An encounter with a member of the Sikh comunity and about identity.
|The Taxi Driver
I invariably get into conversations with taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers especially on long journeys. For some of them have become I have become a regular client, which has its own advantages they know where I need to go and I don’t need to direct the way. One has had some very interesting conversations on the way. Once during an election I asked the cabbie whether he was going to vote he vehemently said no. I said he ought to his answer was memorable. “I want to buy a horse,” he said “they present a collection of ten donkeys in front of me an expect me to choose a horse from them
Among all the various taxi drivers I wish to recall a particular taxi driver who became much more than a friend. My first encounter with him was when I had to go to Marine Drive from Chembur and I was running a little late his was the lone taxi standing and I asked him to take me and explained that I was in a hurry, I did not care which route he took longer or shorter as long he got be there in time. He asked me by when I had to reach and said that it should be possible. He had some preconditions however, he would not drive his cab faster than fifty kilometers an hour, if I was going to go on urging him to hurry he did not want me as a passenger, he said he would take me through a route which was more or less the shortest and the least trafficked it had fewer traffic signals en-route too. I agreed to all his preconditions and we proceeded on or way.
The Taxi was in immaculate condition there were no extra fitting it was gleaming clean inside out. The Driver was a Sardarji a member of the Sikh community. He was in a spotless white uniform with a white turban and a long flowing white beard. His driving was excellent he had an eye on all the traffic around him and anticipated what the other drivers were going to do and the taxi moved smooth as silk. Though as promised the speed did not exceed fifty kmph. The average speed was not very much below it either. The driving was immaculate there were no sudden braking or swerving, starts after a stoppage at a signal almost imperceptible. I remarked on this and learned that he had been driving taxis in Bombay since the early forties having migrated here well before the partition.
The conversation on the rest of the way was primarily on choosing the right route if you wanted to get some place quickly, speed according to him did not matter. On this occasion the route he took was to Kings Circle there being no alternative till there. Then in front of the Aurora cinema between Don Bosco School and Khalsa College to the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital behind KEM Hospital and in front of the Rajkamal Studios. From there he crossed the bridge towards Bombay Central Station, via Tardeo and on to Marine Drive well in time. I knew each of these roads but had never considered them a route for getting from Chembur to Marine Drive. There was little traffic on this route very few signals and we really made time He took the trouble of explaining how to get from one place to another considering the time of day and direction of travel. Bombay is essentially a north south city offering a number of parallel routes I guess he knew them all.
A few days later I had to go to Bandra and seeing his cab chose to travel by it. His comment was why was I wasting money I could very well take rickshaw or a bus, but I sort of insisted and we set out on our way to the Searock Studio now no longer in existence. This time I got to know more details about him. He owned five taxis the newest he drove himself and did not allow even his sons to touch it, the other four were driven by his sons and grandsons. He explained that the way a car was treated the first year determined the rest of its life. Every year he sold the oldest taxi and brought a new one, which he drove. It is not so much that I do not expect my sons to mistreat a new car but I think I have earned the privilege of driving the newest one he explained.
On yet another occasion I asked him after all these years of driving he did not feel like giving up. He answered my body still functions my eyesight is still good what would I do just sitting at home I would get bored and irritable bother myself and my family now at least I am spending time usefully.
I was once waiting for bus at Hajji Ali to get me back to Chembur he passed by stopped and asked me to get in. I said that I did not have the money for the fare and so could not. He pointed to his meter, which was at the half-flag position and said he was going to go to Chembur empty any way so giving me a lift was no problem. I accepted the lift and asked him whether he was in a particular hurry that day, he explained that till six in the evening he never refused a fare after leaving the last fare picked up before six he headed straight home empty from however far. He had his principles.
Our relationship continued, he forever scolding me for taking a cab where a rickshaw or bus could go and I jokingly reminding him that he never said no to a fare. I most certainly enjoyed his company and I think, hope he enjoyed mine.
Most of the conversations we had were about Bombay, how it had changed and was still changing. He remembered areas of sea that had disappeared and I contributed to my share of the areas of sea especially the Nariman point area that had changed almost unbelievably since my college days. He decried the loss of trams that had been a means of cheep transport for the common-man, I too had fond memories of the trams. I remembered the fare being one anna from Kings Circle to the Museum and having been in fact a passenger on the last tram that left the museum for Dadar TT (the TT incidentally stands for tram terminus. BB Dadar gets its name from the Bombay Baroda and Central Indian Railway) He talked of the foolishness of reducing the footpaths and removing them in some places altogether in places this he said forced the pedestrians and the traffic to share the same road space hindering and not aiding traffic. He seemed to have a great affection for Bombay.
