March 25, 2010

Books Travellers Read in Mumbai Locals – Part I

This is Part I of my ongoing attempt to note the books my fellow travellers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back.

I ride the infamous Mumbai local train network to work each day, unconsciously observing my fellow passengers when I’m not squeezed breathless or pounded into submission in the surging crowds that bring a new meaning to the concept of pressure.

While it is not always easy to move around once inside the train, it is sometimes possible to pull off a picture of the reader and his book. The readers will rarely look up from the books they’re reading. They don’t need to, tuned in as they are to approaching stations from years of travelling on the local train network.

In each installment I intend to feature 7 readers unless I happen upon the same person twice. While this is rare, it’s a possibility if you’re a regular on the suburban locals in the morning rush hour and the fellow traveler loves his books enough to bring a new one along every once in a while. A few others I might meet on trains on my travels around the city on weekends.

I had never heard of Fluke before chancing upon it one evening returning from work. The light was low, yet he barely moved his head from the narrative in his hands. I could make out the rear end of a whale on the cover but little else.

“I found the story interesting. It’s about a whale,” he told me, impatient to return to the narrative.

And I let him dive straight back in even as I wondered what the book was all about, mentally tracing a story I imagined about the whale in the book. In another’s hands there’s much a book cover can tell you if you look at it long enough, and frequently enough. It shortened my journey by much.

I hope Kindle keeps its nose out of Bombay local trains.

On his site, Christopher Moore introduces Fluke thus:

Just why do humpback whales sing? That’s the question that has marine behavioral biologist Nate Quinn and his crew poking, charting, recording, and photographing very big, wet, gray marine mammals. Until the extraordinary day when a whale lifts its tail into the air to display a cryptic message spelled out in foot-high letters: Bite me.

(a) Christopher Moore’s Website, (b) Fluke reviewed on Blogcritics, and (c) His Essay: Teaching Yoga to an Elephant.

A blood red cover is bound to attract attention. More so if the book is titled: What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School.

I usually steer clear of advertising lines especially if they strut around on the cover, daring me to ignore them.

But as the train rolled along and the gentleman, for the better part of the hour didn’t so much as look out the window, my curiosity bubble was pricked. I consented by a bit and allowed myself another look at the cover before turning away. I was not done yet.

I imagined the stand-up lines most likely peppering Mark McCormack’s Harvard narrative, the kind of Smart Alec repartees you sometimes get to see in Twitter timelines of urbane, and occasionally Americanised Desis, often passing for conversation while they secretly strut at the brilliance of their tweets. Narcissus would’ve loved Twitter. All the more reason to stay away from the blood red I told myself, turning to the window for inspiration.

And that might’ve been the end of the story but it wasn’t, not by a long way.

One morning, sunlight streaming through the door and what do I see, again? Take a guess.

What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School


He looked every bit a student studying for a Management degree at one of the many Management Institutes in the city.

And when I saw him again a month later, this time immersed in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I had little doubt that here was a Manager in the making. I had no way of finding out though. Not that it mattered.

If I thought that was the end of the Harvard narrative in Mumbai local trains I was mistaken.

The Harvard narrative returned with The Firm, John Grisham’s gripping tale of Mitchell Y. McDeere, a law student who graduated near the top of his class at Harvard Law School before finding himself in a dangerous bind at Bendini, Lambert and Locke, a law firm in Memphis he had joined on a fat salary.

This time around I would’ve been surprised if the gentleman immersed in The Firm would’ve so much as looked up from the book as I slid into the seat opposite him.

I was left with little doubt that for some reason the Harvard narrative must relish the sweltering confines of local trains driving Bombay’s beat, if for nothing else than for the demands the local trains make on managers surviving their daily commute to their offices.

Published in 1991, The Firm was made into a film in 1993 by Sydney Pollack, starring Tom Cruise in the lead role of Mitch McDeere.

