Uber, a symbol of class conversion

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The other day I was with a friend and we found ourselves talking about how much our lives have changed since Uber / Ola hit the roads in our city. Very much, we realised. But not just for us, also for the drivers.

First stop, Convenience. Had to be, of course. For many, it’s not just about hailing a four-wheeler when and where… it’s also about beating the frustration and fatigue of massive, ceaseless traffic full of knuckleheads who couldn’t be bothered about traffic rules. In India, that’s putting it mildly. Given that daily commute on busy roads is one of the major contributors to work stress, many like me take succour in just hailing a cab. Surge or no surge.

Next comes Cost. And not for everyone. What delights the Indian commuter is that in many cases, a ride in an Ola Mini/Micro or Uber Go costs much the same as that in an autorickshaw. They maybe commonly referred to as autos but autorickshaws derive their name from the word jinricksha – of Japanese/Chinese origin, meaning handcarts. Versus that, advantage cab: track the ride; AC; closed and therefore, safer; luxurious; custom payment mode; ability to use maps… Cool, right?

Third and final, Communication. The real topic of our conversation here. In the pre-Uber/Ola era, communication with the auto driver meant basically asking him whether he ‘wants to go’ where you wanted to. A whole lot of times, you ask him, ‘Bhaiya Ghatkopar?’ only to see him shaking his bob while steering his three-wheeler away from you. Little regard for the job he was doing and even less his courtesy for you.

The next step was may be arguing over which route to take. Then may be admonishing him over his need for speed. Then may be haggling about not having change, or the right fare, or where exactly he agreed to drop you off versus where you wanted him to. A generous exchange of swear words is never ruled out as an option if it turns out you are both having a bad day. It was not pretty and it still isn’t. My last week’s trip to Thane is a recent reminder. Had to “ask out” literally 15 autos before one agreed to drive me to a particular ‘naka‘ just because “time ho gaya madam, abhi badli karne ka hai” (change of shift between drivers).

This ALLLLLL has changed in the Uber / Ola era. Here, we have real conversations. Because there is greater respect. Both ways, I see. These are your private drivers on a short hire. They are courteous, most of the times (is it because their work is incentivised based on the stars you give in your feedback ? Or is it because they are actually happier doing this job? And, are they happier because they HAVE incentives?); they are not temperamental as they would have been otherwise (is it the stars again?).

There. I said it. So when my friend and I got to this part, we couldn’t but help look at each other. It struck us both exactly what it was we were really talking about. You see, a large number of the drivers working for Uber/Ola are those who have been working for someone or the other before as well. Why is it only now that conversations are in the spotlight for the simple reason that they exist?

Well, because something has enabled their existence. And that’s the beauty of technology. The app-based system has made both parties come together on the same platform to do something together. Our respect for each other has grown considerably. Our perception of the other too has changed. Especially on the customer’s side. We no longer take these men and women (in some cities) as ‘just a driver’ like we used to before.

I’ve actually been driven by an engineer who owns 2 cars he manages with Uber, employs 2 drivers for doing so, and has earlier worked where I have too. Someone once told me that a good engineer will manage to find ways to maximise the outcome with the least of resources, whichever be the field he is in. This guy has done so. He has maximised his earning potential with very little investment and inconvenience to himself.

When my parents came visiting, we were driven by an old-ish man who was clearly at peace with life; cracking jokes, stopping for pedestrians, and yet, overtaking at unlikeliest of places and having a good time, clearly. The only difference is, some of them request you to give them the ‘stars’ and some don’t.

SO, when some people talk about how an ‘engineer’ or ‘entrepreneur’ would put up with being a ‘mere cab driver’, I am amused. They speak as if they are themselves doing their dream job, living their dream lives, and following their dream career. How many of us really do, anyway! And wouldn’t most of us would stop working the day our work didn’t earn us that pay check, however passionate we claim to be about our work?

What Uber is doing is dissolving boundary lines of class. This is what education was supposed to do but it achieved quite the opposite. The scene is changing now that we have ‘educated’ drivers. I’m sure the day is not far when we have ‘educated’ domestic helps and electricians and janitors and plumbers… evidently, they take less advantage of the system and are less likely to abuse the power they have than the ‘educated’ or the ‘highly educated’ lot such as our babus and MBAs and CEOs and whatnot.

