Thursday, October 27, 2005

Living On the Cabs 

In the last couple of months I've made the acquaintance of more cab drivers than I've had hot crumpets. They were only brief encounters, a short hop from the LRT station to work, short hop again from the LRT station in the journey home. Some mornings when the sun wasn't too harsh, I did the outward journey to the station on foot, some balmy evenings I sauntered through a maze of food stalls and parked cars, the local sewage treatment plant and the tall dwelling towers, and then a hop here and a jump there over semi-covered drains and uneven paving stones, and I was home. If I survived the pedestrains' crossing with crazy motorbikers wheezing through even as the light's green for you to cross that is. Most people I complained to about Kuala Lumpur's suicide motor-bikers expressed amazement that I even walked, because no one walked in this city, not even for a short distance.

But Kuala Lumpur wasn't a city for pedestrians, so most days I had my half an hour with cab drivers, one of whom turned sage: "Orang Kuala Lumpur maanyaaak rajin; api merah pun mahu pigi, takut sampai lambat!" These Kuala Lumpurians are sooooo hard-working; they even crash the red lights to arrive in time for work!

Getting into a cab on a rainy day I was instantly recognised. I'd forgotten him of course. "We met a couple of days ago," he said. "Of course," I said, doing the politician's ruse while stealing a glance at his dashboard licence. "Ah, Encik M!"

Encik M was an unnerving man of excellent memory. Worked for a long time studying faces, learnt to take snapshots that stuck to his brain. And then he'd purusue them through thick and thin. They didn't change in his mind, he told me, even if they wore a beard or tinted their moustache green. Also they way they carried themselves, he said.

"Forgive me," he said, "I was once in military intelligence."

He gave a quick overview of how he worked. "Put a tough person in a pink room," he said, "and he'll open up in next to no time."

On my second day in town, the cab driver gave a cursory look and asked how long I intended to stay this time. How could he have known when no one even knew I'd been gone? "Oh, picked you up the day before you left the last time," he said, and that, in my mental note, was exactly a year ago the week before. And then I heard him tell me this and that of everything I told him before I last repacked my bags.

Is everyone here now former operatives of military intelligence?

Because of the time they spend waiting, cab drivers are avid readers. One not only knew journalists, but was also a keen student of journalism. Sussing that I'd spent some part of my life deep in ink, one gave a quick run-down on the state of newspapers in ths metropolis. To my surprise, his favoured rag was the New Straits Times. "I miss A. Kadir Jasin's Other Thots column," he confided. Being no expert on the thots of A. Kadir Jasin, I left it immediately at that.

There were also other, quieter men of the tabloids, who folded their newspapers and drove off in studied boredom. They looked at the erring ways of men — kamikaze bikers, sudden brakers, u-turners — without the slightest hint of irritation, in eerie silence that I always tried to break from my position in the front passenger seat. "What's in the papers today then?" Oh, nothing much, they'd say, just news you know. Just news.

A grey-bearded man picked me up outside a mosque one afternoon, a slim volume hidden behind his steering column, a Malay exegesis of the Qur'an. He studied in the holy city of Medina, he said, and I wasn't in the least surprised. His Minangkabau lilt turned my mind to Gombak, and the face-covered women who travelled on the Len Seng buses of my schooldays, who came from an old colony just a few miles from where we lived. "Those extremists," he said, to my surprise, as I'd expected him to be very conservative. "Islam does not ask women to cover their face," he said, "the hejab is good enough."

R was rushing to town to catch the gas. This damned gas thing that'd make him queue for two hours at least. Next door to the soon-to-be third highest buildings in the world, KLCC towers. Clean gas, I thought, but at what price? Two-hour wait, tank not filled to the brim ("Weak compressor at the station"), quick return for a refill and two more hours in the wait. I'd often walked past these queueing cabs whenever I was in that part of town. They also served who only stood and peed: the waiting men drank their fill and waited. And waited. The low wall lining the quiet road to the station stank of cab drivers' urine.

"How will Diwali be for you this year then?" I asked.

"No Diwali, I've told my wife and children. Half my day's work for the cab hire, and from the other half I pay for gas and maintenance. All I get after about 12 hrs work is 40 ringgit."

My heart bled quietly for Diwali and gas.

The burly person sitting up front in the cab-rank outside the LRT station was a woman. First time I'd met a woman cab driver in Kuala Lumpur. Tough, if slightly overweight person, new to the job, and no-nonsense. I'd just seen her send away a punter who'd already sat himself in his cab. "Didn't know where he was going," she said. "I can't be much bothered with that."

"Had this Indonesian man once in the back who wanted to go to this place with many flats. Really got my goat. We went round and round and round until he finally thought to phone his friend to ask for directions."

I've got a handphone, I said, and I've never been to Medan.


Living On the Cabs

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