On his website, John Grisham introduces The Firm thus:

At the top of his class at Harvard Law, he had his choice of the best in America. He made a deadly mistake. When Mitch McDeere signed on with Bendini, Lambert & Locke of Memphis, he thought he and his beautiful wife, Abby, were on their way. The firm leased him a BMW, paid off his school loans, arranged a mortgage and hired him a decorator. Mitch McDeere should have remembered what his brother Ray — doing fifteen years in a Tennessee jail — already knew. You never get nothing for nothing. Now the FBI has the lowdown on Mitch’s firm and needs his help. Mitch is caught between a rock and a hard place, with no choice — if he wants to live.

For more, visit John Grisham’s site.

Arthur Hailey is among the authors favoured by travelers on Mumbai locals. Spotting Wheels in the hands of a reader brought back a few memories. Wheels happened to be the first book I read of Arthur Hailey’s.

I had returned to Goa from Bombay after picking up the much used copy of Hailey's Wheels from a roadside vendor in Fort, off Flora Fountain. Those days Fort was happily overrun by second-hand book sellers, and no trip to Bombay was complete without the customary pilgrimage to Fort, and the pavements heaped with second-hand and pirated books.

While there’s no love lost for Muhammad Ali Jinnah in India, even considering that many people will reach across the aisle to tell you in no uncertain terms that we should be glad that he carved Pakistan out of India, happily adding the common refrain: “Imagine being saddled with those Pakistani masses that can never be redeemed from the cult of violence that runs in their veins.” Strong opinions.

It’s rare to find travelers in local trains seeking succour in political narratives. So when I found a college student immersed in Rafiq Zakaria’s The Man Who divided India, I shot him the question - Why this book?

“I was curious of the role Muhammed Ali Jinnah played in the partition of India,” he told me, hence this book,” before continuing, “Much of what they teach us in college is from textbooks. I was curious of Jinnah’s portrayal outside of our textbooks, to read more since textbooks can only cover so much and no more.”

Note: Read Part II and Part III in my series noting the books my fellow travelers read in Mumbai local trains on their way to work and back, and sometimes on their way elsewhere around the city.

A Request: I started out photographing travelers reading books few years ago to build up sufficient numbers that could be converted into posts. I’m all for this concept and my series involving traveling readers pictured with their books being taken forward by others in their cities and I would appreciate it very much if you would note/credit and link back here if this inspired you to do a series or a variation of the series of your own.

Since this is a part of my larger India Book Project involving books and the reading people, I’ll be counting on the link-back for continued and further participation of new readers.

Related Posts in my India Book Project Series

1. Granthayan, A Mobile Book Store
2. Indian Copy

March 18, 2010

Nashik Chivda

When the Sun relents on an ancient river on a hot summer day in Panchavati, the devout make way for evening strollers meandering by the Ram Kund where in the waters of the Godavari Ram once bathed during his exile from Ayodhya.

Shepherded downstream through a cemented channel and spanned by walking paths the Godavari trickles gently as it negotiates the Lakshman Kund before flowing through Ram Kund, and over the stepped falls to Dhobi Ghat where women bear their laundry down the steps to the ghat for a quick scrub in the backdrop of a vegetable market operating from under makeshift awnings, corners flapping in the moody breeze.

Someone yells at the top of his voice, offering two kilos of onions for ten rupees and no sooner his voice falls and another rises from the other end of the narrow span, offering for two rupees a bunch of coriander leaves that might fetch five times as much in Bombay, 180+ kms. away.

Divinity and discounts go hand in hand in Panchavati.

While vegetable vendors call out to be heard above their competition, Chivda sellers have to do no such thing. Meanderers, young and old alike, ushered in by the weakening noon combine a quick prayer at the many temples in Panchavati with an evening out by the river and need little encouragement to snack on Chivda sold from the several vending carts in the vicinity, prominently announcing their wares on colourful hand-painted boards.

If you’ve lived in Karnataka, Maharashtra, or Gujarat or have had the occasion to travel with Kannadigas, Marathi Manoos or Gujjus then chances are you’ll have heard of Chivda, and likely relished it on long journeys or at their homes.

Chivda is light, crunchy, and easy on the senses unless graced with a pinch of chilli too many. Caught up in conversations the heap reduces in a jiffy and before long the lingering taste of a jeera (cumin) seed caught in the teeth quickly flavours the memory of the last mouthful. Those who love Chivda will tell you that any occasion is good enough for a plate. I agree.

