Bombay Driver

[This was actually published in another form a few years ago by Quintessentially Magazine and I put it in a blog post. But I’ve tweaked it since, so I’m reposting here in its new version…]

Bombay Taxis

“Hallo Sir! I am Das!”

The call came every morning. It was my first week into a new job in Bombay – I was staying at the Taj hotel there – and the office had booked me a driver to take me to work in the mornings.

But Das wasn’t working out. His English was limited to announcing his name, and he was never on time. So the next week they sent Philip whose English was fluent and timekeeping exemplary. But Philip would flap when there were traffic jams – which was always – and when I tried to calm him down, he would flap even more.

Then one morning, a new voice on the phone. Breathless and urgent. “Hallo Sir! I am in Ready Position!”

It was Rohit, a shambles of a man in his thirties. He wore a grubby grey suit, at least one size too big, he spoke comedy English and he appeared to love his job. I liked to picture him crouched down on the hotel forecourt, under starter’s orders, waiting for the pistol to go off. And he was, in a way. He’d see me walk through the lobby and spring into action, racing to open the door, his eyes bright with excitement. He found driving a joy, traffic jams or not. He tooted his horn with abandon. And best of all, he wore a little blue Fez hat with gold tassels, like a magician or a Shriner. ‘Ready Position’ was hired.

I’d never had a driver before coming to India. And it was certainly never the plan, at least not while I was packing my bags in LA. It seemed a silly extravagance. After all, I was perfectly capable.

And then I arrived in Bombay.

If you’re not familiar with Indian traffic, imagine an intricate system of rules and precautions, boundaries and signs, that approximately a billion and a half people couldn’t give a shit about. My morning commute wasn’t traffic so much as man and beast in a headlong charge, as though the bridge were collapsing behind them – a cacophony of horns and engines and cattle and horns. One of the great mysteries of the East is how Indians created yoga and chess, which reward control and patience, while exhibiting the lane discipline of a drunk chasing a chicken on roller skates. Whether it’s the drunk or the chicken wearing the roller skates, is neither here nor there. The point is, that chicken needs to be caught as a matter of urgency. And it’s worth risking everything. After all, death is just a pitstop in the cycle of rebirth. The tourist board for India has a slogan – Indiaaah! – ending in a sigh of ecstasy and relaxation. On the roads, it’s more like Indiaaargh! Cars come within brushing distance; they bear the nicks and scars of battle. Mopeds swarm like hornets. And all manner of jimmy-rigged jalopies jockey for position. Oh look there’s a man on a pedal bike with 400 wicker chairs strapped onto the back. Let’s see if he collides with that family of eight, balanced on a moped like Cirque de Soleil, hurtling towards reincarnation. The Wacky Races, it turns out, is a documentary about the Bombay rush-hour.

So that was one reason.

The other reason for hiring a driver was because I could, for the first time in my life. It wasn’t that extravagant after all. I would have hired Ready Position even if Indian traffic was as sane as Switzerland. ‘Chauffeur’ might sound all ritzy and French, but in India everyone’s got one. Well, not everyone, but you don’t have to be Kanye West. You don’t even need a nice car. I had a Honda Civic, and even then, the car payment was more than the driver’s salary – which was all of $250 a month. That’s the great thing about India – you don’t have to be anybody to be somebody.

This sudden availability of staff drives some expats a bit loopy. One French woman advised me in all seriousness to buy my driver a uniform with my initials embroidered on the breast pocket. ‘It makes zem proud,” she said. She also insisted that I get my money’s worth. ‘Zese driveurs, zey just sit around all day. Tell him to pick up your drycleaning!’

At the time, I was appalled. I couldn’t possibly treat Ready Position as some errand boy. He was my chauffeur. But those were the early days when I was still adjusting to this new person in my car and in my life.

In Los Angeles, my car was a sanctuary, a wonderful place to be alone. I’d drive to clear my thoughts, listen to some music and percolate. Perhaps talk to myself like a crazy person. No one would know. I could easily be on Bluetooth. But now, there was this other guy, whom I scarcely knew, and he was always there. I’d lost my sanctuary, and I wasn’t sure what I’d gained in its place. Was Ready Position a friend, now? I’d hired him because he seemed happy and bonkers and he wore a Fez. But then I ended up spending more alone time with him than anyone else, even my wife.

