Lauren Razavi gets a glimpse of the real Calcutta from a traditional taxi.
The taxi driver shakes his head but doesn’t drive away. I repeat my destination: “Ho Chi Minh Sarani?” He shakes his head again and gestures for me to step aside. It seems there are other potential customers looking for a ride to more appealing destinations. I walk a few feet down the busy street towards another Ambassador cab. Production of these old-fashioned cars ceased a long time ago but they’re still found on roads all over this sprawling metropolis.
Like Calcutta itself, the city’s taxi culture is mind-boggling and chaotic. In the week I’ve spent here so far, I’ve only managed to secure a cab on first attempt once. Today, though, I’m lucky; this driver knows where I want to go. It’s a rare feat in the region of West Bengal, where most streets have names in three different languages. Despite Hindi being India’s national language, the majority of locals here understand only the local dialect, Bengali. And a Calcutta taxi driver who speaks English is a mythical creature.
I jump in the cab, sunflower yellow with a black band, before the driver has a chance to change his mind. We edge slowly down the street, weaving our way between motorbikes, rickshaws and pedestrians in a sonic carnival of screeching horns and squeaky worn-out brake pads. Having progressed one street along, we stop at traffic lights. I feel like I’m dancing to a staccato rhythm — and it’s a dance I’ve already become accustomed to.
Decked out in saris of pomegranate-pink and coriander-green, a group of middle-aged women approach the queuing cars. Each one claps a couple of times before shoving a hand through an open car window, looking for a few rupees towards their next meal. Everybody knows that life on the streets here is hard; locals and tourists alike hand over spare coins and 10-rupee bills in unity with their less fortunate sisters.
My taxi turns into the upmarket Park Street area, with its collection of glass-fronted shops and billboards advertising education fairs. I notice that the traffic that was moving along a one-way street yesterday is flowing in the opposite direction today. I’m learning not to dwell on such oddities, as doing so would exhaust me. This is India, I remind myself.
We wait in the middle of a lively, four-lane intersection for a few minutes. Cars inch forward, packed close enough together that I could reach out and touch the shoulder of the passenger in the next one. Some of the drivers who make it into the centre then decide to change lanes, further delay everyone’s journey and prompting a chorus of car horns that bounces back and forth through the traffic jam.
I pay the driver and step out. I begin to walk, careful to avoid the wonky paving slabs dislodged by tree roots, and the waste from food stalls that fills in the gaps. Street vendors shout to each other across the traffic, taxis elicit beeps and protests from other cars as they stop to drop off passengers. Masses of people walk around slowly, going nowhere in particular, but going there with a sense of purpose. I’ve a feeling they’ve learnt that it’s better to walk in Calcutta.