Feature - Large crowds were gathered outside the airport with many of their faces pressed against the glass window, peering into the arrival lounge at 2am.
Their voices were loud. Was something wrong?
This was my first impression on arriving in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the late seventies.
As soon as we stepped out with our luggage, we were surrounded by eager taxiwallahs even pulling our trolley towards their cabs.
The Premier Padmini taxis, jet black taxis with their bright yellow roofs, were everywhere and so were people.
In the Hindi movies of the 60s and 70s, the hero or heroine would step out on the street and call ‘Taxi’ and immediately one would pull up.
I used to think this was artificial until I experienced it first-hand. I could actually step out and hail a cab at once.
Over the years, the number of private cars and SUVs on the road have apparently crossed the 900 000 mark.
The two-wheeler population stands at 170 000.
Hailing a cab has now been overtaken by mobile apps.
Unfortunately, the Premier Padmini taxis that ruled the streets of Mumbai for decades are drawing to a close.
A government order that all vehicles more than 20 years old be taken off the streets means most of the taxis will not have their licences renewed and will likely end up in the scrapyard.
The taxis were introduced in 1964, but when production ended in 2000, the drivers patched them up using old pairs of tights, bits of scrap parts, bicycle chains, and even pieces of string to keep the engines running!
This is my fourteenth year that I am driving in Mumbai.
The first day I took my car out, my ankles hurt for a week!
The constant stops, jerks, bumpy roads, avoiding people, cars and two-wheelers, even those driving illegally in the wrong direction.
My ankles were thoroughly over-exercised from switching constantly from brake to clutch to accelerator.
Within the city during the day, one cannot really drive more than 25 to 40km/* .
Most Indian drivers are impatient, and actually, hardly anyone ever follows the traffic rules. Pedestrians cross at any point on the streets.
Drivers take a right turn from the left lane right before your vehicle. A biker with a heavy load - transporting glass sheets to plywood - is not unusual.
Countdown timers at signals (robots are called signals in India), were introduced about five years ago, and that has become a great test of patience for the Indian drivers.
The bikers and rickshaws are the ones to look out for. As soon as the timer reaches 5 and before it can even reach 1, the vehicles down the line start hooting, and most bikers take off!
Honking remains a problem, as it has become a habit for many. Indians honk like nobody’s business. Most drivers do not use their side mirrors, so they depend on honking.
I gradually learnt the technique to drive in this city. In fact, I asked the driver of a Premier Padmini, since they are the most experienced on Mumbai roads. He told me that it is an ‘unspoken understanding’.
“It may seem disorganised, but keep at it, you will gradually ‘feel’ the drivers, and people around you. Just keep moving.
"You find a space gap in. No one will give you a place, you have to keep pushing yourself ahead.”
I looked at him amused, but still doubtful. He chuckled, his mouth filled with paan (betel leaf), “see madam, the brain is full of entangled nerves right? Have you seen photo of brain?” He stopped, giving me a moment to think.
“If you see photo, it looks like a mess, all entangled, but brain is functioning right? One nerve gets damaged then problem begins, they all have their purpose and are working in synchronicity with the others.”
I understood perfectly. Though honking is common in the city, I use it as less as possible. Fourteen years of driving, I have synchronised with the roads of Mumbai.
* Shashika Mooruth is a music producer, composer and singer. Contact her at www.shashikamooruth.com