Mumbai Taximen: Autobiographies and Automobilities in India

Anasua Chatterjee

At a glance, Mumbai Taximen appears to be a book-length study of the taxi industry in Mumbai and the livelihoods it encompasses. But in its scope and possibilities, the book goes beyond a simple engagement with the usual categories of understanding automobility, and presents a carefully fleshed out account of a particular community’s mode of inhabiting a rapidly changing South Asian city through the lens of labour – specifically, the labour of driving the trademark black-yellow cabs, popularly known as the “kaalipeelis” of Mumbai. In the process, Bedi delves deep into the symbiotic relationship between man and machine. In this case, though, the driver is not viewed as an individuated masculine subject, but as an agent embedded socially and spatially in networks of kin and community.

Bedi employs an ethnographic lens to understand labour and automobility in Mumbai. In doing so, she draws heavily from Laplantine’s (2015) understanding of “participant sensation” and contends that for the chillia drivers – the community of taxi drivers she studies – sensual relations with cars are “also social relations of making a life” (p. 5). Bedi commits to a multisensory engagement with driving work, a perspective that allows her to move beyond the traditional privileging of vision and audition characteristic of classical ethnographies, and to highlight the potentials of the “lower” senses such as those of touch, smell, or taste. This culminates in a sensuous, thickly descriptive ethnographic prose. The chapters in the book attempt to give readers a “sense of the smells, sounds, tastes, and touches, vibrations, joys, pleasures, and pain that make up the lives of cars and kinship in South Asian cities” (p. 6).

In Bedi’s narrative, both the automobiles and the city of Mumbai appear as fluid – shifting, evolving, and adapting with the changing rhythms of the everyday. Just as the urban space shifts with changing hours of the day or events in the annual calendar, the Premier Padmini, the predominant make of Mumbai’s signature kaalipeeli, also changes with the textures of the streets, with the topographies of the city, and more significantly with the dekh-bhal (care) and the haath (hands, here the particular hands and therefore abilities of a specific chillia driver) it is subjected to. For the chillia drivers and mechanics, whose lives revolve around their cars and the driving business (“dhanda”) in the city, the automobile becomes a way of knowing the city and their place in it. Here, it is of interest to note that the constant threats over the withdrawal of the Padmini due to age and obsolescence appear to the chillia as reminders of their own fate in the evolving domain of the cab service trade in the contemporary city.

Bedi traces the trajectory of the chillia, a community of Momin Muslims from Gujarat’s Palanpur who constitute one of the oldest groups of cab drivers in Mumbai city. Labelled “joona,” or old, they represent a hereditary community of cab drivers united by religion, village/kin ties, neighbourhood, and their work in the city. Their ethics of business, the relationships with their cars, and their obligations to kin and customers are seen as cohering around moral practices of community, which lends meaning and value to their labour. This transforms it from a mere act of economic provisioning to dignifying labour, the prime constituent of their identity in Mumbai’s urban space. In doing so, Bedi effectively blends issues of community and urban space into this narrative of automobility. She also examines the discursive meanings of “home” and “outside” constituted by chillia practices of driving, care, and repair, which are some of the key questions in the study of South Asian cities in recent times. Her ethnographic intervention also pays close attention to not only the male subject, the chillia driver, but also to their location within a jaalu (web) of social relations, within which the household division of labour between genders and close kin remain significant. Mutual obligations, far from being constraints, actually appear as sites of freedom for the chillia, who draw attention to the security and reassurance that such ties provide.

Two themes that stand out in this study of Indian automobility are those of obsolescence and technicity, respectively. The recurring debates and contestations around the Padmini’s technological obsolescence point to the heterochronic timelines that characterize Mumbai’s and, in turn, India’s modernity. The perceived obsolescence of one of the first cars of Indian make – compared to newer, imported models that sport fancier technologies and come equipped with passenger friendly GPS systems – parallels broader shifts in priorities and sensibilities characteristic of the new neoliberal India. The fact that the Padmini was open to manoeuvres, repairs, adjustments, and new fittings only rendered the car an undependable machine in the technocratic narrative, which called for its withdrawal from the city roads. On the other hand, the very term “joona” has come to carry a very different meaning in the narratives of the chillia, who view the term as indicative of their “original” status as cab drivers in Mumbai. For the chillia, both the efficacy of their cars as well as their own knowledge of the city’s terrain are products of long-term experience, a reality which they felt lay beyond the comprehension of the new technocratic elite.

Technicity, on the other hand, is invoked to signify the chillia drivers’ orientation to their cars, one based on trust and the recognition that the vehicles are active partners in their everyday lives. This is displayed in the attachment that both chillia drivers as well as their immediate family and kin have with the taxis, as displayed in the practices and politics of care that they engage in. For Bedi, feminized care as a category is reflected in the dekh-bhal not only of the machine, but also of the self and kin which together constitute the lived world of the chillia taximen. Bedi’s invocation of care manages to pose a challenge to existing theories of technological alienation that view machines merely as alienating devices devoid of the ability to form meaningful relationships with humans.

Bedi also locates the lives and livelihoods of the chillia within the broader shifts in the taxi trade in the city, which has seen subsequent entries of privately owned fleet taxis, Indian Olacabs, and Uber in recent years. Each of these modes of transport represent different levels of technological advancement, different regimes of capital, different modes of “knowing” the city, and, indeed, different versions of India’s urban modernity. The last chapter attempts to tie up the anxieties of the sensory world of driving, repair, and care with the concerns of the everyday state, especially its prime actors: taxi union leaders, bureaucrats, and periodically technocrats. Bedi juxtaposes various ethnographic voices to highlight competing standpoints that together throw light on shifts in the labour politics of the city, particularly those pertaining to the joona drivers. The “naka” (crossroads) becomes a figurative reminder of the space where the hereditary trade of the chillia taximen are currently located.

Mumbai Taximen largely manages to achieve what it seeks to do – i.e., to present a situated reading of automobility in India by placing the many facets of the taxi trade firmly within Indian realities. Two chapters that particularly shine are Chapter 3 and Chapter 5, which take up the themes of time, obsolescence, repair, and care. Both, in their own ways, effectively locate the human aspect of the taxi trade, presenting an alternative reading of the relationship between humans and the non-human world of machines, roads, and the city itself. While contemporary literature on driving in India has largely focused on gig work, highlighting the plights of Uber and Olacab drivers, Bedi’s focus on the chillia drivers presents a continuum that presents the multiple shifts in the taxi industry and associated changes in labour issues. Despite this, perhaps the one area where the book suffers is its continuous, almost overwhelming reliance on concepts that are often invoked without a systematic exposition, keeping the reader guessing as to their immediate relevance to the narrative. Further, the concepts are drawn from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, ranging from feminist theory to critical geography, which often makes it difficult to identify the book’s core perspective. This perhaps also has to do with the somewhat multi-nodal focus that occasionally characterizes Bedi’s text. Further, the focus on the chillia taxi drivers of Mumbai also yields a specific postcolonial reading of “Indian automobility,” as she calls it, often leaving out other debates around automobility that have characterized urban spaces in India beyond cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai. Nonetheless, the book remains a crucial intervention in the lived worlds of urban infrastructure, bringing to life the vibrant yet tangled realities of one of the earliest agents of the taxi trade in Mumbai.