At this point, would it be too far a stretch to refer to The Bhagavad Gita and what happened between Arjun and Krishna during the all-important battle of Kurukshetra? Krishna, the lord incarnate, drove Arjun’s, a mere mortal’s chariot. Not only that, he also drove Arjuna’s side to victory.

All am saying is, perhaps it’s time to look at and perceive life out of the boxes we have constructed for ourselves and lived in for too long.

Besides, if money is what you are looking at, you could read this perhaps: TOI article on how senior execs take to driving and one of my favourite blogs on finance (financialsamurai.com) explaining what’s an aerospace engineer doing driving for Uber.

Anyway, keep calm and hail a cab tomorrow.

 

 

Full circle: Looks we’ll have to revisit civil disobedience

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‘I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilisation’ – Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Yes, taxes are meant to make civilisation possible, affordable, and practicable. In India, though, they only end up being victims of corruption.

Only 3% of India’s population pays taxes. The minorities, the business class, the farmers, and politicians, absolutely do not. Many a flourishing CA can take the credit for facilitating this. But that would be doing them injustice. It’s actually the lawmakers who create policies that gratify, indiscriminately, businessmen, and rich farmers, by creating policies and laws that eliminate the need for them to pay taxes. Don’t even get me started on Vijay Mallya. Taxes are the burden of the salaried class, unfortunately.

Anyway. A ray of hope. However anecdotal this may seem, Premlata Bhansali has burst on the scene in Mumbai, time will tell if this was just a flash in the pan. Read here: http://www.mumbaimirror.com/mumbai/crime/Ticketless-traveller-tells-TC-Arrest-Mallya-first/articleshow/51504447.cms

But for the time being, she’s made a point. The woman in question was returning on train from Elphinestone to Bhuleshwar, and did not buy a Rs.10 ticket. She was stopped by a Ticket Checker, who imposed a fine of Rs.260 on her. And our lady, she did what? – Refused. Point blank. Saying what? First ask Vijay Mallya to pay back the Rs.9,000 crore. And what I truly admire is, she argued with the cops for 12 hours straight.

Apparently, even her husband’s counselling her was to no avail. She wanted them to arrest her so that she could go on a protest like Anna Hazare. She is a mother, and she lives in a well-to-do community and family. When taken to the magistrate, she still refused to pay the fine and chose to go to jail for seven days instead.

I feel sorry for Ms. Bhansali on one hand, since her civil disobedience, while truly full of spunk, will predictably go unnoticed. Ours is a society of ethical, environmental, moral, social, logical disobedience. Civil disobedience is far out. However, this woman taking such a strong step, all by herself, is nothing short of inspirational on some level. Yes she wilfully committed the ‘crime’ of not buying a ticket. She resisted paying the fine when caught.

This news is close on the heels of one on February 3 that spoke about a High Court judge Arun Chaudhuri saying citizens should stop paying taxes if government fails to curb corruption: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/Dont-pay-taxes-if-government-fails-to-curb-corruption-HC/articleshow/50826888.cms

To quote Justice Chaudhuri, who was giving verdict in a case of embezzlement of funds at banks, “Terming corruption as a “hydra-headed monster”, the judge said it is high time citizens came together to tell their governments that they have had enough. “The miasma (unholy atmosphere) of corruption can be beaten if all work together. If it continues, taxpayers’ should refuse to pay taxes through a non-cooperation movement,” said Chaudhari.

“The taxpayers are in deep anguish. Let the government as well as mandarins in corridors of power understand their excruciating pain and anguish. They have been suffering for over two decades in the state. There is an onerous responsibility on those who govern to prove to taxpayers that eradication of corruption would not turn out to be a forlorn hope for them,” stated Chaudhari.

His words not only on the point but also extremely auguish-ridden.

I wonder what inspired Premlata’s taking such a stance.

And finally, why I am talking about it. That’s because these mandarins in our political power circles have now decided to shave off the only large chunk of forest around this big melting pot that is Mumbai – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. 22 acres of forest land that acts as the lungs of this crazy supermetropolis called Mumbai and quite simply, keeps it sane and functional. And the Mumbaikars’ silence has been priced at – A train station and some “DEVELOPMENT”. And guess who’s paying for it all? The taxpayer of course. And many times over too. Because our politicians forget that there’s an infrastructural cost and there’s environmental, social cost too. Because “Development” costs big. Unlike civilisation. Civilisation is a quality. Development is measured in things.

They won’t “DEVELOP” the existing tracks and trains or build flyover or install CCTVs or provide clean toilets and clean drinking water. They will cut off trees. Because that will not bring them moneybags.

