes were a rage ,ready-made garments,denims (one could kill for a good fitting pair of  denim jeans in those days)  lingerie, electronic goods, exotic food items chocolates and toys  were fast selling item . And believe me they were on everyone's wish list. Foreign ships which docked at Bombay Harbour  frequently were another source from where goods were unloaded unchecked made an entry into the market. The type of goods and the variety and hordes of hawkers  you see now was absent, instead the promenade inside causeway was clean, uncluttered with lots of space to walk, browse and window shop

Few cafes and small hotels too were situated in between shops.Cafe' Mondegar and Leopold Cafe , the all time  popular joints were often frequented by the old and young.College kids and even us school kids from senior school haunted these places which was affordable with its sumptuous fare . Foreigners patronised them even then in large numbers. It was truly a vibrant hang out.An interesting feature of the causeway was that you had to constantly dodge the pimps and middlemen who used to pester the oil-rich Arabs for money openly. Young and nubile girls were compelled to  avoid these Arabs and their lecherous looks .Often they would follow unsuspecting young girls  till they disappeared into the dark by lanes of causeway.Parents would be petrified   if we mentioned we were  taking a walk down Colaba causeway. On hindsight why blame the Arabs  a few of us would also lech at the handsome foreign sailors who came ashore from their ships, donning their smart uniforms and caps also on the lookout for some fun and  frequented the causeway. The causeway was a wanderers delight!.Bookstalls with library facilities dotted the causeway and one could get MAD magazines, Archie comics and Playboy  besides some excellent classics. And we lapped it all up ! 

Walking southwards towards the defense area, there was Paradise Restaurant (still there) known for its chicken lollies, a Paradise special, and continental food.The fare today is still delicious --its Parsi food, fish and mutton cutlets. This restaurant was always packed with an Anglo-Indian crowd  as they devoured the continental fare of roast chicken and potatoes. Just before paradise, turning left was a quiet  tree-line lane with beautiful apartments and houses. Another turn to the right and one came across the most frequented theatre - Strand  which is defunct now. Strand screened the most popular Hollywood films like The Beatles- A Hard Days Night,Cliff Richards - Summer Holiday and The Young Ones and I recall seeing old Hitchcock films on  Sunday mornings. 

Strand was right in the midst of Colaba market which sold variety of vegetables and fruit (Both exotic and local).The market used to be flooded on  weekends. Fish was procured from the nearby Sassoon Dock. Fisher folk from far off suburbs would come with their baskets  by train from Victoria Terminus on the central line  and Churchgate station on the western line  to buy fish in bulk which I presumed was sold cheap when bought in large quantities .

Living in Colaba was considered prestigious and I luckily happened to be one  thanks to my fathers posting while in the Indian Navy. Living across the road from Colaba Causeway and across Paradise Restaurant in a narrow  lane were a block of residences known as Brady's Flats. Those were the idyllic days when  I look back now. It was  was pure joy just soaking in the fun-filled   life in Bombay which was peaceful, uncomplicated, less populous, free of violent crime and where  terrorism was unheard of.         

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Tapri Chai

Being a social anthropologist I have always been fascinated by new words or words coined for the first time and trying to find their etymological meanings. Living in Mumbai one comes across a variety of such words in everyday parlance.

One such word which is so commonly used is Tapri. Mumbaikars have given their own meaning to the word Tapri - a shanty tea stall strategically situated  at the corner of a street, outside college campus near offices and outside railway stations.There are several ways of describing a tapri  but what is it that makes tapri-chai tick . Strong and sweet,energising,affordability for all pockets availability through the day , cuts across communal and class and gender  lines and the right quantity , served in small cups or the typical Irani type glasses . Sometimes there are accompaniments like a jar of khari biscuits . If the tapri counter is slightly bigger then  some cream rolls where a tapri chai lover can dunk it in the hot chai.(Chai/Tea)

Having lived in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 60's 70's and 80's  I have witnessed the evolution of the tapri chai-wallahs . Though their methods of making the chai is the same (of boiling and boiling and boiling till the mixture is strong and black to get the right bitter taste Milk was practically non existent as compared to now where one can demand a bit of extra milk and sugar . There were no accompaniments, no tea-boys to run too and fro to serve tea for people working away from the stall.The wire mesh stand which holds four to six glasses of chai is ubiquitous  The common man those days did not have that extra money to spend on cuppa chai nor the habit .  The tapri-wallahs had no mobile phones to entertain themselves with. The tea-boy is a recent phenomenon usually some relative  or sibling of the tapri-wallah who runs extra errands for him and also earning  tips .The regular tapri drinkers are plenty mostly idlers , students who have bunked classes or waiting for lectures to begin and are uninterested in the canteen fare (They want to be outside and experience whats happening in their own environment) and people who are working in shifts.A Tapri-chai corner is more of a meeting place for serious and lighthearted discussions . From serious local political issues, murder crime rape to scams and cinema fare it covers all. A Gossip corner for all , a place to plan and devise college capers and a quick tête-à-tête for young couples. It sure is an interesting and versatile space.  An interesting feature to note is that  other tiny counters have cropped up nearby mainly vada-pav and juice stalls also wanting to do brisk business. Sometime back there were vendors selling boiled eggs  sprinkled with salt pepper and chilli powder but now are difficult to spot.  Another feature which has slowly disintegrated . The Kerela kelawallah (kela is Banana in Hindi) is omnipresent.

Tapri-chai is synonymous with ' cutting chai'. Cutting which means literally half glass is a term coined by the younger generation and is now universally used by all. It is a typical term used by a Mumbaikar  but now accepted in other cities too.

Tapri-chaiwallahs have replaced the bygone vendors selling  sugarcane sticks (usachya kandya in Marathi), boiled groundnuts (ukadleya - boiled ,shenga - peanut in Marathi), chaana shengdana  (chana -chickpea,shengdana - peanut in Marathi) which again was affordable  and popular.

The tapri-chai is a unique feature of every  Mumbai street corner  equally energising and making one vibrant like the  city.        

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