By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The taxi driver anecdote gets too much ridicule. I’ve found you can learn a lot by listening to the guy (usually) behind the wheel. Taxi drivers from Boston’s Logan airport to Lexington, for instance, added humanizing texture to my academic knowledge of recent history in Ethiopia and Somalia. Better yet, the unexpected reward of my latest encounter: the microcosmic family history of the bearded and turbaned Sikh who drove me to Lodi Gardens, one of my favorite sites in Delhi.
His father was born in Rawalpindi, now part of Pakistan, when India was still ruled by the British. That was 1914. Like many young Sikhs of the day he joined the British army. Then came World War II. He served on the Burmese front, engaging the Japanese who were advancing rapidly toward Indian territory. Some Indians, impressed by those advances and willing to do anything to bring down the British raj, defected to the Indian National Army, which was allied with the Japanese. Not my cabbie’s father.
Japan lost, but India won. Soon after the war, the British marched out of the subcontinent, though not before they’d launched the tragedy of Partition. Huge numbers of people were slaughtered as Hindus and Sikhs moved East to Indian territory, while Muslims moved West to the brand new country of Pakistan. My cabbie's family moved East.
And so my taxi driver grew up to become a cabbie in Delhi, the capital of India. While land-holding Sikhs drove plows to create the Green Revolution in rural Punjab (the Indian part of Punjab, naturally), refugee Sikhs in Delhi monopolized the cab business. Maybe that’s still the case, though I have no supporting hard statistics. I only know that whenever I hail a cab, the taxiwala is almost always a Sikh.
As for my cabbie’s father, he said, the old gentleman died just two years ago, aged 101, at his home in Pathankot, the city in Indian Punjab that‘s the jumping off point for those going by road to Kashmir, whose terrain is still contested by Pakistan and India.
“And your son,” I asked, “where is he? What’s he doing?”
“He’s in New Zealand.”
“No, he lives there.”
I was tempted to push for information about the son’s education and profession, but I’d heard enough, really, and I was beginning to feel intrusive. So what did I have? A picture of three generations that turned out to be a mini history of the Indian people for the past hundred years: colonialism, independence, global dispersion. Not bad for a thirty minute encounter.
Above all, this taxiwala was a nice guy, courteous, easy to bargain with and very well acquainted with the city that history had consigned him to.
The picute above is a pretty poor illustration, but I waited until my last morning in Delhi to capture a visual for this piece. Usually the taxi stand in front of my hotel had a bunch of cabs and drivers available, but at crunch time there was a single vehicle parked in deep shade.