Time to do something about all this crap.

 

Piya Behrupiya OR Shakespeare through nautanki

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Si-ja-rio! Si-ja-rio! Si-Ja-aaaaaaaaaaaaaa-rio!
I can still hear Olivia call out to her beloved Sijario (Cesario) in a Punjabi accent as thick as pakodewaali kadhi.
Her “hain” on seeing her steward – Malvolio – dressed in yellow stockings and orange vest (fishnets, if there was a worse thing possible on earth) in full Punjabi galore enough to give Kirron Kher a run for her money.
Malvolio, who has the yuppiest “yup, yup” for his Madame Olivia, mixing accents as freely as Olivia’s uncle Toby mixes his spirits to proudly proclaim – “jab tak iss shehar mein daaru hai aur meri body mein liver hai, tab tak main peeoonga”. A pretty attractive alternative to Shakespeare’s “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
That, and a Bengali Andrew, who, in his true Bengali outpouring of rage, when chance presents itself in an opportunity to beat up the amour (Sijario) of the woman (Olivia) he has been pushed into desiring by the malevolent Malvolio (Olivia’s uncle and his host and drinking buddy), he launches into a war of words – a qawwali.
Feste is a fool but only just. Feste manages to shine the spotlight on what lies between the pair of Olivia’s ears, which is, not much. Despite being a simpleton.
Unlike the smart Sebastian. Who serves as the audience’s pointsman, a far substantial role here than in Shakespeare’s original work I daresay. And his helpful Antonio has been reduced to a mere mention.
Sebastian’s twin Viola…
(That they be identical twins is a necessity for this play to make even the littlest sense;
Separated in a shipwreck – of course!
Both thinking the other is dead,
Bollywood is absolved for its
Chaalbaaz and Seeta aur geeta and Ram aur Shyam and Angoor if even Shakespeare had nothing better),
… who is pretending to be a man Cesario, in the employ of and secretly in love with Duke Orsino, hired as he is to sing of the Duke’s love for Olivia, who falls for this messenger of his instead, swayed by his looks and his voice, when suddenly Sebastian crosses this lady’s path and the lady knows naught between the identical twins.
If you are still with me after all this mash, you can conveniently figure out the ending, not that you’d care by now. The knot unravels in the most “Bollywoodlike” fashion – Olivia gets her Sijario, The Duke who wanted Olivia is suddenly content with Viola, formerly Cesario to him, Toby marries Maria, and largely all remaining characters are suitably paired up.
Fair offering for a nautanki that is Piya Behrupiya, a play that I just had the good fortune to watch with my gal pals at Prithvi Theatre. The play, with colourful actors, absolutely no props, no change of costumes, and no sophistication whatsoever as one would expect from something inspired from The Bard’s work – none of which it seems to be wanting anyway.
It is nautanki but perhaps an apt way to reimagine a story so plotless, a fact that until now was so hard to acknowledge. Piya Behrupiya does more than that though – it takes small, bite-sized digs at the prevalent social norms, makes you laugh through its witticims and clever poetry, and entertains with a fantastically talented bunch of actor-singers.
Finally, let me tell you this – there’s nothing better than and absolutely everything can be made better by, an evening out in the company of one’s gal pals.

Zumba is never just Zumba in India

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Mumbai lives for the weekends! And these three months are by far the best in this city that never sleeps – December, Jan, and Feb. So, yesterday being Sunday, I thought, carpe diem!, and made my way to the much-advertised Zumbathon, hosted in the hallowed precincts of the Heritage park in Powai.

The event was apparently hosted by a few NGOs (five) that had come together to support (and also fundraise for) not less than five causes (talk wholesale) and well, it is probably the one-hour dancethon to be conducted by certified Zumba instructors coming from all over this great city is what really attracted people to step onto the greens.

Things were moving along fine – people making their donations for the cause, collecting their passes, stepping onto the patch of grass whereby two large audio speakers stood, along with a motley crowd of NGO members and some Zumba instructors dressed for the action.

Now, Zumba-shumba hai rabba! That’s just all very well, you see. You have a Zumba dancethon, with 40 Zumba instructors, large speakers, and some public, what will happen? People will Zumba! No big deal there, yes. In any case, we are used to dancing on the roads with or without music during all sorts of processions, we can do it any time people! The point is really not that. And therein lies the point.