The flattened rice (also known as Avalakki in Kannada, or Poha in Marathi) is central to the Chivda mixture with other ingredients like roasted gram, dried coconut, fried curry leaves, mustard and cumin seeds, turmeric and chilli powder, Asafetida, and peanuts among others playing around it like in a fusion ensemble, and you can always explain away a jarring note to the exuberance of an instrument stepping out of line out of curiosity.

The use of Churmuri (puffed rice) instead of Poha (flattened rice) is not unknown in Chivda mixtures, and likely favoured when short of time in preparing the mixture.

The landscape outside the window turns a shade delectable with a dash of lemon and chopped coriander leaves passed along the compartment amid happy banter of travelers. Passed along from plate to plate and squeezed within an inch of its juicy life the lemon will yet yield that final gasp to the spicy mix in keeping with the spirit of things.

It is the act of squeezing lemon into Chivda heaped in paper plates or paper cones fashioned from a newspaper picked up from a stall at the railway station that is central to adding the tangy to the traveling experience, and not necessarily the juice though it’ll help the Chivda mixture to be flavoured lemon and garnished with coriander leaves.

When traveling in a group, sharing the Chivda counts for more than the small matter of taste, the lack of lemon notwithstanding. Still, Chivda rarely fails to impress. There’re just too many variations on offer for any of them to count as better than the next preparation. It’s a matter of choice as much as it is a matter of acquired taste for, before Chivda came to be available in air tight packing, mums and aunts would spend many a late evening making Chivda to last the week before it was time to make it again.

I’m more likely to find Kannadigas from Karnataka favouring Poha (flattened rice) while the Marathi Manoos will likely use Churmuri (puffed rice) as the base ingredient though roasted Poha is also favoured among the community as with the former. The Brahmins however are unlikely to add a touch of garlic to the mixture though exceptions are not unknown.

Street-side vendors however are likely to favour Churmuri in preparing Chivda like the Chivdawallah manning Mohan Chivda opposite Gandhi Talaav in Panchavati did. I wonder if it is due to the fact that he also offers Bhel as an option. Personally I prefer fried Poha as base for Chivda.

Advertised as tasty and claiming to be Nashik’s famous brand, Mohan Chivda stall offered Bhel, Bhatha, Chivda, and Farsan.

Beyond a point it’s left to the vendor’s discretion to determine the difference between Bhel and Chivda, though one would expect Bhel to be based primarily off Churmuri and not Poha as the main base ingredient while with Chivda one might expect more of fried ingredients mixed with roasted Poha or plain Churmuri, more likely the former for, the use of Churmuri in preparing Chivda is not considered the traditional way. Farsan would likely see a preference for Besan (gram pea flour) preparation driving it.

However out on the street lines can blur between the preparation of Bhel, Chivda, and Farsan recipes, at most the proportion of ingredients mixed will vary.

The elderly vendor manning the Mohan Chivda cart sat surrounded by plastic bags holding close to 10 preparations ready for mixing with ChurmuriSev, Boondi, roasted Green Peas, roasted Putana, roasted Moong Dal (split and whole), dry Poha seasoned with oil, fried Poha mixed with Putana and roasted peanuts, deep fried Cornflakes, and garnishings – Coriander leaves, chopped onions, and a dash of lemon.

The roasting differs from preparation to preparation and is done in varying portions of oil and seasoned with spices like red pepper, coriander powder and salt to taste.

And depending upon the option the customers chose from the four available to them - Bhel, Bhatha, Chivda, and Farsan, the Chivda vendor would move quickly, his hands moving swiftly along the arc of plastic bags, picking appropriately from the preparations arrayed around him before sprinkling chopped onion and coriander leaves and topped by a dash of lemon.

I asked him for Chivda, priced at rupees Six, filming him as he took a little over a minute before packing it for me.

Though the mixture he whipped up resembled Sukha Bhel I was still prepared to eat it as Chivda.

As the light fell the steps along the embankment came alive with families and friends out for an evening stroll, and plates of Bhel and Chivda soon appeared in their hands.

A Granny with her grand-kid made herself comfortable on the upper step. Elderly Maharashtrian Brahmin faces are a picture of gentle elegance, and sometimes of erudition but rarely without a twinkle in their eyes.

