A cab conundrum in Calcutta

In India, an unusual disagreement between a taxi driver and passenger.

On the go: A taxi driver in New Dehli waits for a fare at a public function. Indian taxi drivers are generally considered to be very friendly.

After checking out of the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta, India, on that day in the early 1980s, I hailed a passing cab to take me to Dum Dum Airport.

At the wheel sat a bearded young man wearing a blue turban. I was surprised when he asked for a higher than normal fare. His reason was that in the wake of the construction of the underground railway in Calcutta, then nearing completion, much debris was littering the roads, which made smooth driving difficult.

I agreed with his contention, but asked him to activate the taxi meter and offered to pay 10 rupees over the metered fare. He readily agreed.

The driver, who introduced himself as Mohinder Singh, was as talkative as he was exuberant. Before coming to Calcutta looking for greener pastures, he said, he used to operate a taxi in Chandigarh, the capital of two Indian states – Punjab and Haryana. He had also driven a big American Chevrolet for the CEO of Punjab Tractors.

Then becoming nostalgic, he waxed lyrical about the broad and well-maintained avenues of Chandigarh, the garden city designed by Le Corbusier, the legendary French architect.

Then based in New Delhi, I used to be a frequent visitor to Chandigarh on business trips. The offices I normally visited were all around Chandigarh, so for moving around town, I hired taxis and always preferred ones whose drivers I had come to know. Often they would chat about a wedding in the family or a new arrival.

I asked Mohinder if, possibly, he knew Balbir Singh, the septuagenarian who usually operated his Ambassador taxi from Chandigarh airport and in his younger days had served in the Indian Army.

This casual query startled my driver. He was taken aback, momentarily lost control of the steering, and looked at me with great surprise on his face. He told me that Balbir Singh was his uncle who had brought him up after his father's death. He found it mind-boggling that in a far-off place, he had come across someone who knew his uncle.

Then I talked to him about Dilawar and Madan, whose cabs I also often used. I identified them as the ones who parked their vehicles at the Aroma Hotel compound. This was equally bewildering to Mohinder, as one turned out to be his cousin and the other a close friend.

We discovered more common ground and exchanged notes about people and places. The world had pleasantly shrunk for both of us.

Then we arrived at the airport. The meter had registered 50 rupees. In keeping with our agreement, I proffered 60. But to my utter surprise, the driver flatly refused to take my money. He argued that it was an affront to accept payment from a person who had suddenly become so close to him, who knew so much about his uncle and his friends living in far-off Chandigarh.

As we argued about this, a number of taxi drivers crowded around us. No doubt they were expecting a more common situation – the driver asking for more money and the passenger trying to pay less.

But this was refreshingly different – the passenger was insisting on paying but the driver was vehemently refusing to accept any money.

Finally, a patriarch from among the onlookers came forward and solved the impasse.

After listening to the story, he told Mohinder Singh in no-nonsense terms, "You had agreed to charge 10 rupees over the metered fare, but now you will have to accept 10 rupees less than what the meter is showing. Further, you should also carry the gentleman's briefcase up to the entrance gate, shake hands, and see him off with reverence."

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