Well, before any of us could shake a leg, respecting a true-blue Indian custom, we had to stand an invocation. Or, call it a prayer, for at least this one wasn’t about one particular religion, unlike so many ceremonies or functions that we attend across the various sections of the society.

So, a small band of senior citizens, who were also supporting one or more of the causes outlined above (not), sang the popular “Aye maalik tere bande hum…” probably to propitiate the Gods, if not that to help us cleanse our spirits, post which we could all start doing the Zumba. And we did too, yes, ineptly, and quite confusedly. But at least, not without the invocation.

I don’t know what others did but I danced my fury away. Seriously. Be it an educational institution, a business formality, or even a Zumba session where all anyone wants to do is to do some Zumba to not very unsexy lyrics or beats, we have to have an invocation. We must have an invocation! Thou shalt stand an invocation!

At most Indian institutions, this invocation panders to the majority community’s faith – replete with lamp-lighting and all. At some places, a more universal prayer may have replaced the same. But, note that there is no escape from an invocation. Why I’ve given such an elaborate context of Zumba is that it is that much jarring to the senses! Suppose the Gods don’t like Zumba! Suppose they don’t like the way we do it! Suppose we’ve got our devotional bases (ahem!) covered!

Anyway, moving along, overheard after the Zumba dance-thon got over, “yeh auratein aise kadpe pehen kar khule mein naach rahi hain aur log video ley rahe hain, inko sharam nahin aati!” (These women, wearing such clothes, are dancing out there in the open when the event is being recorded on video, aren’t they ashamed!”)- one woman to another.

You see, Zumba is never just Zumba in India.

Vote? Majha farak nahin Padat!

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The papers look like a poll catalogue today. BJP rules the roost with its front page ads but the Shiv Sena isn’t far behind. The NCP comes third in the ad blitz splashed around… two vendors missing from the most popular English dailies – the Congress and the MNS.

I was out the other day, on my way to a popular mall, hurtling down the Ghatkopar slopes in a hardy tuk-tuk that seemed inured to assaults from its driver, who betrayed airs of particularly bad mood. I discovered later that the poor man already knew what to expect in the direction I was heading for.

A kilometre or so we found ourselves stalled. Flags everywhere, people everywhere, chaos everywhere, and cops elsewhere. The driver sighed, a minute later he started hissing out his frustration; people were walking past raising slogans and waving flags and I saw our man muttering away. So, in a way showing himself amenable to small talk, I was prompted to ask him who was he going to vote for. I saw that he did not look like the usual auto-wallas, for he was dressed in white rather than the customary khaki. He was Marathi, that I was sure of.

We had all the time – the traffic wasn’t going anywhere, nor were the party wagons and we were certainly going to have to witness the entire political rally pass by. So, he coolly crossed a leg over the other and turned back, shaking his palm with fingers outstretched and dismissed my question with a simple, “Majha farak nahin padat”. Although no fan of Singham movies, I’ve enjoyed its one-liners that I think are particularly catchy; I had a sneaky feeling of the real contesting the reel.

Just then a pesky bike-rider occupied whatever little room there was in the front and our guy turned off the engine and muttered , “Khali peeli ka time pass karta hai yeh log”. He explained he wasn’t going to vote, after all nothing was going to change, was his explanation. “Yeh log bhi idhar hai, apan bhi idhar-ich hai, kahan jaane ka!?” The latter question, considering the situation we were in, was particularly relevant – sounded less and less like a political comment to me. “Lekin madam, ek kaam karo,” he spoke sitting up erect, making eye contact into the mirror, he pointed out further into the distance – “woh aapka mall hai“, saying that if I wanted to avoid all the chaos, I could. It was a bit of a walk but then…

So, of course that’s what I did. Off the auto and on shanks’ pony, I quite made it, not without an incident though. At the divider I hailed a fellow traveller, a woman dressed in sharp formals, a glossy tote and wayfarers… hair keeping their own against the horrid heat and humidity. She avoided being knocked over by an overzealous trio of party cadets riding down the road on the wrong side, by a hair’s breadth quite literally. She was just a shoulder behind me and I thought she had noticed the errant biker; I realised she hadn’t. She obviously hasn’t lived in Lucknow or Ahmedabad as I have. I gave her a concerned look and she said, “These guys, seriously! How annoying!” tottering away on some pretty likable pumps.

And I knew all was well with the world. While the BMWs and Mercs and Fords condescended to rub elbows with the autos, while bikes jostled for the space in between, Mumbai moved on, that’s what it did.