A new programme in India is training chauffeurs to improve their manners, personal hygiene and driving skills as demand for professional drivers grows within the country's wealthy class.
Home, Satish: Indian drivers get a makeover
In the 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, the amoral protagonist Balram is a badly paid driver in nasty nylon clothes who does not bathe every day, has to scrounge for food and is sometimes ordered by his rich employers, when their cook goes off sick, to go into the kitchen and rustle up a chicken curry for dinner. In appearance, demeanour, habits and hygiene levels, Balram epitomises millions of Indian drivers.
But rich Indians in Mumbai who own luxury cars are increasingly trying to change all that by sending their drivers to the Institute of Chauffeur Services in Mumbai. There, for US$120 (Dh440), the average scruffy driver can be coached into a sleek, smart, polite – fragrant, even – chauffeur in just two months.
Alam Khan, the head of training at the institute, is frank when he describes the goals of the programme.
"We give you a driver who doesn't stink of raw onions during the day and knows not to stare at women's plunging necklines," he says.
The institute was set up by the investment banker Amin Merchant after he noticed a striking incongruity as he drove around the city. India's growing upper class – the country has 55 billionaires according to Forbes magazine and 150,000 millionaires according to a Merrill Lynch and Capgemini World Wealth Report earlier this year – means there are more luxury cars than ever before on Indian roads.
Sales have risen by 36 per cent during the past year alone, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers.
The owners are sophisticated businessmen. They travel first class, wear Brioni suits and Breitling watches and sign cheques with Montblanc pens. Their drivers, however, frequently look like unkempt village boys.
"The owner and car are at one end of the spectrum," says Merchant. "The owner has moved up the value chain with growing prosperity and can afford an expensive car. The driver - unwashed, scruffy, in plastic sandals - is at the other end. There is a total disconnect."
Since its launch seven months ago, the institute has trained more than 600 drivers so far. Demand is so great that Merchant plans to open branches in three more cities by the end of this year; he also wants to offer a new programme training female chauffeurs.
During the course, drivers learn to shave and bathe daily, are instructed to avoid eating raw onions, brush their teeth, wear fresh, ironed clothes, polish their shoes, use a hand sanitiser after meals and refrain from eating in their employer's car to keep it odour-free. They are also taught how to look after a car, tools in anger management - a necessity on Indian roads where unbridled insanity reigns - and basic good manners.
"Many are from villages and know nothing about etiquette so they will help the master of the house into the car first instead of his wife," says Khan. "Or they'll stare at women passengers with low necklines."
In one session, he teaches them about eye contact with women. In India, he says, a driver is permitted eye contact with men but not with women. Yet the sophisticated, well-travelled wives of luxury car owners can find it disconcerting to talk to a driver who looks fixedly into the middle distance.
"We have to teach them that eye contact is important with women, that it's a good thing but they misinterpret it and do very direct continuous eye contact," he says. "Then I have to explain the difference between normal eye contact and staring."
The training is not just about serving the needs of the wealthy car owner. As well as teaching drivers to buff their shoes, the training aims to instil a sense of pride in their work.
The owner of a car rental firm in New Delhi, Suraj Khanna, says there is a world of difference between the body language of chauffeurs and ordinary drivers.
"I'm glad the institute teaches them self-esteem," says Khanna. "Most drivers think they are good for nothing. The moment you put them in a uniform and polished shoes, they carry themselves with more confidence."
Atul Ghosh, who has been driving in Mumbai for 16 years, is one recent graduate of the institute.
"My employer is so impressed with me after the training that he has agreed to a big pay rise," he says. "I feel very proud now when my son sees me in my uniform and cap."
Ghosh adds mischievously that he wishes some employers could be taught better manners, too, an echo of White Tiger where Adiga portrays both the total contempt that rich Indians have for their drivers and the collision between wealth and poverty that takes place when driver and employer inhabit the same upholstered seats in a limousine. "My last employer would come home after a party at 2am and would tell me to be back at seven in the morning to take his kids to school," says Ghosh. "He didn't care if I never saw my own family."
The training of drivers also appears to be part of a wider social change. Indian families have tended to take any domestic help that is going and pay them badly. Of late, some better-off families have become willing to offer a higher salary for those who are professionally trained, whether it be a maid, cook, nanny or driver. A new home service staff industry is coming up, turning an army of untrained domestic staff into professionals, the kind who used to be employed only by expatriates in India. "There is a changing mindset among educated Indians," says Reiko Tsushima, a gender specialist with the India branch of International Labour Organisation. "People see the maid in someone's house serving Italian dishes or see a nanny looking smart and speaking English and they feel it's worth paying more to get someone like that. That's what's pushing them towards getting properly trained domestic staff."
Less than a year from starting out, Merchant is pleased with the impact.
"We have turned chauffeuring into a profession, unlike driving which has no social respect," says Merchant. "Drivers who used to tell me they would never let their sons become drivers are now saying it's a good career for them."
The institute has also been a welcome addition for the Audi, Mercedes and Honda dealers in the city. Munaf Meghani, a Mumbai-based Audi and Honda dealer, is one of a growing number of dealers who give all new buyers of their cars a free voucher for a training course at the institute.
"It wasn't good for our brand image to have the driver of an Audi A8 that costs over $200,000 spitting out of the window or driving it stupidly, honking and switching lanes every few seconds," says Meghani. "It's a smooth, silent, powerful machine and it has to be driven in a certain way."