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In Mumbai, having a chauffeur is more work than I can handle

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
One look at this Mumbai traffic and who wouldn’t hire a driver?
IndiaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

My first few months in Mumbai, I did things the hard way. The way I would in Boston. When I bought groceries, I visited the store in person rather than ordering them on the phone to be delivered. My expat friends said I was crazy for walking on the street. Between the deafening car horns, heat and pollution, hoofing around was a recipe for stress. “You have to conserve your energy,” they said. “Or this place will undo you.”

Still, I carried on on foot, carrying a giant tote bag and handkerchief to wipe my sweaty face. One day I bought some large clay pots, metal buckets, and dustbins off the street, and brought them home in a taxi. I wrapped my arms around my tower of housegoods headed for the stairs.

“Madam. Let me carry,” called a voice. It was Karim.

“I’m strong. I can do it.”

“I see you’re strong,” he said. “But let me carry.”

“Okay, you can take these.” I handed him the lighter buckets and kept moving.

Karim is my husband’s driver. Intellectually, I have understood why my husband needs a driver in Mumbai. It would be suicidal for him to drive himself. Stop lights are more for decoration than instilling order. Street signs are scarce and street numbers don’t exist. You find places by listing a series of landmarks and hoping someone on the way knows them. The streets are narrow and there is precious little on- or off-street parking. So instead of stopping the car, the driver keeps circulating with thousands of other drivers while their bosses eat lunch, drop their kids at school, or go to the mall.

My husband’s problem is less about parking and more about coping with a hellish commute. With someone else worrying about traffic, he can spend the 90-minute ride making phone calls or listening to a podcast.

Somehow I got the job of finding the driver. Other Americans living in Mumbai had warned me this was the toughest and most important hire you could make. He has to speak English well, know his way around, have a clean driving record and show up on time. My husband’s business partner had other requests – that he resist the Indian tendency to honk at every single moving object.

I imagined a dozen men streaming through my kitchen. They would keep me waiting for hours, I would ask for references, check documents, only for my husband to veto them slowly.

But Karim arrived two hours early and said all of the right things. “I am family man. I do not drink. I have four childrens. All are in Catholic school.”

He was handsome, with kind eyes, and a middle-age paunch. He was relaxed, and looked like he would wear a seat belt.

He started the next day. I got praise for finding such a great driver.

My husband went out of town on business soon after. “Use Karim. We can’t let him get bored.”

“But I’m not going anywhere. I’m working at home.”

“Then send him on errands.”

I’m not one of those people with a running list of errands.

When I think of something, I do it. All of a sudden, having a driver felt like more work than I wanted. I couldn’t imagine Karim just waiting around for me to dream up chores, so I dispatched him back to his wife and kids. The family man should be with his family.

The next time Karim was “mine” for the day, I had networking meetings around town at exclusive swimming clubs and Western-style restaurants. As I saw it, the longer they took, the better I was networking. I couldn’t put a timeframe on the meetings and it felt like a waste having this able man wait for me while I ate a salad that cost more than he would earn that day. So I took a cab. Cabs are anonymous.

Cab drivers come and go when you want them.  You don’t know how many kids they have to feed and they don’t know you’re 35 and childless.

My husband was annoyed. “We have Karim so you don’t have to take cabs.”

“But I didn’t want him to wait for me.”

“That’s what drivers do. They wait.”

Call this my Matthew Crawley moment. My husband has more experience with India and being a boss. He’s a businessman and I’m a journalist with judgments about expats staffing up just because they can. But this isn’t that. We are keeping up with our Indian counterparts. Indians—with the means—have adapted to a place where there’s no working system for getting here or there. The train won’t take you everywhere you want to go, and is dangerously crowded. So, as with many things here, Indians rely on their own private hire rather than a system. There’s no trash service, so an elderly woman with glasses and an entrepreneurial spirit empties our dustbin outside our door every morning. Someone else takes our recycling. Some people hire all-day maids just so they’ll have someone at home to wait the weeks it can take for service people to show up with cooking gas or other necessities.

But having a driver puts you in intimate proximity with someone you likely wouldn’t interact with otherwise. As a reporter, I covered some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the US: Illegal immigrants. I visited them in their homes, their schools, their workplaces. But they never visited me in my home. And if they had, they would have seen an apartment that was only a matter of degree better than theirs. Here the difference is stark. Karim, his wife, and four children live, sleep, cook, eat and shower in one room the size of my bedroom. The water runs between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Someone has to be home to hold the buckets. The bathroom is a shared toilet at the end of the hall. How much do they pay for all this? About $72 US per month.

Our south Mumbai apartment—while nothing like the $10,000-USD-a-month flats rented by expats in finance—has two bathrooms, three bedrooms, and a modern kitchen with 24 hours of running water —a palace by comparison. It’s the witnessing of our apartment, and our lifestyle, that’s uncomfortable. Karim sees the import stores where we buy American peanut butter, rice cakes, and soy milk. He sees how much we spend on electricity (about $100 USD per month during the hot months).

Still, Karim’s monthly base salary is well above the average Indian salary and higher than what many people pay their drivers. The average driver makes about 8,000 rupees per month ($145) for working six days a week. My husband’s company pays Karim 14,000 rupees ($255) a month. When my husband travels with Karim, he gets him a hotel room, rather than asking Karim to sleep in the van as many people expect. His company—a start-up venture—could likely afford to pay more for Karim. But I’m not sure there’s an amount we could pay that would make me comfortable having this man wait for me.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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