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  Opinion   Columnists  04 Nov 2023  Ranjona Banerji | The dashing kaali-peeli drivers of Mumbai

Ranjona Banerji | The dashing kaali-peeli drivers of Mumbai

The writer is a senior journalist who writes on media affairs, politics and social trends.
Published : Nov 5, 2023, 12:08 am IST
Updated : Nov 5, 2023, 12:08 am IST

What made the Mumbai kaali-peeli my lifeline were the people, not the cars.

In this photograph taken on July 22, 2016, a Premiere Padmini taxi is parked alongside other taxis outside a railway station in the Indian city of Mumbai. (AFP PHOTO / INDRANIL MUKHERJEE)
 In this photograph taken on July 22, 2016, a Premiere Padmini taxi is parked alongside other taxis outside a railway station in the Indian city of Mumbai. (AFP PHOTO / INDRANIL MUKHERJEE)

Cannot lie, I felt several twinges of nostalgia when I read that Mumbai city’s “iconic” black and yellow taxis were now off the roads. Nostalgic and a bit surprised. O, I thought, app-based taxis had driven out old-fashioned cabs. I toned down the outrage and read the headlines again. It wasn’t ye old “kaali-peelis”. It was those infernal Premier Padminis, which were once called Fiats.

Why infernal, I hear your hackles rise as you ask. Those cars were an essential part of Mumbai’s landscape. Think of all those movie shots, looking down on Marine Drive from the Princess Street flyover, as black and yellow cabs whizzed past. The cabs were Bombay.

The Fiat as a taxi was introduced in 1964, the year India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru died. There is no significance to that comment. I just thought I’d sneak it in as a reminder to those who felt we never had Prime Ministers in the olden days or indeed until 2014. It also makes the Fiat as a taxi younger than me.

The Ambassador was the dominant car in India at the time. Plus, a few “hep cat” snazzy folk had Standard Heralds. Then there were the last remnants of a free-market-ish India — foreign imports like Dodges and Impalas on our roads. Those all gradually vanished and become vintage, classic, scrap and so on.

Before people get enveloped in mists of romantic memory, let’s make something clear. These were spectacularly uncomfortable cars. Whether the rounded Ambassador based on the Morris Oxford or the Fiat Delight, which later became the Padmini. The “delight” part is uncertain. Of course, they were all properly hardy for India’s terrible roads. Although they did nothing to cushion you from the bumps and potholes.

The difference between the two was that the Ambassador could accommodate some one million people. And the Fiat could negotiate traffic better. Size being the factor in both cases.

Fiat/Premier Padmini eased off the roads. Production became limited to Mumbai’s taxis. The Maruti entered the market in 1983 and changed India’s driving experience forever. Gradually, other newer cars entered the market. The Ambassador and Premier became limited: to government, taxis and recalcitrant old men.

This Premier kaali-peeli though became my lifeline in the city of Mumbai, through my working years. I graduated from buses to trains to taxis. I’ve never owned a car and I cannot drive. I have thus spent hours and hours in Mumbai’s taxis, 90 per cent of them these Premier Padminis. I have felt, closely, every pimple on Mumbai’s roads. I don’t think shock absorbers were attached to any of these cars. In the monsoon, many did not really have proper floors, so the flood water rushed in from below and rainwater from the windows. This is as close an intimate experience you can have with a city and with its weather.

But what made the Mumbai kaali-peeli my lifeline were the people, not the cars. I know there are several issues that commuters have with cab drivers – they can turn you down when you need them most, they drive rashly, and they go on strike and bring a massive metropolis to its knees.

Instead, here are the stories of Yashwant, Yadavji and Sewaram. Yashwant was a regular outside the building where I lived in Andheri East. I travelled with him a few times to work and we got talking. Eventually, he became my “regular” cabbie. He would pick me up in the evening as well, from my newspaper office in Tardeo. No matter how late I was. There were no cell phones, we used the regular landline system.

Yashwant came from Ratnagiri. He worked enormously long and hard, to put his children through school. He even broke a few rules for me. Borrowed a car from his employer so I could get to work during a taxi strike. He had little time for his union, who he said most of the time just bowed down to politicians. All this, for the little extra that I would give him.

I left Mumbai on work for a few years. I returned to the devastating news that Yashwant had died in a train accident. And thus all communication ended. I tried to find his family, but the other drivers at the stand had no contacts for them. They had left the city. It is a loss I still feel.

Into that gap, came Yadavji. He had a few other regulars, but tried his best to make himself available to me, as well to a few friends in his area. Like Yashwant, he was cheerful, hard-working, polite and willing. To all those who complain about cabbies, I can easily say that over 90 per cent have been reliable and safe. I have taken cabs after work, at 3 or 4 in the morning, without any fear at all.

Sewaram I met when the future of the Premier Padmini was in jeopardy. Rules on Indian roads had changed, new criteria of safety and pollution entered our world. And the rickety Padmini was getting worse. There was talk that cabbies could now buy other newer cars.

And that’s when we had our biggest arguments! Sewaram, was about 6 ft 3 or more. How he curled himself into that tiny car I have no clue! And he loved it. He really loved it. He would wax eloquent about the convenience, the cheapness, the hardiness of his Premier compared to the newer cars. I tried to explain the joys of comfortable seating, shock absorbers and power steering to him. But he was having none of it. So we rattled along for years fighting away! He also introduced me to my doctor, who I had known for years as the wildlife enthusiast Dr Ashok Kothari, but only on the phone.

When I quit my job, I met Sewaram only occasionally. Only to learn, remarkably, that he had been forced by his children to buy a Santro taxi under the scheme offered for the changeover. The gentleman that he was, he admitted he was wrong about the Padmini and then sang the praises of these new-fangled cars to me!

I hope therefore that Mumbai’s intrepid taxi drivers carry on their incredible service to the city. Where I live, where public transport is scarce, I would give anything for cab service. Maybe even in that dreaded Padmini!

Tags: premier padmini, taxi, ambassador cars, kaali peeli taxis