August 27, 2009

Sunshine, and Good Times

At a little over ten in the morning two elderly gentlemen dismount their bicycles outside Sunshine Bar in an old locality in Panaji. It is Friday morning. In the warmth of October sunshine they’ve cycled through a narrow road flanked on either side by Portuguese era homes to keep their rendezvous with the King Of Good Times.

August 09, 2009

Premier Padmini, The Workhorse

Murad Panjwani shifted in his seat and leaned over for a peek at the preview screen in the seconds after I had leaned out of his brand new Japanese model taxi and clicked the overloaded Fiat to our left. I had asked Murad to slow his taxi down as it drew parallel to the black and yellow Fiat cab leaving the Dadar vegetable market on Senapati Bapat Marg with more load than it was ever designed to carry.

However the older taxi drivers who’ve been plying the streets of the city for a decade or two will tell you that if ever there was a taxi made for Mumbai roads then it had to be the Fiat, locally known as the Padmini Premier. Premier Automobiles Limited or PAL as it is better known was owned by the Walchand Hirachand Group, assembling the Fiat’s Fiat 1100 series of cars beginning 1950s after starting out in 1944 with license from Dodge and Plymouth. PAL now no longer manufactures Fiats, their Kurla plant ceasing production in the late 1990s.

“Striking worker unions hastened the end for the PAL’s Kurla plant,” a cab driver once told me.

The 40 hp, 1089 cc engine packed the Premier Padmini with sufficient power on Indian roads, and it came to survive the demands Indian consumers placed on it, least of all ferrying vegetables from wholesale vegetable markets to retailers elsewhere.

While it has all but disappeared from view in private hands elsewhere, excepting for an occasional sighting like the one above, Bombay taxi drivers still prefer the Fiat 1100D over the newer non-Fiat models: Maruti 800, Maruti Omni, Santro, TATA Indica and the like. A new rule promulgated by the Maharashtra Government seeks to get black and yellow cabs over 25 years old off the road. As a result several thousands landed up as scrap in city compounds a few months ago. And more of them are now counting their days. When the last of the black and yellow Fiat 1100D cab is off the road an iconic symbol of Bombay will have passed into history.

However with Fiats aged 25 years and above now off the roads it has helped make spare parts from cannibalized taxis available to those still on the roads. “Engine blocks were hard to come by before and as a result costlier. It is easier to source them now that parts from scrapped Fiats have made their way to city garages. It is the same with these doors,” a taxi driver from Kurla once told me, tapping the sturdy door. “Who makes these now anyway? It’s all over.”

Another taxi driver I hailed outside Dadar said, “Many of us held on to our Fiats waiting to see which way our appeal to the courts for relief from the 25-year rule would go, asking for exemption from the rule those taxis that met traffic safety standards which many, many of them did, and that was our undoing. The courts held fast and when they struck down our appeal thousands of taxis flooded the scrap yard, the prices plummeting. Only a month earlier they fetched more than double at over Rs. 25,000. Now you’ll be lucky if your Fiat fetches Rs. 12,000.”

“These new taxis that we are now forced to buy will not last beyond 2-3 years on Indian roads.” Then he went to say that while the latest models were very comfortable as compared to the Fiats, they are not strong enough to last the 12-14 hour shifts that taxi drivers typically demand of their cabs, come rain, come sunshine.

To a Bombay cabbie his cab is a provider, sometimes a home as well. It is not uncommon to find dashboards decked with garlanded deities, a signature sight in Fiat taxis plying Mumbai roads. If you're lucky the steering will be no less colourful either.

An elderly Sikh cab driver I once rode with to Nana Chowk tapped the door and said, “Look at this metal, it is sturdy. The new ones are all plastic. There’s nothing on the road like the Fiat.”

His taxi had only three months to go on the roads. “Only three months more,” he sighed. And suddenly the traffic signal at Tardeo assumed a new meaning. The Sikh taxi driver was not alone in his emotions.

When Ahmed, an elderly Muslim taxi driver originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, leaned across the seat of his new Maruti Van, attempting to open the door for me he struggled against the seatbelt holding him back. Irritated he spat, “This is like a noose that I’ve to wear else I’ll have to shell out Rs. 100/- to the traffic cops. This is a curse.”

After a few moments he concedes that his old Fiat was better even if it did not afford him the luxury of space that the Maruti Van does or the comfort that new shock absorbers provide on bumpy city roads in the monsoons.

“The Fiat taxi is a 4-Cylinder car unlike some of these on the roads,” he commented.

Ahmed was none too pleased to give up his Fiat for the Maruti Van that he purchased with a loan of Rs. 200,000 after a down-payment of Rs. 40,000. He was bitter of the Rs. 4,600 bribe he has to pay each year to an official of SIDBI for the duration of the loan in lieu of the official approving his loan application.

SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) states its mission thus: To empower the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector with a view to contributing to the process of economic growth, employment generation and balanced regional development.

“That’s how it works here,” he said before continuing, “Many of the officials recruited in the Govt. now have no culture or integrity, or shame. They’ve no culture you know, it is not in their blood. They consider their posting an opportunity to skim off public money. What are we to earn after paying off bribes, and loans?”

I remained silent, eyes fixed on the maelstrom of honking vehicles on the road ahead.

I offered him a platitude: The rich will buy their way out of the system while the poor will bear their way out into further misery.

Ahmed nodded. I sneaked a quick glance at him. He was thin and cut a dignified figure in his sparkling white Kurta Pyjamas. Wrinkles creased his face. Cropped short his grey hair lent his years an ‘elderly respect’. He sat erect at the wheel, leaning forward. His oversized watch slipped down his wiry wrists each time he worked the gears.

Now retired his children manage his retail shop “in the neighbourhood” while he plies his Maruti taxi for a few hours each morning. He said, “It keeps me alert and fit. It is important not to slacken too much once you’re through your working years. Slacken, and you’ll find your body quickly giving away.”

It is strange how commiserations shared can make acquaintances out of strangers.

And on the road I find that reflecting on the obvious often helps one cope with the noise outside, sometimes with the noise inside as well.

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