Cynicism came early in life to Denis Michael Lewis. Even before he began viewing life through the windscreen and the rearview mirror of his Fiat taxi. Mumbai has close to seventy thousand taxis. They are available any time of the day or night. They run on meters and the driver has a white card with the rates printed on them in red. Owners who drive their taxis are normally in white shirts and pants, and those who have rented them out are in brown shirts and pants. It is a demarcation insisted on by the traffic police, who also have a legendary lease on notoriety.
Most taxis are clean and well maintained and the service is very professional, easily the best in India. There are no arguments over the fare and the drivers are generally well behaved and law abiding. Many drivers live in their taxis. It is more convenient than going home. In a city teeming with people, they are always on call. Mumbai is a rich kettle of colour and curry. It is also a city that is constantly on the move. The train services are the lifeline and the bus services are also the best in the country. But driving around is uncomfortable and parking is difficult. So the taxi is in great demand even among those who own cars.
Denis is in his fifties. He is also the owner of the taxi. "I like the feeling of independence. I had taken a bank loan and paid off the money. Now I am free. I don't have to listen to someone I don't like. When I want to drive, I drive. When I don't want to, I stay at home."
Most of the taxi drivers in Mumbai are from other parts of India. Denis is from Mangalore, but the majority is from Uttar Pradesh. In a city that lives on the edge, the taxi driver invariably grows large eyes and ears. I have met several taxi drivers who knew more about the city than all the mayors put together. They could provide any news channel its biggest scoop ever, but they are also smart enough to value their lives and know how to keep their mouths tightly shut. It takes nothing to extinguish life in Mumbai. And who wants to die? The taxi driver is truly the smartest man on Mumbai's streets. He sees it all but still knows nothing!
Denis Michael is different. All he wants is to make a livelihood and look after his wife and three daughters. He is religious, and goes to church every Sunday. "Jesus is always watching," he says. A cross on his chest is also watching over him. But he doesn't take chances. If he is not comfortable with the customer who has hailed his cab, he will refuse the fare. "I don't want trouble," he says.
He is well dressed; his cab owner's white uniform is washed and ironed and has no fraying edges. To prevent the sweat and grime of a humid city from getting to his crisp, white, shirt collar, he has placed a large, brown handkerchief around his neck. His polished badge is displayed on the left pocket of his shirt. Clean shaven, hair cut short with a side parting, he has a little, neat, dyed moustache. He has no sideburns and so there is less hair to colour. Denis seems particular about the little things in life.
Getting around in Lewis' taxi is quite a luxurious affair. He also drives slowly and observes all the traffic rules. He doesn't smoke, doesn't chew paan - and so doesn't spit it out of the window on unsuspecting passers-by! - and doesn't use cuss words as though they were hard to get even in the black market. I have used taxis for years and met drivers who could make Bud Spencer look like Mother Teresa at prayer time. Denis is the gentlest, most well mannered and affable taxi driver I have ever met. He almost seems frightened to drive on Mumbai streets.
"My wife is a nurse," he continues, happy to talk to me. "Everything is expensive and so it is important for husband and wife to earn. I will educate my daughters and send them abroad. There is a great demand for nurses in other countries. Let them earn well and make their lives. I have my own apartment here. After they are settled, I will go back to Mangalore and live peacefully. My wife has lot of property. I left Mumbai many times. Got fed up driving this taxi. But got bored and came back. There is life in Mumbai. Mangalore is boring. There is nothing to do. How long can you look at the scenery? So I came back. I see everything that is happening here. But I believe in Jesus and pray to him when I am troubled. He helps me."
I ask him about things he has seen, things that have disturbed him. "Everything," he says. I prod him, and persist. "What can I say? Now don't get me into any trouble. I am not involved in anything. I am a taxi driver, that's all. Please understand." I assure him that there won't be trouble. He tells me that he has driven taxis for thirty-two years. "It is a long time. But last fifteen years the taxi is my own. Before that I took it on hire. In such a long time you see everything. You see guns, bombs, everything.
"Sometimes, a boy and a girl take the taxi and start making love. Once a couple undressed completely. I saw it in the mirror. I have daughters. I stopped the taxi and told them to dress up and go home. They offered me double. I told them that I don't want any payment. I said that I would go to the police and I would tell their parents. They got scared and ran away. This happens all the time. People think the taxi is the bedroom. If they don't have any place to go to, why don't they choose another taxi? Prostitutes also bring their customers. It is cheaper in a taxi and there are no raids. I don't like all this. Now please don't get me into trouble." I pat him on the back in gentle reassurance.
He tells me about police harassment, about customers who promise to pay and then vanish, and how he has even been robbed at knifepoint. "All this happens in the night. But I don't go to the red-light area and other dangerous spots and if I see a group that is drunk I don't take them. Then I will be asking for trouble. They also take drugs in the taxi. They stop it in a corner, all educated boys and girls from good families, and take drugs. If we see a police van coming, they ask me to drive. Sometimes, I have to do all this. They pay me well, much more than the cab fare.
If I say no to everything, I won't be able to drive my taxi. I can't help it but I also overhear conversations and I can tell you many things, but I won't. I have talked about this to my wife. She says it is okay, that life is like this. She is a nurse in a municipal hospital. She also sees everything. I just pray to Jesus to forgive me."
I can see that this conversation is disturbing Denis. He is on edge. So I suggest that we have a cup of tea and some biscuits. We drive to the entrance of the flesh district next door and park. Suddenly, there are gunshots and a mob is running towards us. There is blood all over. We duck for cover. The mob passes us and a police siren blares. Denis starts the cab and we take off. "See, I told you what happens," he says much later, still shaking, and trying to wipe the grime from the statue of Mother Mary looking on at him without a change in expression.