A group of three girls to my right were soon dipping into plates of Masala Dosa, oblivious of all else. I unwrapped my Chivda mixture to the tempting fragrance of Masala Dosa wafting my way. Behind me a camel awaited joy riders.

Before returning to Bombay the next day we went looking for shops stocking the iconic Kondaji Chivda. Among street-side vendors hawking grapes from cane baskets off Nashik Road railway station, selling the two varieties on display for Rs. 40/- and Rs. 30/- a kilo respectively, we spotted a shop stocking Kondaji Chivda.

I turned the pack over to scan its ingredients – Roasted Poha, Refined edible vegetable oil, Groundnuts, Roasted Gram, Sugar, Spices, Coconut, Cocum, Fried Onion, Garlic, and Salt. The spices would hold the key.

Kondaji Chivda was set up in Nashik by Kondaji Gunaji Wavare and have their branches spread across the city, namely Bhadrakali Market, Malviya Chowk, Panchavati, Mukti Dham, Ganga Ghat and Nashik-Road Bus Stop, an indication of the demand for its Chivda products.

The pioneering Kondaji Gunaji Wavare belonged to a Maratha family from Nashik. The Marathas are a grouping of 96 clans and are a politically powerful community in Maharashtra and dominate the politics of the state through numbers and muscle. The legendary warrior king Shivaji was a Maratha.

When Kondaji Gunaji Wavare started Kondaji Chivda in 1920 after quitting from his service in the British Government of the time to start off on his own he might not have foreseen that ninety years later the brand would become synonymous with Nashik as Nashik Chivda.

When I spoke with his grandson, Surendra Wavare, he recollected an incident Pu La Deshpande, the legendary Marathi Litterateur, apparently narrated in one of his books.

Surendra did not remember the book it appeared in, recollecting the gist instead. He said, “Pu La Deshpande happened to be visiting the UK and was out on an evening stroll with his friend on the banks of the Thames when his friend insisted on plying Pu La with snacks savoured locally, insisting that it was much favoured. On sampling it and finding the taste below par to savouries he’s had before, Pu La hesitated in telling his friend of how the joy of savouring snacks will not be known until one has had Nashik Chivda on the riverside.” Surendra’s voice lifted a notch. “Pu La Deshpande could have mentioned any other item like say the Bhel Puri at Girgaum Chowpatty, but chose not to, instead picking Nashik Chivda.”

Then he told me of how his Ajoba as he referred to his grandfather, Kondaji Gunaji Wavare, went door to door carrying his Chivda preparation in a cane basket, asking skeptical customers to first taste it before deciding on buying it, a strategy that helped convince buyers of its quality.

Standing in the shop and looking over sleek packets of Kondaji Chivda I could not help but reflect on the courage and conviction the enterprise will have demanded of Kondaji Gunaji Wavare as he went about introducing it into the market, effectively creating a market where none might’ve existed before.

In picking up the shiny packet I connected with a legacy, bridging time and leaping with the faith of an enterprising entrepreneur way back in 1920.

While I was also tempted to pick up their other offering, Makhmal Chiwda, displayed alongside, I resisted the urge. Kondaji Chivda’s range of products also include the Poha Chivda and Corn Chivda among others.

I paid the shopkeeper Rs. 38/- for the 250 gm. pack and slipped it into my carry bag. Touted as “The Original flavour by: Wavre Bandhu, Nashik” it would’ve been a shame to return from Nashik without bearing a pack of Kondaji Chivda along.

Back home I wasted no time in opening the Kondaji Chivda pack before reaching for the crisp Chivda inside but not before garnishing the plate with chopped coriander leaves and a dash of lemon.

The green chilli is just for show. I wouldn't dare eat it raw.

Glossary: Boondi (deep fried tiny gram flour balls), Putana (split gram), Moong Dal (green coloured lentil), Poha (beaten or flattened rice), Churmuri (puffed rice), and Sev (deep fried gram preparation in the shape of vermicelli).

March 08, 2010

The Lord and the Tattoo Maker of Panchavati

Hanuman was omnipresent every which way I turned my face in Panchavati on an overcast Dussehra day last year.

