Life in Black and Yellow


Mumbai's Premier Padmini taxis are on their way out. What does it mean to a city in flux?

Nostalgia can be a chameleon, and a breathless megapolis such as Mumbai may not even notice its changing colours or shapes. Perhaps, the speed of transformation of its urban landscape, and the simultaneous crawl of some others, places India's financial and entertainment capital in a unique twilight zone. Many icons of the city have been caught in this flux, before quietly becoming history. Like some legendary textile mills that have made way for office complexes and shopping malls while others wait for deliverance. Crumbling chawls and Art Deco buildings that coexist with skyscrapers housing some of the wealthiest Indians. The cream-and-maroon local trains that are being replaced by the new white-and-purple Siemens rakes. And the range of air-conditioned coaches, King Long buses and their Indian-manufactured counterparts that are pushing out the BEST's double-deckers and red monsters.

In terms of sheer symbolism though, none can match the latest candidate queued up outside Mumbai's apocryphal museum of modern history: the black-and-yellow Premier Padmini taxi.

Foreign visitors have called it the poor, subcontinental cousin of New York's checker cabs or London's black taxi. Mumbaikars of all classes have sworn by it for over four decades. The monsoons and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) battered it in different ways, Bollywood wove stories around it, terrorists placed bombs inside it and Richard Branson played a drum on its roof to market his airline. But in an uncanny resemblance to the famous resilience of the Mumbaikar, the Mumbai taxi survived it all.

However, like all things that don't keep up with the times, the old order has begun to fade into sepia-tinted memories, forced by transport authority norms and the arrival of modern, zippier wheels. Following a direction from the state government about three years ago to phase out taxis more than 20 years old, thousands of Premier Padmini taxis have gradually fallen by the wayside, making way for the spiffier Maruti, Hyundai and Tata hatchbacks, and the more luxurious radio taxi sedans.

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