In Mumbai, any commute is an adventure. No journey is without a traffic jam. The roads are an obstacle course of potholes and pedestrians. Google Maps often can't tell if the highway it's recommending is closed for repairs, yet again.
If you need to take a taxi, cross your fingers. Mumbai's 58,000 metered taxis (or kaali-peelis as the black-and-yellow fleet is affectionately called) are driven by a temperamental species. They refuse short-distance rides. They're picky about out-of-the-way destinations. They're simlpy grouchy — even on a good day.
But once you've scored a taxi, get in and look up. You'll notice a canvas that holds the most unusual art. Approximately half the city’s cabs decorate their ceilings and doors in some kind of colorful plastic or vinyl sheeting.
If you’re lucky, you might get the common fruit design — photos of melons, berries, kiwis, even a sliced papaya, all cobbled together. Continue taking taxis, and you may spend one ride under what looks like a tacky tablecloth your grandmother threw away. There are neat geometrics, subtle two-tone filigree patterns, delicate cherry blossoms, garish zebra prints and monstrous bouquets. The truly fortunate may even see the unicorn of taxis: a fully mirrored ceiling with a chandelier affixed just behind the driver’s head.
None of the designs have ever matched the upholstery on the seats, of course. Perhaps Mumbai taxi art is just meant to clash.
But taxi decor is not new. Older car models were bigger and some would feature a shiny pole between the front and back seats. Many had blinking lights inside — simply because they could. Upgrades over the last five years, however, phased out the old models for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. There is no longer room for poles.
Worse, factory-fresh models come covered in feltlike fabric that’s not only dull, but hard to keep clean, necessitating printed coverings.
I took my first shot of a taxi ceiling in April 2017 — a chocolate-brown background covered in strawberries of unnatural hues. It occurred to me that perhaps I wouldn’t be seeing the colorful ceilings for long. In the five years since app-based rides have entered India, they won over the middle-class with more transparent pricing, polite drivers, carpool options and e-payment. Mumbai taxi drivers have gone on strike several times in protest — driving even more commuters away.
I’ll admit, kitschy decor is no match for the promise of a smoother commute. But over the past month, as I’ve shared my shots of ceiling art on Twitter and Instagram, one thing’s clear: Many Mumbaikars still take taxis. They need only a little prodding to look up. And once they do, they’re hooked.
My feeds are now full of friends and strangers, alike, sharing pictures of taxis they’ve taken across the city. Many locals comment that they simply didn’t pay attention to the variety of kaali-peeli designs before. The drivers, however, remain unimpressed in the face of compliments about their cars and drive on.
Still, it’s more fun than the cold, gray inside of an Uber.
Rachel Lopez reports from Mumbai.