Statues large and small, in varying poses, left little doubt of the imprint Ram’s presence had left behind on Panchavati in the years he lived here during his exile from Ayodhya. It was here his resolve was to be tested on Ravana’s abducting Sita. It was here the die was cast, eventually shaping the consciousness of a people and the values of a civilization.

Dedications to Hanuman, sometimes simply carved on stone blocks left standing in the open by temples dedicated to Lord Ram, or along stairways leading to the river Godavari channeled along stone masonry on either bank, and other times located at corners of passageways bridging the river, were easily identifiable from the bright orange Sinduri applied to the deity.

Among the largest statues of Hanuman in Panchavati, the 15 feet high representation standing to attention, his mace facing down, was getting a fresh coat of Sinduri by a devotee using a ladder for the purpose as we walked along the eastern bank of the Godavari towards the vegetable market adjoining the Dhobi Ghat downstream of the Ram Kund.

On the opposite face, at the same height, the mace rested on his shoulder while a demon cowered under his foot.

Even in the bright colours of tomatoes heaped in cane baskets in the vegetable market located among the many temples dotting Panchavati, Hanuman’s steadfast pose was easily discernable.

While Hanuman famously ripped his heart open to show the deities Ram and Sita residing within, children from rural areas were busy debating which of Hanuman’s best known poses to tattoo on their forearms from the options available with an elderly villager’s tattoo shop spread out in the open area fronting the famous Naroshankar temple.

The temple is adjacent to the Ram Setu spanning the river and is considered unique for its 18th century architecture constructed in what is known as the Maya style. Intricate lattice work in stone graces its outer walls.

A large bronze bell hangs in a bell tower above the entrance in the eleven feet high stone fortification enclosing the temple on all sides.

Arched entrances in the fortification on the outside apparently opening into a passageway along the front of the temple have been boarded up with cheap tin and evidently function as commercial outlets, disfiguring the stone fa├žade of the historic temple built by Naroshankar Raje Bahadur, a Jahgirdar in the reign of the Peshwas.

A board above one such enterprise identified it to be a Brass Band.

After Chimaji Appa, the younger sibling of Bajirao Peshwa, won the fort of Vasai from Portuguese invaders with considerable assistance from Naroshankar Raje Bahadur, the bronze bell was removed from the Portuguese church in Vasai and marched on an elephant to Nashik as a token of victory over the Portuguese before presenting it to Naroshankar Raje Bahadur for his bravery in the campaign.

I walk along the periphery on the inside looking for a tap to wash my hands and wet my neck. On the steps leading up to the platform where Nandi, Shiva’s bull, kneels in attention, facing the deity, a man in white Kurta and Pyjamas, a shiny brass plate pinned to his chest and identifying him to be a tourist guide, awaits pilgrims stepping into the temple.

“Do you need a tourist guide to take you around?” he asks me. His white kurta-pyjama are crisp, and pressed well. They do not show the wear of a guide called upon to show pilgrims around, at least not the day I met him. Inevitability of a circumstance makes a virtue of patience, eventually!

I decline, and before long I step out and go down the stairs to where the tattoo maker has set up shop in the open space in front of the temple.

The elderly tattoo maker in Gandhi topi and dhoti had spread the implements of his trade before him. Designs sketched on paper and protected by plastic cover were held down with stone paperweights. The battery powering the tattoo machine sat alongside.

He sat in the way the elderly in the hinterland of Karnataka and Maharashtra sit – knees lifted and held together by hands locked at the palms in front of the knees, legs usually crossed at the shins, the back curving in the relaxed pose. A quick glance at his face and I walked over to him. He sat still, unmoving as I bent down to see the designs he offered.

He does not look at me, nor does he proffer to show me the designs as I leaf through them. He knows I won’t be getting a tattoo from him. There’s very little that faces do not reveal in India.

Fate had etched his face with deep lines. In the furrows stretched weakly across his cheek, stories hiding from the glare of the Sun over the years refused to surface even as clouds overhead blanked the Sun out, filtering the light to the soothing grey of a monsoon month threatening rain on an ancient corner of what must have been a paradise once.

