Taxi by Mayank Chhaya
As perhaps the most frequent user of taxis of Bombay in the 1980s I think I have earned the right to say a thing or two about the phasing out of of the Premier Padmini model. (This sentence is as low on literary elegance as the Padmini was on auto design elegance).
Those of you who feel skeptical about my claim to have been perhaps the most frequent user of taxis in human history in that period, please get in touch with my dear friend, journalist and writer Shireesh Kanekar. I cannot vouch for his willingness to indulge you.
There were only two people in the city who regularly rode in taxis between Dahisar in North Bombay where I lived for a short while and Flora Fountain in South Bombay where I worked, a distance of about 30 miles. Those two people would be me, one coming in and the other returning.
Reading the news about the last of Premier Padminis being scrapped by Mumbai authorities has brought back many memories for me. For instance, as I emerged from my Dalal Street office late every evening, there would be about half a dozen cabbies waiting by their Padminis, for me in particular. They knew for sure that I would choose one of them without fail. Over time they had reached an easy accommodation of multiple mistresses courting one man. They all knew I could choose only one at a time. On my part, I made sure that the six were rotated such that each got at least one fare in a week. Even in those days the fare used to be between 65 and 85 rupees one way. Today it would be over 400 rupees.
There was nothing to choose in terms of models because Bombay then had only Premier Padmini taxis, which were originally the Fiat of Italy. The humor began with its very name. Anyone who got into it quickly discovered that there was nothing even notionally “Premier” about the vehicle as far as comfort went. Sure, cabbies overcompensated the car’s inherent inelegance by using souped-up upholstery, which often matched the garish carpets of a Vegas casino. A process of careful elimination by me meant that I got the best upholstered vehicles in the city whose insides did not smell of fusty human habitation. More often than not the interiors smelled like a heady mix of sweat, incense and damp laundry, particularly underwear. That’s because some drivers occasionally lived in them.
The Premier Padmini was an apology for a vehicle. Its engine was a quarter of a quarter pony power. I often felt that the city was so frustrated with its low power that rather than waiting for the taxi to move forward the whole cityscape moved backward to create the illusion of movement. In those days there were very few Padminis which were air-conditioned. The choice came down to running the AC or running the taxi. Switching on the AC meant that your travel time would quadruple.
The Padmini always looked handcrafted rather than like an assembly line product. It was as if each one had been carefully deprived of any design aesthetics. But being the only kind of car for a long time it had acquired a certain confidence even when it was falling apart. Mumbai’s moist sea air would cause rust rather quickly and eat up the car’s frame. I have traveled by Padminis with rusty holes in their doors and roofs.
In those days, the drivers had two kinds of uniforms—the owners who drove wore all white and drivers who were employees wore all khakis. You could tell the difference in the demeanor between the two with the owner-driver being far more self-assured. In my nearly a decade of regularly using cabs in the city, I rarely came across a driver who did not try to keep the vehicle clean but the sheer vagaries of subsistence at that level often made things very hard for them.
It was inevitable that my association with the city’s cabs led me to write a big two-part feature about them in the Free Press Journal. It was the first feature of its kind about city cabs. A L Quadros then was and still is the boss of the Bombay Taximen’s Union. I had interviewed him for my feature at the height of the Premier Padmini’s glory. Over 25 years later, Quadros was quoted again by my former employers, the Associated Press (AP), as saying “This Premier Padmini is iconic.”
Nostalgia has a way of softening and warping reality. The Premier Padmini may seem quaintly charming now but it was just a very ordinary vehicle subjected to tremendous overuse. Of course, in the process it created considerable direct and ancillary employment in terms of drivers, mechanics and spare dealers throughout the city and well beyond.
I am sure there will be those who will get into the nostalgia business by refurbishing and decking up a few old Padminis and offering some quirky charms of the 1980s. For me personally, the enduring image is that of the six cabbies waiting every evening on Nagindas Master Road in Fort area. I would shake hands with them all and choose one. The incense sticks would be lighted, cassette player turned on and chitchat begun for the next hour or so.
* There is some deliberate and hopefully comedic exaggeration in the post.