Arriving in Kolkata for the first time is, I imagine, the nearest thing I’ll get to reliving the feeling of being born. Accustomed to the chilly, grey skies of Britain it’s immediately apparent that you’re somewhere utterly different and completely exotic. Whether it’s the wall of humidity that envelopes you as you’re spat out of the air conditioned aeroplane or the aromas of the ubiquitous street-side food stalls, like Dorothy waking up in the Land of Oz, all your senses are clearly in agreement: We’re not in Kansas anymore.
As bad luck would have it the first real obstacle to overcome for a new arrival in Kolkata also happens to be the thing that seems most likely to end both your visit to the city and your stay on planet earth. Navigating the bedlam that is the city’s streets for the first time can feel like a death defying nightmare. Opting to drive a rental car from the airport is surely a no-no. At first glance it looks like it must take years to master the constant 360 degree awareness needed to drive through a Kolkatan rush hour. The idea of driving in lanes is ignored, as if the city’s drivers have decided it’s a government conspiracy to slow them down. With all manner of vehicle coming at you from almost all directions, the constant blaring of horns to inform those around you of your proximity is taken as responsible driving etiquette. The unending din this creates though has spawned a number of roadside protests from uniformed schoolchildren urging drivers to pipe down.
For the newly arrived visitor, at least finding a taxi isn’t difficult. There are thousands of battered yellow Hindustan Ambassadors, the car modelled on the Morris Oxford series and manufactured in the city since 1958. However if you’re a foreign-looking tourist you’ll find haggling the indifferent drivers down to within double the going rate for a local customer almost impossible. During the protracted and largely futile negotiations I had to remind myself that my country ruled India with dubious regard to the interests of my taxi driver’s ancestors, so reparations in the form of a little racist payback is probably fair game. But if you’re a foreigner and living there on a modest local salary then getting fleeced by cabbies assuming you’re a tourist no doubt starts to wear pretty thin.
When I finally got into a Kolkatan taxi for the first time it felt like the chances of me actually reaching my destination were fifty-fifty at best. Not only are place names a fluid concept, meaning I had to try and describe my route using prominent landmarks, it’s never clear if the driver has understood my ropey foreign pronunciation. Part of the Anglosphere it may be, but practicing your best Indian accent is a worthwhile pre-trip endeavour. One might have thought the emergence of Google and sat nav would have solved this problem by now, but online maps don’t seem to have fully caught on yet in what used to be the second city of the British Empire. Whereas no doubt there are millions of tech savvy Indians Google-mapping their way around Bangalore, in Kolkata, a top-down 2D representation of the road network doesn’t seem to be a concept that most taxi drivers find particularly useful. They may glance at a proffered mobile screen out of politeness but they quickly revert to the tried and trusted method of asking passers-by for directions. The Knowledge of the London cabbie this is not.
Thankfully though the days of paying through the nose for questionable taxi service are numbered. The knight in shining armour, riding to the rescue usually in a white Suzuki hatchback, is your humble Uber driver. In Kolkata, Uber is a godsend. First up the cars are usually much newer and cleaner. They don’t have the evocative looks of the classic Ambassadors but until Uber puts them all out of business there are still plenty to admire out of the window as you travel around the city in superior comfort.
Secondly, through the Uber app, drivers have access to a GPS map which should make finding both you and your destination a breeze. In reality it doesn’t seem to always work quite as seamlessly as one might hope, often you can find yourself watching the icon of your Uber driver meandering all over the place until they call for landmark directions. But surely it’s only a matter of time.
And thirdly, gone are the days of going through the time consuming rigmarole of haggling to a reasonable price, usually done while standing in the middle of the road with traffic careening past you at speed. The pre calculated route fare of the Uber app efficiently eliminates that hassle and thankfully it doesn’t know the colour of your skin when you make your order. Uber’s simple technology is chipping away at racism one cab journey at a time.
While riding an Uber through the glorious mayhem of Kolkata, it’s easy to imagine that the company’s India office has as its mantra the words of Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street: Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.