Merry, merry, merry-go-round!

I am always amazed by the fact that life always tends to come full circle in various ways, big or small.

Nearly ten years ago, one day, I needed to go from Churchgate to Gaiwadi in the heart of the old South Bombay but every one of the first three cabbies I hailed turned me down. I just could not have walked that distance and as I despaired a fourth cabbie hollered at me from behind. “Get into my taxi, Ma’am. I’ll take you there even if these b—-s won’t.’’

Highly startled, I could barely think as I darted in and then sat up in shock as he launched into a lecture that took me apart. “I am amazed at the stupidity of educated persons like you! Don’t you know even one thing about the rules? Have you no idea that no cabbie in Bombay can refuse a fare, rain or shine, even if it be for the minimum distance? If they do, you have the right to complain. There are special RTO post cards out there, that don’t even require stamps, which you can fill out and drop into one of those red boxes. The driver’s licence will be suspended for six months!’’

“But why are you telling me all this?’’ I stammered. “Aren’t you a cabbie, too? By educating me aren’t you perhaps endangering yourself, too? May be some happenstance in the future?’’

He bristled. “I never ever refuse any fare except between 7 and 7.30 pm when we are allowed to do so as the cab changes hands for the night shift. Then we accept fares only in the directions of our respective taxi stands. Besides, I am Maharashtrian.”

“Huh? What do you mean by that?”

“Didn’t you notice that all those three cabbies were bhaiyyas? Saale halkats, (there were BCs, MCs, too) they have destroyed the entire taxi service of the city. There used to be a whole lot of Sardars before and they were chivalrous and honourable. But these bhaiyyas, they know no law, they are all unionised by their own and they are afraid of no authority. They should be really kicked out of town! Passengers should refuse to board cabs run by bhaiyyas. They will soon be driven out of business!’’

I was reeling from that conversation for several days later.

But last week things had come full circle on that episode and I found myself faced with as piquant a situation on this front as any.

I had realised long ago that that Maharashtrian cabbie was right when over the years the business went almost entirely into the hands of North Indian drivers; people had to face their rudeness time and again and also overpay on fixed metres, more often than not. So I have given up travelling in the ubiquitous black-and-yellow taxi altogether ever since the government introduced properly metred private taxis in Bombay.

The first time I booked a Meru cab to the airport, I was rather nervous. But then the experience was so pleasant that I got into the habit. Now I also book Meru cabs regularly when my car is at the service station and I have shamelessly taken to traveling by a Meru the short distance from home to work and back, too.

But early this week, the Meru people drove me crazy. Despite booking long hours before (they are now immensely popular among the Bombay crowd), my cab did not turn up in time. When I called the cabbie, he said he had no order. When I asked if he could check, he said, “I can’t. Why don’t you?’’

Startled at that rudeness, I didn’t know what to say. When I called the call centre, the people there were intensely polite and very apologetic. “We will send you another cab very soon, Ma’am,’’ he said.

Fifteen minutes later there was still no show and I was in high temper. When I called again, they were again both frantic and frenetic but this time they steadfastly refused to give me a number. “We are treating it as urgent. Please bear with us,’’ was all the reply I got.

In ten minutes, the cabbie called me himself. “Where should I pick you up from?’’

I was still very angry when I boarded his cab and as I began to let off some steam, he stopped me midway to ask, “Were these other two cabbies Maharashtrian, Ma’am?’’

Caught short (they were, actually) I asked him what that had got anything to do with it!

“Oh, quite a lot, Ma’am. Ever since Raj Thackeray started his anti-North Indian campaign in Bombay, these Maharashtrians have got uncontrollable. No one can tell them anything. Of course, sometimes the kids at the call centres do mess up but by and large even if they get the messages on time, they are just not bothered. They would rather take a tea break. Or stop over for dinner. Or meet a girlfriend. Or just not in the mood to travel that far. They just tell the customer that they have not been informed and that they are miles from you and cannot get there quick enough. Our company ends up losing your custom.’’

Then he added, “The thing for you to do, Ma’am, is ask for a North Indian whenever you call Meru. We never refuse any fare. Hum apne pet se kabhie gaddari nahin karte hain (we are never disloyal to our stomach)! And only when all the customers keep asking for North Indian drivers will these haraamis (BCs, MCs, too) learn a lesson!’’

I sat back speechless and reeled all the way back home with a feeling of déjà vu.

When I narrated this story to my colleague Naresh kamath, who covers the Shiv Sena for our Bombay edition, he looked up patiently from his computer but I wondered why he was fixing me with a glassy stare. When I had finshed he asked, “But don’t you know that Raj Thackeray is trying to get control of the the Meru union?’’


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