Given the premise of this series—stories of city people you run into, neither friends nor strangers—a tale garnered from an Uber ride (usually going back home for the night, for no normal person will be too conversant on a weekday morning) was going to turn up sooner or later.
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I live and work in (different) parts of old Bangalore, none of which are Uber hotspots. A good chunk of the drivers I get paired with point out how it is quite rare for someone in my part of town to use Uber. It usually is followed by “yaavoor saar nimmdu?” (“Where are you from, Sir?” – Bangalore’s version of the British smalltalk favourite—the weather)
On days when I’m not too intent on a conversation, I say “Bangalore” and look away. That usually is an excellent conversation killer.
On other days, I say “Bangalore, but originally from Kundapur/Mangalore/Anantapur” (based on either my mood, or the cab driver’s name and my inexact deductions of where his origins may lay.)
To Sunil the other day, I chose the Mangalore option. It was a good choice. He was from Hassan district.
“Oh, just the other side of the Ghats!” I quipped.
That was invitation enough for him to narrate the story of his life—or at least the version that can fit a ride from Seshadripuram to Vijayanagar.
His narration wasn’t exactly linear; my recollection and retelling will have to be.
He came from a landed agricultural family in Hassan district. 63 acres. His father was the “oor Patelru”, a phrase reserved usually for the headman of the largest land owning family in a village. But the privileged idyllic life changed course when Hemavati did. Or rather, when the government decided to change the course of the river by damming it up, necessitating resettlement of thousands of acres, which included the 63 that Sunil’s family owned.
A combination of bureaucratic ineptitude, unfavourable political connections, personal tragedy (his father died), and a chikkappa who favoured his own offspring, the family was left with just 8 acres of land as compensation for having been removed from their lands, of which his branch of family (him, his mother, and brother) got 1.5 acres.
At this point, in the late 80s, he was in his teens, pissed off, and in a village that wasn’t even his home. He was itching to run away. A local politician cashed in.
Sunil was packed off to Bangalore, with promises of a job and other support of course, to work as an office boy at a water bottling unit on Magadi Road owned by another politician of the same leaning as the local “white shirt, white pants, white sandals, black heart” back in the Hassan village.
He started at a salary of 1500/- per month. It was hard labour, it was unpredictable labour. He did everything from assembly-line duties to carrying bottles from plant to tempo, to driving the tempo. Somewhere in there, they realised he could read and write English, and he got “promoted”, to the guy who would go to banks and fill up challans to deposit or withdraw money. A few more such “promotions” kept happening as the factory realised that he always seemed more capable than whatever he was currently doing.
In 15 years, his salary had increased by a zero to the right. That was still way below market price for what he was doing. But he was so fettered by those invisible chains that make it very hard for a lot of people to quit their first job, he had no intentions of quitting.
Until of course he learnt of things like ESI and PF. And how in spite of 15 years at the factory, he had none of those. A little more digging, he found that he wasn’t even on the factory’s rolls. The factory, with over a 100 workers had just 8 people on the rolls.
He quit. Among the many things he had done at the factory was drive their tempo. He decided that was what he enjoyed the most. One of his friends worked at a “travels” company, ferrying BPO workers hither and tither. He joined up.
He was still getting paid 15,000/- a month, but he quite enjoyed driving people around. These were people much younger than him, they all called him “saar, bhaiya,” etc. instead of the “ekavachana” he was used to all his life.
It was a fun life. Until an out-of-control truck rammed into his Tata Sumo on Hosur Road (near the Hosa Road junction)
People died. He didn’t.
He went back to his village for a few months. But he could not last there, he was a misfit. He belonged to Bangalore.
He fought (I think “emotionally blackmailed” is more accurate) with his now rich Chikkappa, and returned to Bangalore, now with a Tavera of his own.
He became what could at best be termed a freelance driver. Any travel agency that was short of a car/driver, he and his Tavera were handy to resolve the emergency. Someone in his extended circle of contacts wanted a day/weekend trip out of Bangalore, there was Sunil and his Tavera.
But disaster struck again. On a Kemmanngundi trip, on the way back, one of his passengers decided that he wanted to take the wheel. Sunil knew he was slightly drunk, yet he decided to let him drive. Ten minutes later, they took a hairpin bend at twice the speed they should have. The Tavera went over an almost-not-there parapet, and down a bit of the hillside. Five passengers. One dies. Not Sunil. Again.
At this point in the story, I had already reached home. But I knew, and so did Sunil, that things had to be brought to the present. Because Sunil was now driving a Ciaz, a fancy enough car. Things clearly had taken a turn for the better somewhere.
So he ended the Uber trip, and went on with his story, on fast-forward. The twist in the tale turned out to be a deus-ex-machina.
But, it was a good one. And a new one for me. I have always heard of people getting screwed over by “cheeTi”, the unregulated chit fund marketplace that’s rampant in Bangalore.
Sunil’s “cheeTi” got picked.
With the windfall, he bought three cars. A Ciaz, and two Innovas. He rented out the two SUVs. The Ciaz was for his pleasure—he would log in to Uber when he had nothing else to do, else it was for his private use.
I just hope that car is never in an accident with fatalities, that’s all.