Neither my wife nor I learned to drive. We did not have the foresight in the late mid-twentieth century to realize that Calcutta’s roads would be choked with cars, that its footpaths would become rutted, broken and often blocked by junk food or tea stalls, and that if the day came when public transport would be difficult to find, it would be necessary to walk on the tarmac itself.
Nor did we realize that age would make such adventurous journeys to the nearest markets, the pharmacy half a mile away, one’s few remaining friends, let alone decrepit libraries funded by the Central government, where I need to look for research references, almost expeditions, fortified to deal with rude taxi-drivers’ refusals to stop, or to go to places less than three or four miles distant. Rudeness has become this city’s public hallmark since it nationalized its old familiar name.
Let us begin with a query first. What percentage of Calcutta’s population own cars that they drive themselves? This must be small. How many people get the benefit of public transport from their gates to their destinations? What are the distances that they have to travel to get to the nearest bus-stop? Surely not more than 50 per cent, and among them too surely many have to trudge about a furlong. How does the remaining half of our fellow citizens feel about going to the market, going to work, or to find what entertainment they can?
One wonders if good opinion polls exist. If these could be made public, they would help create a base for a movement to transform public anger about pessimistic prospects for moving about, which could affect all at the mercy of brutal drivers, who have the least regard for the convenience of customers whom they are supposed to be licensed to serve to the extent reasonable.
I shall leave these questions in the air, with only two or three codas, little stories of why I write in such disorientation. The first one happened on September 16 this year. Five yards away from the central portico pillars of the old Howrah Station, on our way to catch the Shantiniketan Express, we had got off the taxi: my wife with two pullers and a bag, slung, with her food carrier for the day, and her handbag, myself, visually impaired and with wobbly knees, with one puller and a small bag in the other hand. About to get off, I became very dizzy and was about to fall down. Scared at such an indignity, I called my wife; she was interrupted by a thelawala, heavily loaded with vegetables, who peremptorily ordered her out of the way because, as he said, nobody should stop and dither on a crowded road, whatever the age.
By the time he stopped and she could come round, I was so groggy that I appealed to a curious group which had already gathered to please hold out a hand that I could hold on to as I felt paralyzed. Someone enquired disinterestedly, “hoyeche ta ki?” Someone else suggested kindly, “haspataley jaan”: they gaped at my response that this was exactly what I wanted to do, to get help to walk across to the crowded taxi rank in front. Only when my wife almost screamed she would pay anything if a taxi could be brought where we stood that a squat person detached himself and said, “charsho taka lagbe”. When my wife protested and said that I was a heart patient with a pacemaker, he seemed to relent and said, “aagey panchaas taka pare baki”.
The minute he got it, Calcutta seemed to smile again. I was greeted as “dadu” and put into a taxi. The driver was told not to charge me a rupee more than what the fare was to the hospital in Jodhpur Park. The queue was broken by a plain-clothed policeman, who had money put into his hand by the organizer. We drove off.
A counter question will now be asked: why didn’t we report the matter to the police? I was too ill and my wife too concerned, and anyway there were policemen within sight who had other things to do.
My second coda happened about two months ago. A taxi driver had been blisteringly rude to me while driving so I threatened to report him to the Deputy Commissioner, Traffic. Definitely do so, he retorted, I will throw the licence in his face and go back home to Bihar. So I out-shouted him. Even if I had been able to get the DC Traffic to act, it would have taken two weeks to move, and then the fine could not have been possibly more than a hundred rupees .
On the fourth of this month, I walked out of the house in the morning to hail a taxi in front of my own gate. One soon pulled up. I was so pleased at this unexpected event that I started to get in saying “thank you”without realizing that he had already barked “jaaben kothay?”. When my inadvertent English words sank in, all he said was “aaynhnh” presumably because he did not know whether “thank you” was — one kilometre away or five — accelerated, and drove off.
It is fortunate I had let the door handle go a second before, or my wrist may have been dislocated, or, thrown off balance, I could have fallen under the taxi’s rear wheel. There was no time to see his number. The next morning, my wife had a typical experience. Standing at the gate for a taxi to go to Prince Anwar Shah Road, 10 empty taxis went past, refusing to stop even when she hailed them: one going towards the phandi then waved a silent “no”: then one who was going the other way slowed down to refuse, saying it was not his direction. She gave up.
What is to be done? It is not enough to say that Calcutta is compassionate no more. It is even more cruel to expect senior citizens to keep pencil and paper ready all the time to jot taxi numbers and fax complaints to be taken up at leisure. It is cruel to have them running round in circles to keep appointments. Or should all taxis be taken off the roads and all senior citizens be told to stay indoors?