It’s oddly intimate, the relationship between a driver and his boss. We went everywhere together – obviously – and that meant several hours every day, going to and from work, with a quick lunch jaunt in between, and then off to some event afterwards, or a bar, or a friend’s house. He saw me happy, tired, wistful, drunk, scatterbrained, drunk, confused, depressed, enthralled. And I hadn’t bargained on a relative stranger suddenly knowing quite so much about me. I felt naked.

At first, I tried to level things out and find out about him too. Perhaps in time, I’d be able to visit his home as he’d visited mine. I didn’t want to be a snooty back seat executive who just rustled his newspaper and barked orders. I would close the gap and forge a proper bond with Ready Position – stop calling him Ready Position for one thing.

But that didn’t work out so well. Conversation was limited – Tarzan English meets Tarzan Hindi. He insisted that his home was ‘very far distance’, too far to take me, by all accounts. When I suggested that I sit up the front with him, he squirmed. The front of the car was his domain, his office. He kept his things on the front seat – he had a little notebook to log mileage, some pens and a collection of rubber bands, just in case. So I thought maybe we could bond outside the car. When we were at the shops, say. It always felt wrong to just leave him behind while I popped into Café Coffee Day, the Indian Starbucks equivalent, for a frappuccino. So one day, I invited him in, told him to park and join me. But he looked uncomfortable.

‘Is too much price, sir,’ he said.

‘Rohit, relax, I’m paying,’ I told him.

‘No sir. Better I stay. In ready position.’

Bombay MarketUltimately, it was he who suggested that he pick up my dry cleaning. ‘Why you come sir? I will bring um… this thing and you can enjoy!’ I didn’t take much persuading. And soon enough, he became precisely the Man Friday that the French woman had told me about. While I was at work, he’d be off buying lightbulbs or picking up lunch or ferrying the wife about. And he seemed perfectly happy to do all this. I’d thank him and tip him, and he’d say, ‘No sir, this is my duty!’ But he always took the money. Maybe this was what he’d wanted all along, the tips. Or maybe he just liked driving about town on his own, listening to music, clearing his thoughts. The car was his sanctuary now.

We settled into a rhythm, one in which a certain distance was established between the front and back seats. We didn’t chat quite so much, but that was OK – he’d leave me in peace to read my paper, or have a nap. And I’d leave him in the car when I popped out for a milkshake. All was well in the world. This was a dynamic that he was familiar with, and the car became a restful place to be. Months went by in which I never experienced road rage or fretted over directions. I got some reading done. I made some calls. I had a drink whenever I felt like it. And I forgot where the dry cleaners were, or how much lightbulbs cost. Ready Position did all that. I was unburdened.

Little by little – or perhaps quicker than I like to admit – I became quite at home with this odd distance that develops between staff and their bosses, so close and yet so far. I thought of it as going native. At home, for instance, I’d grown used to having our maid Malti serve us dinner at the dining table, and then go to sit on the kitchen floor to eat hers. The first few times were awkward, but I couldn’t persuade her to join us. It upset her that I asked. She didn’t want to refuse me, her boss, but she did. It was a smaller violation in comparison.

That distance exists here too. I was in Toronto earlier this year, where a driver told me that he once had a famous rock star in the back of his limo. The singer was on the phone, telling the person on the other end that he didn’t have a pen, so the driver instinctively handed him a biro. And the rock star threw a fit. The driver wasn’t supposed to be listening. His job was to drive, and to maintain the illusion that front and back seats breathed different air, separated by an invisible veil. For puncturing that veil with his biro, the driver almost lost his job.

A similar veil existed in my Honda Civic. It grew imperceptibly day by day, until it no longer felt awkward to have this mute witness in my car at all times. Ready Position had become that silent presence in our lives, a role that staff play for their Sirs and Madams. They only participate when called upon. They judge not, they are here to serve. And I can see the appeal.

At first, my wife and I would be careful not to bicker – ‘not in front of the driver!’ But that didn’t last long. We soon eased into our usual squabbling, safe in the knowledge that even if Ready Position understood, it didn’t matter. In fact, we’d often enlist him as a referee in our disputes, and he’d diffuse the tension with his earnest, garbled English. “OK which restaurant, Ready Position, you decide – Italian or Chinese?” And he’d chew his lower lip for a while, anxious to get it right, before picking an Indian place: “This one hotel sir? Cheap and best. Wedge is there, but also? Non wedge.”

