between glass windows
nine months in India’s taxis, Olas, Ubers, and autos
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see specks dispersing?
The driver of my first taxi in Mumbai was a squat man with eyebrows as thick as his mustache, black and caterpillar-like. I had just landed in the city, SIM card working and eyes straining to catch every biking paperboy. I labeled my voice memo from that ride passing the test.
At 15:06, Rajkumar says, “I couldn’t tell from your Hindi that you aren’t from India — I thought you were just visiting from another city.” I stop in surprise and remember my repeated failed New Years’ resolutions to speak Hindi at home. “Wow,” I say at 15:14, in an accent suspended somewhere in between the Atlantic and the Arabian sea.
Flanking Mother Mary on Navnath’s Maruti Suzuki dashboard was a small gold-painted Ganesh statue. From his rearview mirror dangled a plate of silver and blue Urdu text. A few frames of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca were taped up for good measure. I stared at the religious insurance and asked him what, exactly, was going on. He shrugged and told me that god was in all things, and in all things god.
The continuous honking of cars and trucks was nothing new to Dylan after a week in India. Included in this November evening’s clamor, though, was a man walking alone on the side of the highway screaming BEEP BEEEEEEP BEEEEEP! People honk to indicate turns, to express exuberance or annoyance, and mostly just to announce themselves.
“If I leave Bombay I’m never coming back,” Vijay told me. I asked why.
“There is nothing here for us,” he said, pausing as he swerved past a small knot of honking autos. “No people.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, in traffic in a city of eighteen million.
“No brother, no sister, no father, no mother,” he said. I didn’t answer quickly enough so he switched to English. “Only money.”
Only money and nuclear families with children who wore less clothes and consumed more beer and cigarettes than ever. He told me he’d never bring his daughters here from the village. I crossed my bare legs and imagined what they were doing. He dropped me off at the bar wished me a warm goodnight — his rules applied to his world, and mine to mine.
Armed with dry goods after our evening walk, my host parents and I stepped into the first auto we found and asked for a ride up the hill. The driver glanced back and refused.
“Why?” we asked. “We’re already here. It’s two minutes away.”
He shook his head no and stared down at his gleaming phone.
“Are you serious?” we asked. He glowered.
“I’m in a meeting,” he said, and kept scrolling. I looked back a few minutes later and caught him posing for a selfie.
Mohamed had just moved back from Mumbai after twenty years in Saudi Arabia, but we had a lot in common. He was glad that women could drive (even though it was bad for business.) He never ate out. His favorite food was his wife’s roti and bhaji. According to our families, his veganism made him an anti-Muslim; mine made me an ultra-Brahmin.
When Uber entered Mumbai, it offered juicy incentives that prompted many people to ditch their office jobs and take out car loans. Soon, the incentives stopped and drivers were stuck working overtime for years to pay their debts. A week after someone told me that no one could ever coordinate collective action against the company, I found myself stranded in the middle of a citywide strike.
I eventually flagged down a cab home for triple the regular price. Vignesh was quiet and kept looking into the rearview mirror as if he was expecting something. When my small talk failed, I asked how the union enforced the strike. He said that the politicians hired goons to hunt for yellow-plated cab cars on the streets and bludgeon their windows in. As soon as I hopped out of the car, he shut off his lights and sped home.
“Jogger’s park?” I half-asked, half-said to the auto driver parked at my corner without looking up.
He gave me a quiet smile. I realized we were about the same age.
“One minute,” he said. “Let me do my agarbati.”
He lit two black sticks of incense, slender and thin like his fingers. He closed his eyes and whispered a chapped-lip prayer. I paused Kanye on Spotify and thought suddenly of home, steel glasses of water and red talcum powder in the puja room.
From the number of times John interrupted our group of four women, I knew the car ride was not going to be easy. It was my birthday and I was in Goa, carsick and trying to ignore the fight about the directions. He’d drive as slowly as possible and threaten to leave us on the side of the road; my friends would dare him to try.
Eventually, situation resolved, we sat in silence punctuated by the occasional sharp French, American, or Spanish-accented English. I tried making small-talk in Hindi to ease the tension. It was a mistake. For the rest of the trip, he conspiratorially muttered insults about my friends towards my side. When they caught on, he snapped, “You won’t get it. She’s my Indian.”
“She is not your Indian,” they said all at once, and I felt suddenly nauseated and rolled down the window.
During a sleepy Bandra afternoon Uber ride, I noticed that my cab driver’s name was Maruti, like his car. I asked him what his real name was and he said it really was Maruti, they named kids like that in the village.
Vishnu spoke in Bombay-slanged generalities flavored by life in Saudi Arabia and Mumbai. Irishmen were angry, foul-mouthed people. Muslims were savage meat eaters. Americans (where were we from again?) were kind and heady. He nodded at Drew reading A Confederacy of Dunces in the backseat.
He was ginger the way that drivers are and never directly asked for anything. “Are tickets expensive?” he inquired at the Ellora caves before we told him we’d already bought him one. “Have you had veg kohlapuri before?” he asked at our lunch table, which he joined only after we begged. “Isn’t it good to have friends who’ll go places with you just because you really wanted to?” Vishnu asked, four hours into our drive to the Lonar crater, a non-destination in rural Maharashtra.
After twenty hours in the car over the course of two days, my appetite for Vishnu’s wisdom waned. By 3 AM on the home stretch, though, keep him awake was a matter of safety. Apoorva and I alternated asking questions that bought us the most time to nap. “How can you choose a guru?” we’d ask, or even better, “What makes a good man?”
I wasn’t entirely surprised to find the most tricked-out auto I’d ever seen waiting across the street for me on Monday morning a month ago. The three actors who’d just initiated Patty and me into our first Nichiren Buddhist chanting session swore that good things always happened to those who chanted. Nam myoho renge kyo.
Sandeep Bacche covered his baby blue auto walls with laminated photos and signs. His weekend routine driving cancer patients for free and delivering food for the needy had earned him invites to TEDx and TV shows. Besides the quintet of Jesus, Hindu gods, a Muslim scroll, Buddha, and Sai Baba were stickers that read ham sab ek hai (we are all one), save girl child, and pls help for cancer patient. Just-married couples got a 10% discount and blind people rode for free. Taped to his bench was free wifi, a charging port, and lotion, a small water dispenser, newspapers, and a jar of sweets. Scrawled on a tin in the front of the auto was the day’s weather, sunrise and sunset times, and common currency exchange rates. I asked him why; he answered, “why not?”
When he told us that he loved meeting foreigners and had just hosted a group of Germans for Maharashtran New Year, I jumped on the opportunity and invited ourselves over.
Two days later at 9 pm, Patty and I showed up in a dense fishing area in Bandra that I’d never explored, though it was just ten minutes from my apartment. We found Sandeep by the mango seller and followed him through a narrow winding alley. His apartment was smaller than my bedroom, with a stove by the door and a lofted bed. His wife welcomed us inside and set down four plates that covered most of the floor space.
We chatted about his daughter’s high scores in science and his wife’s work educating locals about government benefit programs. Despite Sandeep being a local legend, he earned the same as a regular auto driver. He didn’t have the heart to charge people more than the metered rate, and filmmakers that rarely paid him a commission. We thought of our expat friends and insisted he should make a business giving visitors tours, but he remained skeptical about whether anyone would pay. After many rounds of alu vada, rice, and puran polli, we handed over a gift, hugged them all, and left. He still sends me intermittent greetings on WhatsApp — a few days ago he reminded me to shine bright like a diamond.