Chance encounter with South Asian folk wisdom

Taxi rides can provide a few minutes of social intimacy among strangers. Occasionally, they can also be reminders of disappearing folk wisdom
Taxis are mobile spaces that enable strangers to be physically proximate for a short duration. In an enclosed metallic 6×6 ft box on wheels, two individuals or a small group are accidentally thrown together. But if the passenger and the driver are so inclined, taxis provide an opportunity for ephemeral, social intimacy too. The journey cries out for conversation particularly if you seat yourself next to the driver. And when that happens, the episode can turn into an amateur ethnographer’s delight, for it provides fleeting, meaningful data about a person, his society, and culture, which can be stored in memory for future use.
We all die empty-handed
In metropolitan cities such as New York or Sydney, Indian visitors can’t escape a chance encounter with Pakistani taxi drivers. Conversations begin with “where are you originally from?” and soon enough, the P-word is fluttering in the newly found common space. A lament curdles: how sad that India was partitioned — so unnecessary, so painful! And then the blame game begins: ‘It is all the doing of politicians — not only of yesteryears but also today — whose avarice ordinary people fall prey to. If only people took matters in their own hands, but no politician allows that. We must live with our fate: as separated brothers for whom reunion is forever denied.’ The journey ends with a slightly mournful, feel-good bye. The driver refuses to take any money. The passenger insists that he can’t take a free ride. Money is finally exchanged and reciprocal pleasantries bring the encounter to a close. I must have gone through this ritual hundreds of times in the last two decades. Away from their respective homelands, diasporic South Asians feel a special, fleeting bond that they fail to replicate when they return. When I hailed a taxi on my recent visit to Sydney, one Abdul Mallick from Karachi stopped by the curb and asked me to get in. He had the look of a proper, god-fearing Muslim — a beard that would be perfectly V-shaped if it was not inordinately long, facial hair shaven away from squeaky clean, shining, cheekbones. He had no moustache. This is the kind of religious appearance that ordinary Hindus associate with a kattar mussalman, or dangerous Muslim. The conversation had a predictable beginning but then took an unexpected turn. “Sir, I don’t understand our politicians,” he said. “They all claim to be true Muslims. But a Muslim’s foremost concern is with what happens in the afterlife. He gets Jannat only if he does good in the here and now, right? But he openly plunders his homeland and does no good to his holy land; all he is interested in is amassing power and wealth for himself and his family. Why can’t he realise that this does no good for his afterlife? He is simply not being a good Muslim.” I was stumped, but listened intently. “And you know, sir, they believe they are leaving behind a fortune for their family, but what do they get in return? When Benazir’s family came to power after her assassination, did they go after her killers? No, sir, they only amassed more power and wealth for themselves. These people are rotten. They are so caught up in this terrible game that they have no qualms about betraying their mother or wife. Or perhaps what Benazir passed on to her family was just this: greed for power and wealth. That is her legacy, that is their inheritance,” he said despondentlyPerhaps simplistic and too harsh on the family, I thought, but he had a point. The stakes in big time moneymaking and power wielding are so high that ordinary values of love, affection, and respect are easily set aside. This philosophical lesson was rounded off with a soulful rendering of four lines from Shailendra/Mukesh’s immortal song from Teesri Kasam : “ Sajan re jhoonth mat bolo, Khuda ke paas jana jai, na haathi hai, no ghoda hai, wahan paidal hi jana hai.” He said: “Sab yaheen dhare ka dhara reh jayega Janaab! Phir kyoon yeh mara maari (You’re not going to take anything with you after you die, so why hanker after power and wealth)?” “Yes, sir,” I nodded in agreement. It is hard for me to judge whether he interpreted Islam correctly. But indisputably, that was his interpretation of what true Islam required, what a true Muslim ought to do: abjure limitless pursuit of power and wealth for the sake of a better afterlife. But then, would a Hindu with an otherworldly inclination say anything different to contemporary politicians and builders of business empires who happen to be Hindus? It is hard not to conclude that despite all the manifest difference, the lived religion of ordinary South Asians, in taxis or outside them, contains ancient, common folk wisdom. Alas, the excessively wealthy and the extremely powerful are impervious to it.

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