But there was a flipside to life in the back seat. It bothered me that I’d never actually driven this car of mine. And you can’t properly enjoy a car unless you’re driving it. I never understood the Indians I met who’d tell me excitedly about their brand new wheels, but then only ever sit in the back. I’d always enjoyed driving, engaging with the machine, pushing the pedals and fiddling with the buttons and switches. I liked the control and purpose. You’re a man of action in the front; in the back, you’re idle, emasculated, dependent. And dependence can be crippling. When Ready Position took a week off for a wedding, we didn’t just lose a driver, we lost all these different people at once – the lunch delivery, the laundry pick up and all the rest of it. We were stranded. This is the byproduct of staff – they infantilize you.

Bombay At Dusk

Push came to shove when spring turned to summer and the heat became an enemy of the people. I was fine, in my air conditioned office all day, but Ready Position was in the car, in the beating sun. The drivers would all park in a column, snoozing, with their feet poking out of the windows, a row of toes waggling above the wing mirrors. So come the afternoon, he’d be sweating like a soul man – Rorschach sweat maps on his chest and sopping underarms. And the whiff wasn’t your ordinary locker room funk, but something far more acrid, a choking ammonia stench, thick with spices. It made the bile rise and the eyes water. They could have used Ready Position’s armpits to quell riots.

What to do? Either I opened the windows and let the heat in, which was a separate punishment all its own, or I closed them and let the AC do its work, which just sealed in the flavor. My Indian friends were unequivocal – ‘just buy some deodorant, and tell him yaar, it’s summer and everyone is using it… You’re the boss!’

Well, something had to be done. I could barely breathe. So I broached the subject one afternoon, when the odor was ripe and clinging. ‘The car isn’t fresh anymore, Rohit,’ I said, sniffing conspicuously. And I handed him some Right Guard spray-on, which he assured me that he would use. But nothing changed. I later discovered that he was using it to spray the mats and the seats. So the next time, I actually demonstrated how to use the stuff. And he looked embarrassed. ‘Sir, every day, I am bath,’ he said. ‘Five am, sir, I am bath.’

It was the beginning of the end. My India collapsed that summer. Ready Position was the first to go. About three weeks later, he found another job. He said it was nearer his home so there would be no more long commutes. But I think I know the real reason. And I still feel awful about it.

I was next. I went to work one day, all sprightly and chipper, and they fired me. I still don’t fully understand why. If you’ve not seen the Sixth Sense, I’m about to ruin it for you – that bit at the end where Bruce Willis realizes he’s been dead all along? I now think that was me, though I can’t say for sure. And it soured me towards India, whose charm quickly faded. It had upended my life twice – first luring me there, and then kicking me out. I will never forget those wretched days of grief and pity in a hostile city. We were hurt and alone and a long way from home. It was hard to keep the bitterness at bay.

But there are other memories.

It was maybe a couple of weeks after the axe fell, that Mrs B and I were languishing at home. Both of us wounded in our own ways, we ate, we wept, we stared at walls. And then there was a knock at the door. Always with the knocking in this country, they just don’t leave you alone. Already the office boys had come to reclaim the phone and then later to revoke my visa. Today they’re taking the car. Tomorrow the laptop. I was being dismantled piece by piece, with a banal corporate cruelty. So I opened the door, expecting more of the same. Take it all, what do I care?

But it was Rohit. No fez but otherwise the same. And he looked anxious. Strained. He was breathing quickly. Had he lost his job too? Did he want to come back? I was bracing myself to tell him my own news.

‘Sir, I am bad feeling,’ he said. ‘You are good person.’ And he burst into tears, properly crumpled up. His hand came out to steady himself, so I took it and helped him to a chair. Malti brought him some tea and tissues and we sat for a while as he tried to contain his sobs. He said that he’d heard from his driver friends that I’d lost my job and I might have to leave India. And he felt so bad about it that when his new boss took a few days leave, he came up on the bus to see me. So much for that veil, the gulf between front and back seats. Rohit showed me something that day that I will always admire. He wasn’t my driver anymore, he said, but he would be happy to drive me around if needed, free of charge.

‘I am here for you, sir,’ he said, holding his hand to his chest. ‘In ready position.’