By Rohit Brijnath
A Singapore taxi driver once told me he left his woman because he did not like blue shirts and she bought him three. Thereupon, he insisted that anyway his interest in the relationship was only physical. He looked over 50 and I did not know whether to applaud or counsel him.
This is not precisely the reason I admire Singapore taxi drivers, but it is a story that still makes me grin. So does the one about the fellow who drives a taxi to make money so he can go on golfing trips.
It is the politeness, or perhaps the absence of impoliteness, that impresses me. Unlike the fellows who sit in priority seats in the train and pretend they are in a coma.
This is pertinent because if you hail from Kolkata, duelling with taxi drivers is a rite of passage. It is only such rigorous early training that allowed me to hold my own on the Champs Elysees one June night in 1991 when a Parisian cabbie and I debated each other's ancestors.
He spoke loud French, me furious Hindi; after five minutes we called it a draw.
In Singapore, it is pleasant. You get in, tell the fellow where to go, and he actually goes, an old hit burbling from the radio. In Kolkata, where the musical accompaniment is the rattle of a loose hubcap, everything was a negotiation.
You pleaded, the driver looked bored; you shouted go south, he looked north. His duty was not to take you, but only to consider your offer. Sometimes it was sensible to ask where he was going and then decide whether to get in.
Many kept pictures of gods and their dashboards resembled mini shrines. This was their home. Anyway, considering some drove like failed stuntmen, a little divine intervention was not to be sneered at.
Taxi-drivers here are not as excitable but they are the most trustworthy, unless the Vatican has a service I am unaware of. This is about more than returned phones, an unusual civility in itself; it is about a rare sense of security offered to women.
Taxis in Singapore are clean. Kolkata taxis simply had cleaners. These lolling assistants carried a red rag which operated as a dusting cloth, makeshift rope (to tie the front door so it did not swing open) and warning flag. To wave it from the window was to signal an emergency and policemen would stop traffic.
Countries have taxi etiquette. In Australia, you sit in the front seat. In Asia, we humbly like to feel chauffeured.
In Australia, like in Singapore, only four passengers can sit in a taxi. In Kolkata, no such trivial rule applied and entire joint families groaningly shoe-horned themselves into a cab. Safety bowed to practicality. Now modernity has ruined it. There are even air-conditioned cabs there.
Taxi drivers are couriers, connectors, witnesses, they go forward but see life backwards in the rear-view mirror. They are observers to first kisses, dying romances and the initial reading of a doctor's grim prognosis. They are anonymous, even invisible, for we say things in front of them we would not in front of anyone else. Perhaps we think, who would they tell?
The taxi is a place of reflection yet also a small debate hall. This is a world of journeys, literal and otherwise, and Malaysian writer Charlene Rajendran, a theatre teacher at Nanyang Technological University, has written a book called Taxi Tales On A Crooked Bridge. Read it, I will.
Taxis abroad are often operated by immigrants, who tell heartaching stories about distant families. Not that drivers here do not own their own wry tales about government, old age and an older Singapore.
It is why journalists love taxi drivers; when we land in a city they are our first interrogation. They are human radios of a sort, we keep turning the channel and they become different people for us.
One minute a weather forecaster (has it been raining?), then a behavioural scientist (why are people protesting?), later a sports critic (any chance for United?), finally a tour guide (where are the best bars, mate?).
Quote taken, we get out. An old woman gets in and wheezes out her address. The meter ticks. Life moves on.
The writer, a Senior Correspondent on the Straits Times sports desk, comes from India but now has a home in Australia. He has been in Singapore for 20 months.
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