Each page held sketches of deities in neat rows, depicting Hanuman in several forms. Ram and Vishnu were equally represented. And so were Lord Krishna and Ganapati. A young boy stopped by the tattoo maker and quickly selected Hanuman in a standing pose from the options available before extending his arm to the tattoo maker.

The sketch of Hanuman the boy chose to have tattooed was similar to the statue we had passed along the way to the tattoo maker.

A quick rub of the arm and the tattoo maker got down to work, the young boy watching as the needle began to trace the contours of what must surely be India’s most favoured deity among the young, favoured as much for his strength, as for his daring exploits deriving from his loyalty to Lord Ram.

The boy grimaced as the needle punched his skin, welts rising along the outline. A dash of haldi (turmeric powder) over the tattoo and the old man was done.

About then a large group of children visiting Panchavati had stepped out of the Naroshankar temple and made for the tattoo maker out of curiosity, and just in time to see the kid getting his tattoo of the deity, Hanuman.

He got to his feet, dusted his behind, and paid the tattoo maker ten rupees before stretching his hand out to show his tattoo to his friend who had tagged along with him, watching patiently as he got his tattoo done. The friend did not get a tattoo. I’m not sure if it was because he did not want it or because he could not afford the fee.

The crowd surged forward to examine the tattoo. The kid held out his fresh tattoo while several children from the group took turns to examine it, exclaiming their approval of the Lord.

Lord Hanuman has many admirers, and possibly none more so then those who’re prepared to have him grace them every living moment of their lives.

It is not just the belief that drives them so. And nor just the faith. It is the legacy of the culture bequeathed them that they carry forward, even if they’re too young to know it themselves or understand its import.

If you do not question it for yourself, you’ll not question it for others. And it is in this convergence of faith and belief that India continues to survive its contradictions.

And sometimes it takes a tattoo to realise it.

March 01, 2010

Steering the Premier Padmini

A taxi driver I once hailed in Dadar not too long ago made a strange comment when our conversation turned to the recent directive the Maharashtra Government had issued to banish taxis older than 25 years from Mumbai roads.

He was behind the wheel of his Premier Padmini, the car of choice for Bombay taxi drivers.

“Actually the ban has helped,” he said as he kept his eyes on the road ahead. I had expected him to criticize the decision like many of his brethren had. It was a contrarian view in the best tradition. I kept silent and waited while he threw his weight behind the wheel to swerve past a Municipal Corporation truck that had suddenly backed up to the middle of the road while maneuvering to a garbage dump on the side of the road.

“Helped? How?” I responded, surprised. I remember Taxi Unions berating the Government while mobilizing support for its appeals process challenging the directive in the Courts. Several taxi drivers I spoke with subsequently bemoaned having to take loans for the newer but costlier alternatives to the Premier Padmini.

In a city like Bombay a status quo often means a lifeline to survival. But the Government was determined to change it. The appeal was thrown out.

I was interested in his perspective given that he did not have much time left either with his own taxi.

“The older Premier Padmini cars, 25 years and above, are headed for the scrap yard, fetching low prices, resulting in relatively cheap spare parts now available in city garages. Spare parts for the Fiat model were not as easily available before this ruling came into force, and prices were steep as well,” he said. “Now I can replace this door if I wanted to. Gear boxes are easily available again.”

While steep import duties on imported parts had ensured that the Indian Auto Industry survived the 1950s, and through the 1980s, the Premier Padmini had other things going for it as well. It was robust, cheap, no frills, and easily serviceable. Bombay taxi drivers took to the Premier Padmini in a big way until the last of the Premier Padmini rolled out of PAL’s Kurla plant in 1997.

Earlier, the production of the Premier Padmini, a variant of the Fiat 1100 that originally entered the Indian market in 1954, ensured a steady supply of spare parts that owners of earlier Fiat models in the 1100 series could use, prolonging their road worthiness. And there were several Fiat models to the Fiat 1100 series – the Fiat 1100/103, the Fiat Millecento, the Fiat Super Select, the Fiat 1100-Delight, also known as Fiat 1100D, the Premier President and finally the Premier Padmini, a close relation of Fiat 1100D. The Premier Padmini was available in a Deluxe-BE version as well. However, not all modifications resulting in a newer version of the Fiat were substantive, some were minor.

