"I can’t take money from patients because it’s during hospitalisation that they need it the most" - Vijay Thakur
Hailing a taxi in a busy city like Mumbai can be taxing. If looking for a cab in muggy weather on crowded, dusty and cacophonous streets is not enough to fray your nerves, finding one with a cabby who says no to you will undoubtedly do so. But Vijay Thakur, who drives a yellow and black Wagon R, is a rare cabby who never turns down a passenger. What's more, he goes out of his way to help if it is a medical emergency, without taking the taxi fare. He proclaims it in writing on his cab.
Thakur had worked as a mechanical engineer at Larsen & Toubro for 18 years before he started serving people through his taxi service. “I never did this for publicity,” says Thakur, 72. Dressed in a blue shirt and dark pants, he is at his favourite spot, a tea stall in Andheri West, where he catches up with regular customers and other cab drivers. “Mine is a long story,” he says. “Where do I begin?” His wife, Saroj, who was three months pregnant, experienced abdominal pain early one morning in 1982. She needed medical help, and more than 30 minutes were lost looking for a taxi or rickshaw that would take them to hospital. Eventually, the pregnancy had to be aborted, and Thakur was devastated. So, when Larsen & Toubro introduced a voluntary retirement scheme in 1984, Thakur took up the offer and decided to become a taxi driver, promising himself never to decline a passenger. He bought a Fiat car for Rs66,000 and got a taxi permit.
It was not an easy decision. From a secure, white-collar job with a handsome salary, Thakur would be joining the modest ranks of taxi drivers with no fixed income. But, for Thakur, it was never about the money. “Not for a single minute have I regretted the decision to drive a taxi,” he says. While his wife and relatives dissuaded him, urging him to start a consultancy practice instead, Thakur chose to follow his heart.
Fifteen years later, another tragic incident led him to offer his services free of cost to those in need of medical help. His 19-year-old son died after an unsuccessful surgery for cancer. In addition to the emotional agony, Thakur experienced the financial strain of medical treatment. He also realised how cold hospitals could be. Once, he had to pay a bill for Rs43,000 for his son's treatment. When he found he was short by Rs10, the cashier refused to accept any money. A stranger offered the balance, and only then did the cashier take the money and issue receipt. This incident strengthened his resolve to help people in need. “I can’t take money from patients because it’s during hospitalisation that they need it the most,” says Thakur.
Thakur laments the fact that, in spite of ambulance services being available, it is often taxi drivers who end up ferrying people in medical emergency. “Private ambulances charge exorbitant rates which are unaffordable to most patients,” he says. “Government ambulance services are rarely available when you need them. Most times, the drivers are inebriated and unable to reach the spot in time.” Thakur receives most emergency calls between 2am and 4am. “Like a firefighter, I am always alert, and as soon as I get a call, I am ready to go,” he says. Whether it is a woman in labour, an accident or a burns victim, Thakur ensures he is on the spot as quickly as possible.
“My father had an asthma attack and Vijay Thakur was the only person who agreed to take him to hospital,” says Jama Khan, who runs a tea shop. “He even filled up all the forms and got him admitted.” Mariyappa Ramappa Harijan credits Thakur for his quick recovery from a paralytic stroke. “Every day for three months, Thakur would take me from my home in Andheri West to a clinic for stroke patients in Mazgaon, without charging a single rupee,” says Harijan. “I couldn’t walk then, but I can now.”
Thakur does all he can to ensure the patient gets medical help at the earliest. Once, the police chased him as he broke the speed limit and jumped signals. When he finally stopped―at Jaslok Hospital―and a woman in labour emerged from his car, the cops chose to apologise. An hour later, she gave birth to healthy baby. One New Year’s eve, he saw a car ramming into a tanker. Inside the car, he found four unconscious men and a woman with a six-month-old baby in her lap. Thakur rushed them to Cooper Hospital, and all, except the woman, survived. The survivors were related to Sharad Shetty, a henchman of the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Shetty offered Thakur money for saving their lives. “I told him I didn’t want anything,” says Thakur. “I just did my job.” Shetty offered help if he ever needed a favour, but Thakur says he has never thought of giving him a call. Shetty was killed in 2007. Thakur says he rarely stays in touch with people he has helped. He often appeals to fellow taxi drivers not to say no to customers, but he understands that they are sometimes forced to do so owing to financial constraints.
“Driving a taxi offers me freedom to earn on my own terms and do good for society,” says Thakur. It is from these earnings that he paid for his son’s cancer treatment and his younger son’s education and wedding. He now lives in a two-bedroom home in Andheri with his family.
On most days, Thakur has work from the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, ferrying faculty and students to and from the institute. Some of them have helped him get customers by introducing him to the watchmen in their residential buildings. Thakur gives the watchmen his visiting card, promising them a commission for every passenger referred to him.
These days, Thakur's taxi can be hired only through phone calls. He makes Rs10,000 and Rs15,000 a month, but the household is no longer dependent on his income as his son and daughter-in-law are well-paid managers in private firms. They often tell him to stop working, as he has diabetes and hypertension, but Thakur ignores their entreaties. He recently had surgery for a diabetic ulcer, yet was behind the wheel in three days, albeit with a bandaged leg.
Thakur says he has helped more than 500 patients over the past three decades. He loves his independence and wants to keep himself busy and useful. “Why do we live but to be of use to someone else?” he says about his drive.