Over the last month or so, since car-pooling apps launched their pooling or shared services in Mumbai, they have become a favourite mode of transport for many of us office-goers. Concerns on sharing rides with unfamiliar people have given way to the joys of looking forward to meeting with strangers. The stories that are narrated, the experiences shared, the friendships that are made make up for the few minutes of detour that sharing inevitably entails. Of course, the cost of travel coming down has also been a big positive.
The co-passengers typically cover the same route as I do, and both of us can do with company in the hour-long ride. It speaks volumes of Mumbai’s infrastructure that a 12-km ride back home in the evening via the Western Express Highway typically takes around an hour. Earlier, the way to while away time was to generally fiddle with your mobile phone, call up friends and family, or if you were supremely lucky with your telecom provider, you could see a 15-20 minute video in an hour-long ride—considering the buffering. Now there is a human interaction to look forward to.
I wonder what it is about the atmosphere of a shared car that interactions are effortless. Maybe it is the fact that we belong to similar backgrounds: After all, for a 9-to-6 office-goer to be pooling in a cab means that the co-passenger has been picked up from around your office or home. It does seem that we find it kosher to open up to a stranger in a car ride who we do not necessarily expect to meet again, or maybe if we fortuitously do meet again, we want to leave a conversation thread open. I have been pleasantly surprised to see people connect on LinkedIn or Facebook, post such rides.
Over the last few weeks, I have met with a wide bunch of people. They have ranged from a private banker, an IT consultant, an e-commerce professional, a life-long LIC employee, an RBI official, a lawyer, among others. Their stories and experiences have made me a richer person. The driver, or rather his navigation tool, becomes the arbiter of disputes and the judge of which route is the shortest. Many a time, he is the one who breaks the ice and gets the discussions going or he is the one who steers not just the car but also the conversation.
In our daily lives where we meet people who are more-of-the-same, meeting others who have different problems in life and vastly different approaches to solve them is an uplifting and a learning experience. Many of them have lives so removed from the daily humdrum that we go through, and their perspectives open up new avenues of thoughts.
I have learnt that a new-age bank is getting into the credit card business and that the Big 4 consultants also appoint sub-consultants for IT outsourcing. I now know about some types of frauds that people perpetuate on LIC, the statistics that the central bank is concerned about, or the customer engagement metrics that an e-commerce company cares for. And I also know some of the factors impacting the Nigerian and Mozambique currencies.
One can argue that none of these are novel learnings or none which I could not have imagined or, indeed, some that I may not even have cared about. However, that takes away from the human touch that each of these experiences bring—how else would I have known about the peaceful nature of life at a government job, the excitement of being in a hyper-growth e-commerce company, the challenges of a lawyer trying to get his due from a large corporate client, the mixed emotions of a father who has been uprooted from his hometown of 60 years but is happy to see his son and daughter progress here in Mumbai.
There are happy stories and there are unsaid, sad undertones. Some discussions leave you upbeat about life, some wear you down with the worries that your co-passenger leaves behind with you—maybe they feel lighter having shared their challenges with a complete stranger. Of course, there have been harrowing experiences sometimes in waiting for them, picking them up or dropping them off, and some times that adds a touch of harshness when the conversation starts or ends—such times help you introspect on how you react to an unpleasant situation. It is the silence in the car that some times unnerves!
New questions are now emerging and protocols are evolving: if you are the first to board, which seat should you take—the one right behind the driver or the one diagonally opposite? If you are joining in a trip, should you sit beside the passenger or in the front seat? Does the answer change if the two passengers are of different sexes? If a man is riding alone and a couple of ladies join in, should he move to the front seat? Should you be talking on the phone when in the car? What should you do if you get ‘material price sensitive information’ when you are generally chatting? As the practice of sharing becomes more prevalent, cities will develop their own culture and it is fascinating to see it emerge.
With so many questions, let me add one more: who will I meet today? If you have not yet tried a ride-share, do so: who knows we may meet!
Akhilesh Tilotia is the author of The Making of India: GameChanging Transitions, and is an associate director with Kotak Institutional Equities. Views are personal