On the road.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Friday. 10.30pm. Hauz Khas Village. The street lamps are not working. The headlights of passing cars briefly illuminate the faces of a chic crowd on the roadside, returning well-fed from Hauz Khas eateries. A group of four is walking towards the Pind Balluchi restaurant in Deer Park, twittering in American-accented English. The street is jammed with cars filled with people who have booked tables in the area’s various restaurants. There are as many pedestrians. Our car finally manages to speed towards Aurobindo Marg.
This Tata Indigo is one of the 300 Meru Cabs (a radio cab service) that zip through the city’s roads during the small hours. Driver Chand Choudhary, a veteran of Marutis, Ferraris, Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, and Audis, was hired by the cab company in 2010.
Turning towards IIT flyover, Mr Choudhary says, “We’re going to Select Citywalk.” “At 11pm, you get the most stick pickups in the malls of Rajouri Garden, Saket, Vasant Vihar and Gurgaon.”
In cabbie speak, the ‘stick pickup’ refers to customers who hail the cab on the road, while the ‘bidding pickup’ means getting a customer who has made a booking through the car company’s call centre.
Mr Choudhary’s seat faces the GPS-enabled small screen of the Mobile Data Terminal that blinks every time a prospective customer in a nearby neighbourhoods calls a cab. There could be many drivers in the same vicinity; the ‘bid’ that has to be accepted within 30 seconds goes to the driver who presses the button first. On Friday nights, Mr Chowdhury gets around six bids, which net him about Rs 4,000.
He steers the wheel left at Chattarpur crossing. The traffic lights are blinking orange. “Once I got a pickup from Gurgaon’s Sahara mall. The boy and girl had just come out of the disco. They were returning to Punjabi Bagh. By the time we crossed Mahipalpur they were exchanging jhappis (hugs). I was watching them in the rearview mirror. Soon they started kissing. I politely asked them to sit at a distance from each other. The boy said, “Are you jealous?” I said, “Look, there are five cameras in this car and a video is being made of whatever you both are doing.”” The couple instantly disentangled.
Delhi’s traditional cab culture is one of neighbourhood taxi stands manned by drivers known to the nearby families. A young woman might think twice before getting cosy with her boyfriend if the driver knows her dad. The new cab services, professional and impersonal, offer a measure of anonymity.
11 pm. A mall in Saket. A queue of Accords, Honda Citys, Hyundai Vernas, Mercedes-Benzes, and Audis is snaking towards to the underground parking. A handsome young man with long hair and rippling arm muscles is standing at the auto rickshaw stand, his eyes are darting around. A middle-aged woman in a salwar kameez steps out from a chauffer-driven red Accord. Talking on the cell phone, her puffed eyes briefly take in the man, who gets onto his phone. The woman crosses the road towards Khirki Village. The man follows. Putting away their phones, they chat together.
A tall well-built foreign man approaches us. Mr Chowdhury starts the cab and gets moving. “It’s risky to have a single man for stick pick-ups, especially on Fridays. They are drunk and sometimes refuse to pay.”
11.37 pm. Mr Chowdhury parks the car in front of DT mall. I step out and stand under a tree next to a bus stop. A girl in jeans, tank top and high heels is walking down the road. She stops, climbs the pavement, and stands a few feet away from the tree. While mumbling into her cell phone, she is continuously staring at me, with a sense of urgency.
Back in the car, Mr Choudhury says, “At this hour you’ll find many girls here looking for men to make some pocket money. Once a foreigner collected a woman here and hired my cab. He directed me to a highway guesthouse in Gurgaon and asked me to wait. After two hours, I dropped the girl at her apartment complex in Munirika and the foreigner in Vasant Vihar.”
11.50 pm. On the way to PVR Saket multiplex. The cab runs through residential neighbourhoods. Some stretches are traffic-free. The bungalows are in darkness and the guards in the cabins are reduced to silhouettes.
Midnight. The road outside PVR Saket is bathed in an orange glow. Five girls are chatting outside the cinema’s box office. The adjacent pizza outlet is closing for the day. A couple of shadowy figures are flitting about the plaza. Sounds of laughter are coming from somewhere. Radio cabs are waiting for the movie show to end.
A white Audi parked in front of our cab has its A/C on. Five adolescent boys are standing beside it. Soon a sixth boy gets out of the car, and another boy gets into it. About 10 minutes later, that boy comes out and another goes in. Next, the young man emerges from the car with two girls. All begin to smoke cigarettes. Speaking in public school English, their talk is sprinkled with words like awesome, yaar, and cool. Gauche and giddy, perfumed and well-clothed, the kids are living on impulse. It seems as if there is nothing they really want to do, and nothing they won’t do.
1 am. Urban Pind, N-Block Market, GK-1. Mr Choudhary is having his home-cooked subzi-roti in the back seat. People are coming out of the club in pairs or in groups. People are coming out of the club in pairs or in groups. A woman asks an auto driver to drop her to Malviya Nagar, saying in Hindi, “Meter se.” The driver says, “Double meter plus night charge.” A teenage boy is walking with a vodka bottle and two plastic glasses. Living the consumerist dream, Delhi’s night birds, armed with cell phones, navigate a city of malls, multiplexes, discos and sex. Painted with an advertisement for an American chocolate brand, showing a blonde woman licking a bar, the exteriors of our cab are a perfect metaphor for this new subculture.
“We rarely get customers between 1 and 3am,” says Mr Choudhary. “After that, we get busy with airport drop-offs and pick-ups, which goes on till morning.”
To Gurgaon, now. A policeman stops us at a barricade on Rao Tularam Marg, near Malai Mandir, but waves us on the next moment. NH-8 is crowded with cars, cabs and trucks. A Boeing is taking off on the airport’s runway, to the right of the highway. A black and yellow Ambassador overtakes us. Neon lights are blinking on Mahipalpur’s motels. Their lobbies are empty save for receptionists watching TV. Choudhary stops at a petrol station beside the Radisson Hotel. A fat man in a black suit walks out of the hotel’s staff gate carrying a packet of potato chips and a cola can.
2.45am. In front of Rangpuri village, two men in black dinner jackets and black trousers wave at us. Mr Choudhary doesn’t stop.
3.05am. Dozens of radio cabs are parked outside Sahara mall, DLF City-I. Heavy metal beats pulse from the building. The pavements are crowded with omelet carts. Grim-looking children are beating eggs in steel glasses. Five ice cream trolleys are lined across the road. Cars are leaving the mall at irregular intervals. A Hyundai emerges, driven by a girl. It is followed by a Toyota packed with girls. The third car, a Mercedes, has a man in the driver’s seat. A girl is sitting with her arms around him. Suddenly, a noise. A cop is banging his lathi against an ice-cream trolley. The children who were making omelets quickly hide their carts in an unlit part of the alley, their already precarious living threatened anew. The policeman is swearing, ordering the vendors to leave immediately. Meanwhile a girl in shorts and top, accompanied by a boy in jeans and T-shirt, enters the mall. “They must be call centre employees,” says Mr Chowdhury. “They’ll party inside till 5am.”
3.30pm. As we reach Aurobindo Marg, Mr Choudhury gets a bid for an airport drop from Green Park. “From T-3 (international terminal), there are equal chances that I might get a drop for Patel Nagar in the west or Noida in the east. In either place I would likely get a pickup for T-3 again. I’ll return home after the office rush hour.”
3.47am. Hauz Khas Village. Dogs are barking. A man is withdrawing cash from an ATM. A cat rearranges itself the niche of a Mughal arch. In another hour, the birds will start their morning chorus but for now the city seems at rest.