I’m notoriously known for the amount of Driver’s names and numbers I have stored in my Blackberry phonebook in India.
I have a Raj, Raj Kumar, Chotu, Chotu’s brother-in-law, Prakash, Pandit, and the list goes on.
Towards the end of my trip, I had to label each new Driver as ‘Driver99’, ‘Drive new’, and then go for the superlative ‘Driver newest’ – whatever popped into my head on a monsoon morning.
Sounds ridiculous, I know.
First quality: Road Intelligence.
The inherent problem in finding a driver in Mumbai is that they’re only specialised in either South Mumbai/Bandra/Andheri.
South Mumbai is old Mumbai where the landmarks of Taj and Oberoi are found.
Bandra is über-cool, funky and can only be compared to the Brooklyn of New York.
Andheri is even further out than Bandra, and a media hub with Yash Raj Studios, Balaji Studios and CNN.
So if a driver isn’t familiar with say Andheri, you depend on him being able to pull up, and ask for directions.
But it’s a three-step process. Drivers need to know who to target for directions, how to ask (sometimes Indian pedestrians wilfully ignore you), and most importantly, how to follow these directions.
Directions are given as: ‘Opposite the Metro cinema, behind the Radio Club’ for example.
With the crazy head bopping, it’s an art to understand.
There are no street names, so local knowledge is vital.
It’s the vegetable vendors, paanwallahs and rickshaw drivers that really make India’s infrastructure work. They’re the human walking, talking road maps.
When I’ve been lost, I’d ask a man selling coconuts than a policeman first.
Second quality: Reliability.
Drivers will suddenly tell you, that they need to go back to their ‘village’ for a ‘religious festival.’
It’s an old classic - just when you thought they were Sikh or Jain, they’re also following a second sub-culture.
It’s unacceptable to cut any pay for these village trips too.
You’d just seem impious yourself.
Third quality: Hygiene.
Think about it – Drivers take their naps, chew horrid tobacco-paan, and do all daily rituals besides the one….inside the vehicle.
By the end of the day, the inside is as polluted as outside.
Windows, rolled down.
The end-of-the-day car smell had to be factored into the hire process.
But, in the end, I just invested in boxes of air-freshners.
After months spanned, no driver made the final cut.
One driver left me stranded for work (Unreliable). Another could only figure out directions in relation to where the Taj was located (Low Road Intelligence), and another kept giving me fake parking tickets – miscellaneous category.
I just didn’t find my Perfect Raj or Perfect Chotu.
And one fine day, I took to the wheel myself.
I felt liberated, worry-free and an adrenaline rush.
Being in control.
In a city where everything is done for you (even a liftman to press floor buttons), this was a rare stroke of independence.
Many people have since asked me what it’s like to drive in India.
It’s a whole other story, but can only be described as real-life Super Mario Kart, without a Luigi to rescue you.
So how do you hire a driver in Mumbai?
You do what no other local Indian resident would tell you to do.
You drive yourself.
Photo credit: swamiflickr.blogspot.co.uk