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Cosmic Energy: Inspired by a dream, this driver's turned his taxi into an entertainment hotspot

I first encountered Cosmic Cab on an early summer evening in 2011. The occasion was the National Magazine Awards, and I'd treated myself to a gala ticket, a new dress and a pair of strappy pumps. A taxi ride seemed in order—my unwonted finery was a little over-the-top for the College streetcar—but when it pulled up, I could hardly believe the magic coach the universe had picked out for this journalistic Cinderella.
My initial clue was the pastel neon halo of the roof ornament, already glowing in the last light of dusk. When I opened the door and stepped in, I found myself enwrapped in a delightful sparkling nest of wonders and delights, topped by the word "welcome" spelled out in brilliantly illuminated red letters.
Jewel-like, lit-up embellishments and a glittering mirror ball on the roof reflected the red glow of the welcome sign. To my right, I found a rack of glossy film and fashion magazines. To my left was a treasure trove of children's toys. In front of me, in the gap between the front seats, was a sort of display case featuring a topsy-turvy exhibit of iconic action figures: Superman and Wonder Woman, Dr. Evil and his Mini-Me rubbing shoulders with Elvis and Betty Boop. Above them all, a pair of video screens was broadcasting a mad succession of Bollywood production numbers
As the car glided through the urban twilight in its soft neon glory, I could have been convinced that Cosmic Cab was a personal illusion, but I've encountered it since then, plying the streets just like any ordinary taxi. It is the inspired brainchild of 25-year veteran cabbie Akber Batada, who came to Toronto in 1981 from Mumbai, where he once worked in the shrimp and lobster export business.
Batada originally came to Canada just for a visit, but he decided he liked Toronto and made a spontaneous decision to emigrate, partly to raise his two young children here. To smooth his entry into the country, he bought a pair of Tropical Delight mall outlets, but after two years he gave up the food business.
"It was too many hours, too much work and no family life," he says. Instead, in 1984, Batada took up cab driving at the suggestion of a brother-in-law. However, Cosmic Cab was not born until about five years ago.
"Something came up in my mind at two or three in the morning—you could say a dream—two months before Christmas time. I put [in] some Santas and colourful paper and some Christmas music," says Batada. The reaction from passengers was delight.
He added new decorations for St. Patrick's Day in March, and chanced to pick up then Mayor David Miller on the street. "He said: 'What a wonderful, colourful St. Patrick's Day cab you have! My grandmother would love that; all cabs should have that.'"
From that point on there was no looking back, and Batada's fares loved it. "Every customer who comes into my car, they have a big smile," he says. "Even people who come from New York, L.A., Hong Kong and Japan, they take pictures and videos."
The dual video screens are especially popular, and Batada changes them on demand to suit the clientele: "I have Greek, Egyptian, Bob Marley, Elvis, Nora Jones, Bollywood, karaoke," he says. "For the children, I have nice cartoons." Then there are those little practical amenities that any cab could copy: onboard wifi, makeup mirrors, a changing selection of magazines (which are donated to a nursing home at the end of every month) and even a phone charger.
Although he estimates it cost him $45,000 to $50,000 to give up the food businesses, Batada doesn't regret the move, and says his family also enjoys the celebrity of Cosmic Cab. "They know people love [it]; the whole city is excited when they see me."
He estimates he's spent $3,000 to $4,000 on embellishments for the cab over the past five years, and although he mainly does it for his own pleasure and that of his clientele, they do increase his fares. Cosmic Cab is on call with Beck ("They love me because I'm always on TV"). Batada also makes his own arrangements for special-occasion calls like birthdays and wedding parties, but most of his business comes right off the street, since he can't always respond to a call that may come from the other side of the city.
Despite the obvious customer appeal of Cosmic Cab, no other driver in the city has yet emulated Batada's innovation. In fact, some call him crazy. He doesn't listen. "I love my job; that's the main thing," he says. "I'm having fun making people happy. Next time I have to buy, I'll get a bigger car."

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book is We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
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