Conversations with a lady taxi driver

What happens when there is a reversal of roles within the prescribed male-female public commuting norms?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:18 pm IST

Published - December 10, 2014 02:43 am IST

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Even against the faint orange light — the harbinger of dawn — the contours of her face were obvious. She looked charming, a little plump, and wore a pale salwar kameez. A dupatta was neatly draped over her head, just the way many Indian Muslim women are seen when outdoors.

As the taxi steered towards the main street, she drew my attention to a small tea shop around the bend where she had sipped cups of coffee just before picking me up. “I didn’t want to doze off...,” she said. The journey had been delayed since she found it difficult to track my address sooner. She was apologetic about having made me wait.

After a sleepless night, I thought it best to maintain indifference even as she persisted with her explanations. However, soon enough, the intrigue started to get to me — my efforts to nap had also proven futile. It was barely dawn and I was being driven to the airport by a woman, who was confident and also eager to make conversation. How many women in our country are allowed this space? Not many, even by Mumbai’s standards. And when we compare this to what happened in New Delhi a couple of days ago, it seems even more extraordinary.

A young woman was allegedly raped by the driver of the Uber cab she was travelling in. This crime also drew memories of the horror that took place in a moving bus in the same city two years ago. Where can a woman feel safe? Apparently, not even in the ‘safest’ means of transport (enabled with the latest GPS technology).

Reversal of roles

When I had booked this cab I hadn’t anticipated a female driver (this wasn’t even an all-female cab service). But here I was, seated comfortably in a case of reversal of roles within the prescribed male-female public commuting norms. If I were the driver and she the passenger, how different would the mood have been? Would she have been as chirpy? Did she feel safer in the driver’s seat? Did a steering wheel make all the difference? I wouldn’t know.

Although I didn’t want to appear as prying, I asked this woman when she started driving cabs. “Since he deserted me, my husband,” she said. “I am dead to my family. I am a Brahmin, he a Muslim. It was bound to get my family a bad name... How could I feed myself? I had to do something.”

It was 10 years ago when she eloped with a Muslim man from her hometown, Vadodara. The boy worked as a mechanic in Mumbai. While it seemed familiar terrain — the vagaries of inter-religious affairs, elopements and parental opposition — I was hooked on to her obviously unprompted narration. Given the “love jihad” myth spread by Hindutva groups, I was curious to hear this though. The woman told me her original name: it stood for ‘beautiful’ in Sanskrit; her name post-conversion to Islam was the Arabic word for ‘sky.’

Her story, however, hit a deadlock as she abruptly stopped talking — perhaps, realising she was revealing too much to a stranger (a man) — and I honestly didn’t know what to ask next. There was silence, the longest since the cab started. Noticing me fiddle with my phone — I meant to check the time — she ended the awkward pause: “Are you a reporter?” If I told her the truth she would not talk anymore so I kept my reply vague. “I still have relatives in Mumbai. Now if you go and report this they will say I go around telling my problems to everyone.”

Her husband divorced her eight years ago and married a Muslim woman. Not only did he keep their children, all she was left with was Rs. 3,000 as alimony. Making ends meet proved difficult; she shared space with six other women in a suburban Mumbai flat. Her flat mates, too, were ‘deserted’ and drove cabs.

“I was pretty fluent with the Quran as well,” she continued. “But Muslims have such bad customs, no?” she laughed sarcastically as she claimed that her ex-husband had already moved on to his third wife.

Her abrupt shifts in temper occasionally puzzled me. She suddenly turned her head towards me and said: “Don’t you feel bad when something like this happens? A Hindu woman is converted to Islam and then ditched... use and throw?” I would feel bad for anyone who was deserted, regardless of religion, I responded.

Probably mistaking this for my sympathy towards her ‘Muslim’ ex-husband, she stared at me for a short while, and correctly guessed my religion. “It’s the way you speak. I spent years with one... so I know alright,” she said.

Elopment, marriage and after

Since she had eloped, going back to Gujarat was not a viable option. With no source of living, she worked petty jobs for three years before shifting to driving cabs. There was little support from her family, which did not even bother to stay in touch. Her brother, a builder, did not spare her a penny. Despite the misery, she put on a brave face each time she was overcome with emotion.

“I have been single for a long time. But I enjoy life. We (the girls) go out for coffee sometimes; pull the cabs out for a spin at night,” she said. “We also go for picnics once in a while; even films. But we share the costs. Nobody is a burden on anyone.”

Her love story was typical of inter-religious Indian romances — secretive in initial phases but with the swords of scandal and heartbreak dangling dangerously over their heads. In the days before mobile phones hijacked romance, she would exchange love notes with her lover till her mother caught hold of one such note on one unfortunate day. Sensing a tragic end to their tale, she braved the wrath of her family and eloped.

The two had no clue of what next and started living in his garage till the landlord, critical of an unmarried couple living together on his premises, suggested they get married. They tied the knot and she converted to Islam. “I did not know anything then. Had seen nothing in life, just followed him. Love is true,” she murmured.

I asked for her ex-husband’s name. “Omar,” she replied. Her answer was prompt, but it left me too embarrassed to respond. She told me she had a fancy for her Arabic name, but it was also a grim reminder of her tragic love life. “It also makes me angry... tell me... Isn’t my anger justified? I can’t forget it.”

For a moment or two, I was discomfited by my own name. But I also dreaded how the right-wing Hindutva groups could have manipulated her story to include it within the template of “love jihad.” The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s disregard for individual choices of marriage and relationships is well known.

The taxi soon came to a smooth halt at the airport. As I reached out to grab money from my cargo-shorts, she looked at me and giggled mischievously. “You are not even ready for the flight.” I smiled, paid her the promised amount and started to drag my rucksack out of the taxi. As I was about to shut the car’s door, she asked for my name. Sensing no escape, I managed to mumble it. Perhaps she didn’t hear me over the din of the airport announcements and asked me to repeat it. I did. She was taken aback, then smiled, shook her head as if to revive herself from the shock, then gave a sigh and laughed. It all happened too fast. Her focus then shifted to the steering wheel as she prepared to ride away into the crowd, but not before I caught her stealing a last glance at me.

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