Every Kolkata taxi has a personal story to share with you and it does so through the ‘charms’ hanging from the rearview mirror, the miniature statues of idols and other paraphernalia on the dashboard carefully collected over years, and most importantly the cassettes (yes, they continue to live in these vehicles) that introduce you to the driver’s eclectic taste in music. While the scratchy music embraces you for the rest of the journey, the driver engages you with stories from his village or moffusil (a most favourite word in this part of the world) in Bihar, Jharkhand or Orissa. However, there are things that unite all of these black and yellow machines in their shared stories and that’s the unmistakable smell of rexine covered seats as soon as you enter, the rickety sounds the doors make whenever you close them or the taxi goes over a speed bump, the dirtiest piece of torn cloth, which had seen better days as a garment, tucked in the door by the driver’s side, or the ever popular “Jai Maa Kali” written in red letters on the ample behind of the car.
Our taxi trundles out of the station compound, passing by the stalls with their charcoal stoves and narrow wooden benches getting ready for the lunch crowds to arrive. Every few minutes an overloaded yellow and red minibus with its destination stencilled in flowery fonts overtakes us. These are not manned by drivers, but by “pilots”. Don’t believe me? Check out the “pilot’s door” on any of these and put your doubts to rest.
Dad would usually be sitting next to the driver in the front seat, with an air of authority over the roads of the city. My mom, sister and I would be sitting behind, suitably impressed with Dad yet again with that mighty skill every Bangali is proud of - knowing Kolkata’s roads and its millions of shortcuts.
Although we would take the same route every time, the first view of the Ganga and the Howrah Bridge invariably drew a collective gasp inside the taxi. The ferries taking some of the late office goers into the city, across the watery lifeline of the capital. A few large ships floating around. Hundreds of bicycles, scooters, rickshaws, ‘thelas’, cars, buses and what not on the bridge. The sight never got old.
We crossed the river. We entered the city. The faint winter humidity, smog and honking welcomed us.
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