Bombay Driver

Bombay Taxis

[This is an old feature I wrote for Quintessentially Magazine in 2009. They never sent me a copy of the mag, and it’s not on their website either, so I thought, why not make it a blog? It’s about 2000 words, so it’s not bite size exactly. And it’s not about finding the sunshine in LA either. But who cares? It’s from another land, another life. A brief blast of the Bomb Bomb.)

“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. He didn’t speak a lick of English (beyond the five words above) 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 he flapped, I would ask him to calm down, and that made him flap even more.

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

It was Rohit, a shambles of a man in his thirties who wore grubby clothes, spoke comedy English and had an inexplicable enthusiasm for 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 the reality wasn’t far off – he’d see me come through the lobby and spring into action, rushing to open the door for me, his eyes bright with excitement. He seemed to find driving a joy, and tooted his horn like a maniac. But best of all, he wore a little blue Fez hat with gold tassels. ‘Ready Position’ was hired.

I’d never had a driver before coming to India. And I hadn’t planned on having one while I was in Los Angeles packing my bags. But once I emerged from Bombay airport, there was never any question that I would need one. If you’re not familiar with Indian traffic, imagine a world in which all order has perished and the lords of mayhem rule the earth. It’s not traffic so much as man and beast in a headlong charge, as though the bridge were collapsing behind them and a cash prize was waiting at the other end. Cars come within brushing distance, jostling along like corpuscles in an artery, creating bottlenecks and somehow wiggling through. Every risk is taken, every horn is tooted, and everyone has forgotten to take their meds.

So that was one reason. The other reason for hiring a driver was because I could, for the first time in my life. I would have hired Ready Position even if Indian traffic was as sane as Switzerland. ‘Chauffeur’ might sound all ritzy and French, but in Indian everyone’s got one. Well, not everyone, but you don’t have to be Lakshmi Mittal. 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. 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 them proud, you know?’ She also insisted that I get my money’s worth. ‘These drivers, they 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 sort of errand boy. He was my chauffeur. He wore a Fez. But those were the early days when I was still adjusting to this new person in my car and my life.

In Los Angeles, I’d thought of my car as a sanctuary, a wonderful place to be alone. I’d take a drive to clear my thoughts, listen to some music and percolate. Perhaps talk to myself like a crazy person. The open road as therapy. 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. 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, then off to some bar afterwards, or a friend’s house, or the shops. He saw me in all kinds of moods – happy, tired, irritable, drunk, wistful, scatterbrained. And I hadn’t bargained on a relative stranger suddenly knowing quite so much about me. I felt naked.

Bombay Market

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 one of those snooty back seat executives who just rustled their newspapers 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 go over so well. We would be chatting away happily enough – Tarzan Hindi meets Tarzan English – but he’d tell me that his home was ‘very far distance’, and he had to travel two hours to pick me up in the morning, too far to take me, by all accounts. When I suggested that I might 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 – his little notebook to log mileage, his Fez. And when we were out at the shops, it felt wrong to just leave him behind while I popped into Starbucks for a frappuccino. So I’d invite him in – tell him to park and join me. But he looked uncomfortable.

‘Price is too much, sir,’ he said.

‘Rohit, relax, I’m paying.’

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

Ultimately, it was he who suggested that he pick up my dry cleaning for me. ‘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 take-out or taking the dogs to the vet – any of a hundred different errands. 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 had been 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, and I’d leave him to swelter out in the sun rather than join me for a milkshake. And 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 found myself fretting over a map, or had to take the car in for a servicing. I got some reading done. I made some calls. I had a drink whenever I felt like it. Such is life in the back seat. And I forgot where the dry cleaners were, or how much lightbulbs cost. Ready Position did all that. I was unburdened.

It no longer felt awkward to have this mute witness to my every mood sitting in the car with me. While at first, my wife and I would be careful not to bicker in the car – ‘not in front of the driver!’ – we soon eased into our usual squabbling. I’d happily tell Ready Position to drive gently so that I could attempt a snooze. He had become that silent presence in our lives, a role that staff play for their masters. They only participate when called upon. They judge not, they are there to serve. And I have to say, I can see the appeal.

But then the niggles began to gnaw. The back seat can be an awfully boring place after a while. You just 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 car, but then only ever sit in the back. I’d always enjoyed driving back in LA – engaging with the machine, pushing the pedals and fiddling with all the buttons and switches. I liked the feeling of control and purpose, and still do. You’re a man of action in the front; in the back, you’re emasculated, your limbs are idle and you depend on others. 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 hopeless, stranded. This is the byproduct of staff – they infantilize you.

Push came to shove when spring turned to summer and the heat was like murder. I was fine, up in my air conditioned office all day, but Ready Position was out by the car, in the beating sun, and 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 and deadly – 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 sealed myself in a box of weapons-grade stink. My Indian friends were unequivocal – ‘buy him some deodorant! Tell him it’s summer and everyone has to use it now. You’re the boss!’

Well, something had to be done. I could barely breathe in there. 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, trying not to gag. 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, I am bath, sir.’

About three weeks later, he found another job. He said it was near where he lived, so there would be no more two hour commutes. But I think I know the real reason. And I still feel awful about it. Then a year after that, I moved back to America, where I drive myself about as I did before – back in the front seat, engaging with the machine.

But I often think of my former chauffeur. And not just because I could do with his help – who doesn’t miss their Man Friday? – but because Ready Position showed me something about India, something important. It remains one of my most cherished memories from my time there.

Barely a week after Ready Position left, I found myself out of a job. A crushing blow. And as we languished at home, my wife and I, confused and hurt by what had happened, there was a knock at the door. It was Ready Position. He looked devastated for some reason. My first thought was that he’d lost his job, and wanted 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. Through the 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 boss took a few days leave, he came up on the bus to see me. He wasn’t my driver anymore, but he would be happy to drive me around if I needed, free of charge. Anything I needed.

‘I am here for you, sir,’ he said. ‘In ready position.’

Bombay At Dusk

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to Bombay Driver

  1. Nice, Sanjiv. I like Ready Position. Now a blog about your drive to the hills :)

  2. Kushan Mitra says:

    One about the Dal-Hee pretty please!

  3. Sanjiv says:

    Ha! Yes, that was insane. In that ridiculous Benz too.

  4. Karen McFarland says:

    Sanjiv, I saw your post announcement on the Professional Writers of Los Angeles Facebook page and thought I’d take a peek. Thank you for sharing your story! My heart sunk when I read the ending. Your driver was a wonderful man. Would that happen here in SoCal? I think not. What an amazing experience! :)

  5. Fantastic story, Sanjiv. I will pass it on for sure.

  6. Dianne Sharma says:

    Wonderful story! My husband, daughter, and I just returned to US after nearly 4 years in Delhi. While I am happy to be home and driving myself again, I genuinely miss our driver, Suraj. Feeling a little “homesick” for India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>