I was traveling to Rajkamal Studio one day for the mixing of “Jane Bhi Do Yaron”. While not quite in context I feel compelled to mention another great personality. The film was mixed by Kuldeep Sood with Mangesh Desai the then chief recordist at Rajkamal performing the role of an assistant. Mangeshji was cueing the ambience cassettes, fading them in, changing the patching when needed, all the duties of an assistant and without any airs about doing so. People have often referred to him as a frightening person but I in the few encounters I have had with him found him a most generous of persons especially when it came to sharing knowledge and tricks of the trade.
This was in the early eighties at the height of the Khalistani movement when the Sikh community was trying to separate from India and establish its own state. There was a certain amount of fear amoung other people of the Sikhs especially since there was a certain amount of militancy in the separatist movement. I some how recalled to him what we used to be told when we first arrived in Bombay in the mid 1950s if you want to feel safe especially at night look for a Sardar taxi driver they are the most honest of the lot and will take you to your destination safely and not cheat you. I remarked on the sea change of attitude that had taken place in the intervening years. His response was,”Beta hame yeh poshak kyo diya gaya yeh bal yeh pagdi yeh dadi yeh khada, thaki hum pehcanmeayen, tum aur kisi quom ke admi ko turant pehcan kar sakte ho kya? Is pehchan ke waje se apni badnami na sahi apni quom ke badnami ke dar se hum koyi bure kam na kare isiliye diya gaya aaj kal ke bache yeh samaj te nahi.” Why do you think this attire of a turban uncut hair beard and the iron bangle and all have been imposed on us it is to make us instantly recognizable. Can you recognize anybody from any other community as quickly he asked? This has been done to prevent us from wrongdoing if not for the fear of own shame but of the fear of shame to our community as whole. Unfortunately a few of the younger generation do not realize this and have brought such a state to pass. I am certain my observations must have caused him some distress but he exhibited no rancor ever the optimist he was hopeful that it was a passing phase.
I traveled in his taxi a few times more with the usual camaraderie. Then I stopped seeing him at his usual spot in the taxi rank then one day one of the other taxi drivers who knew of my friendship with him informed me that he had passed away suddenly while watching TV at home one evening at home a few weeks earlier. I mourned his passing and was in a sense grateful that he had such an easy passing. I most certainly missed him and our conversations.
I have of late started remembering him more especially in the context of the communal conflicts and ethnic divides opening up in our country and the world over. These are strange times, right now there are nations breaking apart and at the same time Germany gets united and the European Union is being formed, virtually a single large nation. Ethnic and religious identities are being increasingly asserted, you can see it happen right around you almost everyday or at least the TV and newspapers report it on almost on a daily basis. Yet nations are vying with each other to merge their identities in the European Union.
When I was a young lad you could identify the caste of most people by their dress. The women almost at all times especially those who wore nine yard saris each community had a certain style of wearing the saris, for example you could differentiate between a Tamil Iyer and an Iyeangar woman by their saris. The men were indistinguishable at work but in the evening the caste marks on their foreheads and style of wearing their dhotis easily distinguished them too. As I grew older these distinguishing features progressively disappeared. The Nine-yard sari became increasingly rare and even women could not be told apart, except the older women who still stuck to the traditions. I considered this increasing homogeneity progress but now in the light of the Sardarji’s remarks I am no longer as sure. I tend to agree with him that there would some social pressure from your own community against wrong doing if the wrong doer could be easily identified as from a particular community.
I do recognize the dangers of such easy identification such as what happened after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination when the Sikhs became such easily identifiable targets. I am grateful that my friend did not live to hear of those events.
I also recognize the attitude amoung some, that members of their own community can do no wrong. This would be especially dangerous if the community in question happened to be the majority community, as has been proved again and again world over.
Despite all this I have begun to have doubts about the wisdom of the laws passed in France against Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school. An obvious identity could have some kind of restraining effect. It need not necessarily be divisive.
I do believe that humanity at large has an innate sense of right and wrong. Terrorist acts and events such as the, Bombay riots, 9/11 events, the Gujarat massacres, the recent London bombing and the various bomb attacks on Indian cities must cause revulsion even amoung the community of the perpetuators. There must be a lingering sense of shame of belonging to a community that could whose members could perform such horrendous acts. Ultimately the only hope we have is that this sense of revulsion and shame somehow prevents such events spiraling out of control otherwise as Mahatma Gandhi put it so well an eye for eye only makes the whole world blind.