It's No Joke
I've been in some clapped out taxis in my time, but what is going on here? If viewed through a telescope, the cratered body of the sole taxi waiting at the taxi-stand could be mistaken for the dark side of the moon. There's only one wing mirror on the driver's side, with a quarter of the glass intact, and no rear-view mirror at all -- not even the stub of one. Not that there's much of a rear view, just a piece of murky polythene taped up where the rear window should have been ... But at least the horn works, which is crucial!
Only in Bangladesh could the complex political, economic and social factors coalesce just so, in order that thrice-risen-from-the-junk-pile Marutis are doggedly plying the nation's highways and byways while shiny new Humvees, Pajeros, and BMWs are to be found as litter on the city streets.
As my fearless taxi-driver passes a bus with much horn-blowing and cuts in a hair's breadth in front of a fellow cabbie, I comment that he must be a very good driver to drive without the aid of mirrors in Dhaka. I'm not sure he quite gets the tone of my question when he replies: "Right, apa! We have to be the best drivers on the road -- after all, what choice do we have?" He somehow manages to imply that he and his cohorts are both super-driving heroes and super-suffering martyrs at the same time. Though the super-driving part does not seem to be borne out by the actual state of the car.
"So why's your car in such a state then?" I ask, going for the direct approach this time. He turns his head to look at me and he looks genuinely upset by my question ... though I'm more worried about the fact that the car in front has just had to swerve to avoid a barely visible rickshaw determined to do a U-turn onto the fast-lane of Airport Road?
I rapidly calculate my chances of surviving a moderate-speed collision with a man-powered vehicle in this soup-can-on-wheels. Assuming we would probably crumple on impact with a large mosquito, never mind a rickshaw, would I have time to punch my way through the polythene at the back before being crushed?
But, with the unerring instinct of a cabby in Dhaka, driver-shaheb turns back in time to brake hard, swerve, and swap abuse with the self-righteous rickshaw-driver in passing.
I know there's little point in being so, but I'm so irritated that I imagine myself somehow stopping and commandeering the vehicle in order to drive myself to my destination. (This has been a favourite daydream of mine since my husband was forced to do this one time, after noticing that the taxi driver had only one arm and his "friend" in the passenger seat was trying to change gears for him. This is absolutely true.) But then I contemplate actually driving this heap with its stalling engine, done-in gears, no mirrors -- and I keep quiet.
My taxi-driver, however, unphased and completely unaware of my reaction, is having a go at me! Because, apparently, I have insulted him! He isn't angry but he is giving vent to the full force of his sorrow as he lectures me: "Apa, don't you think we get upset when passengers complain about our cars? Do we like having our cars in this state? They are our livelihood. We try just to make a living and we barely scrape by. Imagine how it feels when we buy a car for six lakh and two years later ..."
"What?" I interrupt him. "Six lakh? Two years? You bought this car for six lakh only two years ago? Naaaaa!"
"Haaaa, apa! You see?"
"But ... how ... but ..." I'm lost for words as I look round the "interior" of the cab where none of the windows seem to roll up and there's no rear-window at all. Every piece of fabric from floor to ceiling is in actual shreds.
"Bloody hell!" I finally manage, in English. He somehow catches my drift. "No, apa, don't say that," and he continues his litany of sorrows, overwhelmingly me into silent submission with the sheer misery of a taxi-driver's lot in Dhaka these days.
I have nothing left to say when he finishes. But I'm actually amazed by the depth and breadth of his complaints; starting with government profiteering from the import of low-quality Indian cars, the difficulty in making these cars pay for themselves within the two years before they fall apart completely, the impossibility of paying for any kind of maintenance, the fourteen to sixteen hours a day a driver must work to make the rental or purchase payments on his taxi and still have something to take home, the fact that the "government approved" meters have been stuck at the same fare-rate for almost ten years regardless of spiraling inflation, and on and on ...
Now, some of these complaints may be valid and some may not. And in the bigger scheme of things in Bangladesh I can hardly bring myself to feel sorry for taxi drivers, of all people, who appear to make a decent enough living when you consider the fact that they spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping with each other at the side of the road and refusing to take you anywhere except Uttura for no less than Tk 200.
But, the point is, for those of us who regularly inhabit these death-trap cabs with disgruntled drivers at the wheel doing sixteen-hour shifts day in day out in the chaos of Dhaka's streets -- it's no joke! I mean it's fairly serious stuff, relatively speaking, that is. Livelihoods and lives are at stake here: for the taxi-driving fraternity, members of the public, rickshawallahs doing death-defying U-turns in the dark on Airport Road -- ah, but wait, that's a whole 'nother story ...