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The taxi drivers' guide to world politics

July 04, 2008

"All I learnt was from taxi drivers," confess some journalists in private after visits to difficult or dangerous locales. You may have noticed it yourself, if you are an avid reader of reports by foreign correspondents from places like Kabul, Kinshasa or Kigali. Pearls of wit or wisdom are often attributed to the cabbie in such accounts wherein he comes up with profound insights on say, the outcome of elections or the course of the conflict, or what have you.

Earlier, I used to be sceptical about decoding the enigma of the universe through the medium of the taxi driver.

Not any more.

My own conversion came about one day in New York, through an affectionate but totally unreliable cabbie called Kulwant -- a story I have told in these columns in 'Just a passport sir'. That interaction made me open up to the taxi drivers and to see each ride as an opportunity not only to get from point A to point B, but to probe deeply into their lives and lies.

Thanks to this irresistible urge to chat up with the drivers, in the course of one month, I got exposure to several trajectories which drive drivers here, to America, as an unintended result of the American outreach and action, especially in the Islamic world.

My story starts in Los Angeles, a huge city, teeming with immigrants of all shades and sensibilities.

As I get into the hired car -- not the yellow cab off the street, but a taxi ordered by phone -- an Asian driver with exquisite manners greets me. Wearing a nice fitting black suit, to match his black long mane, he looks like one of our Bollywood Khans -- Salman or Fardeen, gone a little older. Or say like Feroz Khan in an unusually sober mood.

"Good Morning, Sir. It is so nice for me to meet a client from India," he starts, with a nice polite voice. "My name is Anwar."

"Where is home, originally, Anwar bhai?" I ask, not wasting time in my eagerness to explore how people find their way to America.

"Kabul, Sir. But I have lived in America for 25 years."

"Ah, you came in the eighties. What were you doing in Kabul, Anwarbhai, have you gone back recently?" I ask. By now, it is evident that Anwar is as eager and happy to talk to me as I am. I am sitting in the front of the taxi with him, have politely turned down his offer to play songs from Kal Ho Na Ho on the car stereo, have accepted his offer of a coke bottle. We are comfortable with each other, two South Asians, with similar nostalgic memories of a land far away.

He proceeds to tell me his story.

"We had good family business, Sir," he starts. "My father was in carpet exports. His brother in dry fruits. But we were all well educated. When the Russians came, the whole thing came apart, they started targeting people like us -- in business or the educated," he explains, another example of large geo-political forces impacting on ordinary lives, so common when you run into people from Afghanistan.

"Did you come here taking political asylum, then?" I ask, familiar with that route, of people who have managed to flee dangerous conflagrations from that region.

"No, Sir. It was simpler for me. My uncle was already here in Los Angeles. He is a surgeon, who had left the country even earlier. He brought me here."

"Wasn't that difficult? How did he bring a nephew?"

"He adopted me as a son, Sir. He does not have children. And those days, what with the Russians and so on, it was easy for him to sponsor me to come to America," Anwar says. A simple story, really, without much political drama.

But there is a touch of melancholy in his handsome features. He is not too happy here, despite all these years driving a taxi, he admits. He did go back, in the nineties, with dreams of repossessing and reviving the family business. The Taliban were worse than the Russians. There was no future for him, with his Westernised ways and American habits. He had come back.

Now, with the American operations continuing, he finds it difficult to contemplate the future in Afghanistan. The war against the Taliban is all very well, but he has enough headaches, trying to keep body and soul together, to keep his children 'faithful,' he says.

We part exchanging notes on, what else, on Shah Rukh Khan [Images].

Next week, in the city where I live -- San Francisco, I am taking a cab. The driver knows that I am an Indian as I have told him to head to our consulate. "Are you happy with our elections?" he asks, and it is obvious that he is a Pakistani as that is where the election results had just come from on that day.

I am cautious. "Are you happy, that is more to the point," I say guardedly. "Of course, I am very happy, but also a little worried," he replies and in no time at all we are deep into how Rafiq got here from Lahore [Images].

He says he came just a year ago. His family was close to Nawaz Sharif's people, he claims, and due to that factor alone, business had suffered quite a lot in Lahore. "So, how did you manage to get entry into America?" I ask. "Bahut mushkil se mila," he replies and tells me the story of his getting political asylum.

He had first come under a tourist visa, having paid a hefty amount to an agent for the visa facilitation. Having arrived in America he had the good fortune to get the right Jewish lawyer with a specialisation on asylum cases from Pakistan.

The lawyer arranged a medical examination to show the bruises that Rafiq had received from the treatment in the police station; he then got a testimony from a famous Pakistani political analyst at an American university -- and here Khan mentions a name that I recognise -- who charged $3,000 to testify how Nawaz Sharif loyalists had suffered under the previous regime in Punjab, and finally Rafiq himself had satisfied the judges about his knowledge and credentials.

The judge had cross-examined him to test whether he was a political activist or a fake and Rafiq was certainly more knowledgeable than the judge about the intricacies of South Asian politics. He was lucky, he says, mainly in finding the right lawyer. But after all this, now, his party has won. Will he be sent back? He is deeply worried. "Democracy to accha hi hai, phir bhi apna sochna padta hai," he says as I pay him and leave.

My third encounter is in San Diego during the course of a seminar on 'International Islam.' As another South Asian looking cabbie picks me up from the airport, I have reached a stage where to straight away talk in Hindi seems natural.

However I find that this driver does not readily respond but looks uncomfortable. When I ask him in English as to his country, he says playfully, "Farther apart from your country, why don't you guess?"

"Palestine," I say equally playfully.

"Close, but a bigger place, an ancient culture, a more important people," he replies with gravitas.

"Egypt," I say and see a happy smile light up his face.

"You are from India. You know these things. Half my clients, they don't know and don't want to know the difference between Iraq and Iran. They only think that all Muslims are dangerous."

In no time at all he is off on his discourse and for the next fifteen minutes gives me a lecture on the ignorance of the West, the arrogance of America, the clash of civilisations etc etc. Frankly, I am getting a little worried.

"So, how did you end up in this country?" I ask.

"That is a long and complicated story," he starts. "Have you heard of the Muslim Brotherhood?" he asks.

I have heard of it, I admit.

"Can one try to understand them without agreeing with them?" he asks like a logician, revelling in his arguments. He is full of mystery, voluble but devious.

I don't need this, a political or a religious argument, I say to myself. "How far to the university?" I ask

"I used to be at Cairo University," he says. "What is your area of work?"

He is so polemical that I am embarrassed to say that I am a diplomat. "Computer software," I reply secure in the knowledge that this is what most Indians are identified with.

As I get down at the venue the board outside says 'America and Islam'. I go inside knowing that the seminar would not do justice to the tapestry of human lives touched by the subject.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash

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