He drove with the eye of an experienced seafarer in deep sea. He knew every turn, every signal, every short cut, and every possible motorable route in the city. He had driven a taxi for forty-six years, and had been a conductor of a bus for ten years prior to that. He had lived a total of seventy-eight years, but his passion for driving had not changed.
He was wiry to the point of being emaciated. He stood and sat with a crouch, so much so that when he was driving his flowing white beard would touch the steering wheel. His feet would move between the accelerator, clutch, and brake with the smoothness of a ballet dancer, yet he claimed that such repeated movements caused his feet and legs to become sore. His hands would control the steering better than most, and he wound and found his way with the eagerness of a child late for school.
He had few teeth left. Possibly now in this late sunset, even eating was difficult. He had had an angioplasty done in a local government hospital thirteen years ago, and was on medication. His wife had died long ago – he didn’t remember how long. He lived with two of his sons, one of whom was a small-time contractor, the other a driver. The third child, a daughter, had been married off. He said that he had tried to make the most out of the opportunities life gave him, and educated his children to the best of his abilities. He had returned from pilgrimage only recently, and his short hair bore testimony to that. He was bored to death at home, and so spent his time driving people around. On the way, he pointed to a dilapidated old building where he was born. It was being torn down to make way for a new one. He laughed the hoarse laughter of an old man with a croaking throat. I sensed the old man also worked for his dignity, and his independence, rather than his passion alone.
He had lived all his life in the Maximum City. He had seen it all. And he remembered much. What he said about the past was instructive and eye-opening. According to him, when the British ruled, there was harmony, peace and a ‘system’ in place. You could get from one place to another in time, on time. The roads were clean, the buildings were fresh, and work got ‘done.’ Now, according to him, all of that had ended. The leadership had passed on to a generation of leaders that was no longer accountable, who entered politics for the sake of fame, money, and power.
‘It is no longer about the people,’ he said. ‘It is about power.’
He also recounts the relative communal peace that was shattered in the 1980s and the 1990s. He remembers that even in the worst of wars, his community of Muslims was never targetted or singled out or called traitor. He also remembers how aspersions were cast in the 1980s, after the communalisation of politics in India, about his loyalty. He remembers how the Maximum City was torn apart during a vicious winter that only ended with the worst ever single day of terrorism till 9/11 took place. He remembers that winter, when a fellow taxi driver’s son was killed in police firing, now a mere statistic, but a gaping hole in the life of his parents. A sigh.
Is he scared about the future?
The old man would not say much about his own feelings. Save this: “I have nothing to do with Pakistan, to them their own country. I have been born and brought up here, and I owe allegiance to this country, India. I am indebted to it. And I will stay here.’