In the course of my work, I have flown millions of miles over the last four decades and these have meant countless cab rides on the ground. Whenever I ride a cab, I like to strike a conversation with the driver. For one, I find it uncomfortable to ride in silence with another fellow man. But beyond that, every cab ride is a chance to connect with someone with whom you are sharing an exclusive time and space. So after the meter has been downed, the seat belts worn, the radio lowered, it starts with four words: “where are you from?”
Over time, I have come to realize these four words have magic.
The question inevitably lets out a parallel journey. It can, in one instance, transport you to another continent, another time; another culture and of course, another life. Across all differences, our journeys are the same!
My mother was born in Pabna, now in Bangladesh.
The British partitioned India in 1947 in to two countries. In the process, they divided Bengal into two parts, it was entirely based on religion. The Muslim dominated areas became East Pakistan. The predominantly Hindu part became West Bengal and remained in India. Eventually, the eastern part seceded from Pakistan and became Bangladesh in 1971. My mother’s family had moved out to the Indian side in the wake of religious tensions in the 1900s. After migrating as a child, my mother grew up on this side of Bengal and then she left Bengal altogether, to marry, raise us afar away from her roots. But she could, in an instant, get transported to the land she came from as an eight-year-old child. She remembered the smell, the sights, the land, the rivers, the language, the music and the people, even as she never went back. It had her in a trance.
Fast forward to 1993.
Me, Susmita, Neha and Niti, got into a cab in New York City, somewhere near Penn Station, headed to the financial district. As we settled inside the cab, I was a little surprised. Without trying to stereotype, I was a little intrigued that the New York City cabbie seemed to be Caucasian. Caucasian cab drivers are a rarity in New York. So I asked him, where are you from?
Without taking his eyes off the traffic, he replied, Bangladesh. It is then that I realized, he had a pigmentation disorder, his skin had become albino. It was an awkward moment for me.
He made it easier for me; he asked me, “Where are you from?”
I told him we are from India but then my Mother came from Pabna in Bangladesh. That was a long time back, of course!
Now he looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked if me I spoke Bengali. I said yes and for the rest of the ride, he was in raptures.
Mostly he spoke. I spoke some, my wife and two daughters joined in the conversation from the rear. But it was mostly him. After that half-hour ride, we reached our destination and got off. I took out my wallet and asked him how much we owed him.
Nothing, he replied. All four of us protested. How could that be, it wasn’t fair.
Nothing, he said again. He was definitive.
It was very awkward moment for us. Then the man said, “You have no idea how I move from place to place, all day, hoping I would hear a word in Bengali. I can’t take money from you.”
Before we could say anything he waved and drove off.
1998. On a weepy Portland afternoon, at the time, my boss Dr. Sridhar Mitta and I boarded a cab from Intel’s facilities in Hillsboro for an hour-long ride to the airport. We did some really cool work for Intel in the area of system software; cutting edge stuff. As we boarded the cab, the driver engaged the gear, he looked at the two of us and asked in a friendly voice, where were we from? That question led to another: what do you do? We, people like Dr. Mitta and I, loved that question. Those were the days we were eager to shed a few centuries off our breasts. It helps us to shed colonialism, the foreign yoke; freedom from poverty. It gave us the chance to dismantle popular western imageries about India. Those were the days when a lot many people used to ask us where exactly was India; people asked us if there were Maharajas, they seriously asked if elephants and snakes were on the road everywhere. So, the question, “what do you do” was always a great opening for us. Dr. Mitta explained to him, as much as possible in lay language, the kind of stuff we did. “Hardware design, device drivers, stuff that makes computers boot up”. The man kept nodding his acknowledgment even as he kept his eyes on the traffic through the wipers continuously going up and down. In a while, our part of the fact furnishing got over.
I asked him a question. Was this his own cab or did he drive for someone else? Now it was him speaking and us listening.
Yes, it is his cab. He drove it only for half of the day. This is not what he did for a living all his life. He used to be a system software designer himself at a large technology company. That is how he could fully understood what work we did and had enjoyed the conversation with us. After a few years of doing technology work, he had changed careers and did many different things. He reorganized his life. In addition to a few other part-time assignments that left him time for other things important in life, thrice a week, he drove the cab, the money wasn’t bad, he liked meeting new people and it all worked out quite fine at the end.
2011. It was springtime yet the mood of people everywhere in Europe was anything but cheerful. Spain, Greece and many other countries were experiencing severe economic hardship. The idea that some countries would soon collapse and create a huge cascading effect on the global economy was gaining currency. This would not augur well for the Euro and hence, the European Union. Two countries were yet untouched by the economic downturn and these were France and Germany. But they were expected to bail out the countries in crisis. The idea of having to bail out others who did not have fiscal prudence and were now at a dire stage was being opposed by many in France and Germany; why should the taxpayer, the disciplined saver and the average citizen pay for another country’s misery, was a popular question. Newspapers carried stories of unemployment and gloom and wondered how long would it take for the virus to travel to France and Germany. All in all, not the best of times. In that backdrop, I sat in a cab in Cologne for a longish ride. The driver was a man in his late fifties, polite and spoke English. After the mutual “where are you from”, we got down to the economy. Did the overall economic situation worry him? What if big banks defaulted and their countries went belly up?
He was quiet for a moment and then said, these were matters of worry for people who have too much money in the banks. I was taken aback with that statement; he did not say it with any angst in his voice. He could have been a Nobel laureate in economics making a matter of fact statement. Then he explained his position to me.
“Look”, he said, “I have a family to feed. You have a family to feed. Next year, you will need to come again to Cologne. I will still be driving this taxi. You will need to ride with me. I will be there, you will be there. So you see, nothing will happen; we don’t have to worry. It is the guys with too much money in the bank; them folks have to worry. I found solace in his stoic wisdom.
Unlike the cabbie in Cologne, in most countries around the world, the cabbie is an immigrant. He has left behind a lot. People like him are coping with their new country, their new identity. But immigrant or not, for most cab drivers, it is a really hard life. The work is unpredictable, the customers come in all sizes, shapes and states of mind. There are stereotypes about cabbies everywhere. Yet, they are as human as you and I and sometimes wiser.
I am waiting for the next one, until then be nice to the next guy you meet, take a moment and remember the magic of the words, where are you from?