Ritwick Ghatak’s Ajantrik revolved around the lonely life of a man who loved his set of wheels more than anything else in the world and was determined to keep it against all odds. Satyajit Ray’s Abhijaan dealt with a proud Rajput who considered his vehicle to be the white stallion owned by his proud ancestors, which he rode or drove to fight against evil and conquer the world. The protagonist in Ray’s other great masterpiece Parash Pathar started riding cars when he sought to enjoy life after his windfall gain
What do these great movies have in common? They all focus on taxis and hired cars, a crucial part of our lives today. The cab driver’s attitude might irritate us, the congestion they cause may drive us mad but the Calcutta cab has a long and colourful history.
It was only after the World War I (1914-19) that taxis and hired cars appeared on the roads of Calcutta in appreciable numbers. However, contemporary newspapers complained, cars-for-hire were very few in number compared to the large number of horse drawn (hackney) carriages in service which offered cheap but slow rides.
Car drivers were mostly Sikhs but there were some non-Sikh men as well. According to sociologists, Punjabi men usually travelled to Kolkata with plans to go on to Singapore or Hong Kong or Myanmar but stayed back to work in the newly emerging cars-for-hire industry. Cabs in this era were mostly mid-sized Morris and Austin cars, and some American vehicles – all well known for their reliability and low cost of maintenance but less powered.
The Great Depression that hit the world from 1929 to 1939 severely affected India, a part of the British Empire. Many factories were closed down and managers lost their jobs. Prices of cars crashed and many mid sized cars of American (Dodge, Pontiac) or English (Wolseley, Humber) make were used as taxis.
The car in the movie ‘Ajantrik’ was a 1920s Chevrolet, running in the 1940s. It was possibly the famous ‘390’ model, a six-cylinder car which was the world’s largest selling vehicle for quite a few years in that era. The American Chrysler tourer sold well too; the car featured in ‘Abhijaan’ was a Chrysler. Some of the taxis were of Ford model ‘A’ make which had a four-cylinder engine. Cabs had fabric tops and could be any colour, but were mostly black.
There were also a few mini-taxis, like Austin Seven or similar Morris cars, with open tourer body. These were almost as cheap as a hackney carriage. Because they were so small, the rear seat was a padded bench set a little high for legroom. As a result, the rear passengers sat higher than the driver; so they were jocularly called ‘prams’ because of the way passengers stuck out!
Many cars – private and hired – were requisitioned during World War II (1939-45) but once it was over, a huge glut of cars flooded the market. These were mostly American cars as English manufacturers were yet to recover from the war. Calcutta saw a large number of six-cylinder taxis, painted black with yellow tops, flood its streets as petrol was cheap. Following the war and Partition, many families lost their cars and the demand for taxis grew.
The dominant player in the market was US giant General Motors (GM), then the largest company in the world. Its finance division pushed Pontiac and Oldsmobile cars with six cylinder engines. Chrysler pushed its Dodge models, as did Hudson, while Ford sold its V8s. All these cars were immensely comfortable, hardy and spacious. On the plus side, they were powerful and capable of negotiating most terrains and even for long drives (for instance- you could take a taxi from Calcutta to Asansol). One disadvantage was that they were fuel guzzlers, being large and capable of carrying huge loads.
You can see these taxis in movies like ‘Parash Pathar’ or Hindi films like ‘Howrah Bridge’. One can see them in photographs in old newspapers and magazines. Only one vehicle could resist this competition- the Willys jeep. Thousands were dumped in the Calcutta market after the war and many became private taxis or vehicles for hire. A mid-income man-usually using a self-owned small car daily in town had the option of leaving it in the local garage and hire a jeep on exchange for a trip to Hazaribagh, Darjeeling, or Simultala. Alternatively, jeeps could be hired for self-drive for a day or two for a ‘shikar’ trip to the hills or forest areas with friends.
End of an era- the 1970s
The wonderful taxi fleet gradually vanished from the roads and was replaced by the Hindustan Motors (HM) cars- particularly the polluting diesel Ambassador for two reasons.
First, Birlas were making HM cars in Bengal; the monopoly of taxi manufacturing was given to them. This led to a rampant black market but politicians did not seem to mind. GM and Ford factories were shut down by our politicians. Imports of spares were heavily taxed. Only HM, Premier and Standard cars were exempted. Secondly, petrol prices were hiked. American cars used more fuel; as a result, they faded away despite being superior in every other way.
Thus, the luxury limousines that used to operate in the past came to be replaced by the boring yellow and black taxi that we see today.