Fiat models other than the as yet ubiquitous black and yellow Premier Padmini taxi cabs are a rare sight on Bombay roads, so when a brilliant red model pulled alongside at a traffic signal I could not resist leaning out the rickshaw I was traveling in to capture the moment.

There’s little to do when negotiating Mumbai traffic. Occasionally I let my eyes roam the dashboard, seeking distinctive features that might differentiate the interior from that of another Premier Padmini taxi. Usually there’s none excepting of course the deities that ride on the dashboard.

Occasionally, an innovative use of dashboard space will see an incense stick holder attached below the deities, surely a better choice than using a bar of soap to stick the incense sticks in.

And if the taxi happened to use spare parts cannibalised and modified from another car model there is no way I would know of it unless it was visible upfront, like the steering wheels that come to steer the Premier Padmini though I need to make an allowance that some of them might be an original fit, some that is, not all.

So when I slide into the seat and stop short on spotting a fancy steering wheel it turns into a premier morning moment of the day. Of the steering wheels, and there are not many that deviate from the standard issue common to most Premier Padmini taxis, the transparent one I saw upon hailing a cab last August must rank among the more memorable ones I’ve seen over the years.

It stood out up front, its translucence contorting the life outside, tiny figures moving along the circumference as the taxi pulled ahead. The gear shift was fashioned likewise.

The wood-textured steering wheel ran the transparent, fibre-glass version close. It had the smallest diameter of the rest. When I asked the cabbie on a warm February morning last year if the smaller diameter presented difficulties in steering the taxi, he smiled and philosophized thus.

“Like in life, one gets used to everything,” before emphasizing, “eventually that is.” I did not open my mouth any further.

His hand comfortably spanned the wheel and he used it to good effect to rest his hands at traffic signals or when caught in a jam.

“This car belonged to a Doctor before I purchased it from him,” the cabbie I hailed one sultry Bombay evening announced with some pride as he reached down to the floor to throw the gear forward while steering the taxi with the other hand. The steering wheel had a bulbous character to it, and might’ve been in good company with rich upholstery, and that might’ve well been the case. It was September of the year before, and the rains were showing no signs of relenting.

Unlike most steering units in black and yellow taxi cabs on Bombay roads, the gears in this taxi were mounted on the floor, a feature the taxi driver favoured over those mounted in the steering unit. I could not help reflect on what the philosopher cabbie had opined earlier about everything making sense, in time.

“A doctor used it earlier,” he repeated, expecting me to acknowledge his good fortune.

A good fortune it is for, a doctor’s car is valued in India and probably commands a better resale value from the rest. It is generally believed, and not without reason, that doctors are careful creatures, preferring discretion over bravado, and can be relied upon to avoid clambering over road dividers in drunken stupor from late night partying. Still better if they’re running a clinic of their own for, it’ll leave them with little time to canter over long distances, ensuring fewer kilometers on the odometer.

Why, there’s just a chance the tyre is original and possibly the threads are intact as well.

Likewise, doctor brides are equally valued, and so are doctor bridegrooms.

The Premier Padmini is spare, austere even. There’s nothing inside that is not essential. So, even a hint of style occasioned by metal raises the mood within by a notch. And it helps there’re not many instances of this version of the steering wheel about. The metal plates shone.

I was tempted to ask him where he had sourced the steering wheel from or if the padding had been stripped off to expose the metal though it seemed unlikely to be the case. It might even be original to the model. Maybe he would not mind my asking him. Maybe he might welcome it even, pleased to learn of a stranger taking interest in the fittings, for there’re not many who take kindly to Premier Padmini testing the elasticity of their backsides on bumpy roads.

For some reason I remained silent, letting the city outside drag my thoughts with it, into the crowds from which there was no returning.

There’s much that is routine on an average day out in Bombay, common like the wheel above, yet helping steer life ahead, bumps notwithstanding!

Note: If you’ve any pictures of a car you owned from the Fiat 1100 series and would like to share them along with your memories, I’ll be glad to run them in a post with due credit. Mail me at my contact listed in the side-bar.

Related Posts

1. Black, Yellow, and Shades of White
2. Premier Padmini, the Workhorse