Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Basic Deal With Drivers

The General Setup
Most self respecting westerners (or at least any westerner whose company car lease strictly forbids driving) has the support of a driver while in India. The particulars of the setup can vary widely. For our situation, we technically have what is called a “cab” here that means it’s a commercial vehicle, almost like a livery in the U.S. However, the only difference between a “cab” and another car is the color of the license plate. Since Lindsay and I are technically here on two separate assignments, we each get a car as part of our benefits. As a result, we have better access to transportation than many other expats we’ve met here. The reason? Drivers/cars are typically available six days a week for twelve hour shifts. Based on this setup, Lindsay and I have a car start early, a car start late, and give one car off each day of the weekend. The net result is something like 18 hours of coverage of weekdays and 12 hours of coverage on weekends. If we extend beyond that time, there is a nominal charge (i.e., the car just doesn’t disappear if you’re out to dinner and you hit the end of a shift).

The Cars
Lindsay and I each have a Honda City, which is the smallest Honda car sold in India and slightly smaller than the Honda Civic with which you may be familiar. While this might seem too small, especially if you’re familiar with my size (i.e., six-one and 200-ish pounds), when the front seats are set especially far to the front (which is always the case on the passenger size and basically the case on the driver side…the typical Indian driver is considerably smaller than my six-one, 200 pound frame), there’s enough room to comfortably fit. Plus, they’re stylishly black in color, which I had the good fortune to pick during the car selection phase of the assignment.

The Drivers
The subculture of the Indian driver is interesting, to say the least, to those that are unfamiliar with India. The reality is that they’ve chosen a profession where they’re basically at the beck and call of their employer. Our drivers literally report at the given time by giving a “missed call” (i.e., they call and let the phone ring once and hang up; basically their unofficial way to punch into the clock). They then sit around and wait until we’re ready to go wherever we’re going. At our apartment complex, there’s a drivers’ waiting room where the drivers congregate to play cards, read the paper, etc. Personally, nothing would frustrate me more than participating in a card game where yourself or another player could be called away at any given time. I wonder if they have rules for this scenario. When we go where we’re going, they find a place to park or some other unknown place where drivers congregate and wait for us to finish. When we’re ready to be picked up, we simply call and a couple minutes later they reappear. The most frequent phone call I make consists of the following conversation:

Kailish (who you’ll meet in a minute): “Hello, sir”
Me: “Kailish, can you come pick me up?”
Kalisih: “Coming!” (Note, recently this conversation has become more efficient by him simply answering and saying, “Hello, sir, coming.”)

Kailish – The Early Shift Driver
I have no idea how old Kailish is, but there’s a good chance that he wouldn’t be able to legally drive in the U.S. unless he was a farm kid in Iowa. He’s a smart guy; at times, I worry he’s too smart and will find a way to get out of the driving business which would probably be good for him but bad for me. He quickly learned our routine and basically knows where we’re going before we tell him. We’ve had our share of difficult drivers in our time in India, but Kailish is prompt, waits in obvious places when we’re out, and isn’t afraid to quickly get directions if he doesn’t know where we need to go (sorry, that last sentence sounded like feedback for his annual review). All things that would seem positive traits that a driver should posses, but not as common as you would hope. At first glance, Kailish has a fairly cushy gig for a driver. He reports at 8am and typically is released by noon or 1:00pm.
Depending on our schedule, his routine usually entails taking one or both of us to the gym, waiting there, taking Lindsay to work, stopping at home briefly with me so I can take gym bags out of the trunk, and then driving me the 45 seconds it takes to get to my office. On especially busy days, when Lindsay goes to the gym early, he might be forced to shuffle between us. Initially, I thought this to be a good deal for him as he’d have the rest of the day to do as he please. However, after a strangely complex conversation I had with him recently (I was shocked at the well-developed level of his English) he informed me that he routinely works 16 to 18 hour days. So once we release him, he takes on other rides. This makes me feel a little less guilty about keeping him around longer through the day if there’s a chance we might need him. I’ve got to think it’s “better” for him to stay with a ride longer than to have to shuffle between. I’m fairly positive his pay remains the same (i.e., the company gets the benefit of his availability but probably has him on some daily wage regardless).

Ashok – The Late Shift Driver
I actually know very little about Ashok as I typically only see him one day a week on the weekends and occasionally on a Friday night if we go out for dinner after work. I was shocked to learn (through Lindsay who had learned through Kailish) that Ashok has a one-year old son. This seemed particularly surprising because Ashok, much like Kailish, looks no older than 15.

Ravi – The Former Driver
He was quite possibly the worst driver we’ve ever had. While his reference to the “Ravi-car” versus the “Kailish-car” was somewhat endearing and helped us determine which car to expect when, his penchant for pissing people off was not. Here's a quick rundown of our time with Ravi:
  • He quickly made enemies with the security guards in our complex by taking short-cuts (i.e., the American way) to make right turns in the neighborhood roundabouts.
  • He took "shortcuts" that took longer than the actual route; typically these shortcuts were through private parking areas where, again, the guards would yell not so nice things at him
  • He routinely argued with people on the phone when asking directions to the place we were headed (even though the person he was arguing with was at the intended destination).
  • He would call Lindsay multiple times each day to confirm or confuse the time that she needed to be picked up from work.
  • He routinely would take 10 – 15 minutes to show up when called (or after the time he had quadruple confirmed with Lindsay; apparently when the two parties don't speak the same language fluently these types of mishaps can occur).
  • He decided to stop wearing his uniform (ordinarily, I wouldn’t have minded the no-uniform thing, it’s a little unnecessary; however, if you’re supposed to wear it, wear it). Plus, the driver uniform (kind of like a cruise ship officer's) looks a little odd when you're wearing the pants and a black untucked t-shirt.
  • He gave off the aura that he may or may not have been stoned from time to time.
Add all those things together and throw in the fact that Lindsay had just finished the book “White Tiger” which is a novel written as a first-person narrative of an Indian driver that kills his employer, and Ravi’s days were obviously numbered.

The Conclusion?
For most foreigners (myself included) having a driver is either a necessity or a necessary evil. It can be endlessly frustrating if you have no idea where you're going and they have no idea where you're going, but as long as you have a phone number, an Eicher Delhi Map Guidebook, or are humble enough to ask directions, you're typically going to get where you need to get. And since the idea of being on time has different cultural meanings here entirely, you're typically not even late.

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