Try hailing a cab at 4.30 in the evening, and you’ll know that it’s not a joke. Especially when you are in a black mood because you’ve just found out that your almost-thirteen has lost his NOL card (that little silver coloured passport to mobility) in the half-an-hour you’d been standing on the wrong bus-stop, waiting for the right bus to City Centre.
Finally, an orange-topped cab slowed down. “Where you’re going?” the cabbie stretched his neck out and asked.
“Lulu Metro Station?” I said tentatively, wondering if it was too short a distance for a self-respecting cab to come at that hour.
“Ah good. Come in.” He beckoned us in. “If long distance, I not coming now. Now, see. Other times, long distance is good. Long distance, I happy. Now no. My duty time over at five.”
Still seething inside with self-righteous anger directed at Aditya, I mumbled, “Your duty time is five to five, then?” more for the sake of politeness than out of genuine interest.
“My duty, yes, five morning to five evening. Others have other duties – some four to four, some three thirty to three thirty, like that.”
“Which means you have to get up really early…”
“I wake up three clock every day.”
“Three? Wow! And when do you sleep?” By then, I was really interested. I’m not famous for my time management, so I look for inputs all the time.
“Nine thirty I sleep. I go now, I pray. Then have coffee. After margib, I walk five to six kilometers…”
“Five to six kilometers every day?”
“Every day. Then I come, have bath, eat and after isha prayer, I go sleep. Habit now. Thirty two years here, no?”
“Thirty two years?” I looked at him with disbelief. He did not look old enough to have thirty two years in the Gulf behind him.
He sensed my incredulity. “I am fifty two years old, you know. August thirteen, 1961, I born,” he said with a smile.
“You don’t look that old, Bhaiyya!”
He smiled complacently. He was from Afghanistan, he said, and his family lived there. “My wife, children, my brothers, cousins, their children…we live all together, eat together. My money, it goes to all of them.”
“So how many of you are there in your house?”
“More than hundred. What you Indians say ‘haveli’? We live in haveli. Big… We have a farm, beautiful farm.” He smiled, savouring the memory of his farm. “Twelve cows, goats, two horses, six hunting dogs. All we have there.”
I tried to imagine a huge fort-like house in the middle of a beautiful farm. A hundred people moving in and out…cows, goats, horses, dogs… Even my imagination could not conjure the image well enough.
“We also have six AK 47s.”
I thought I didn’t hear that right. “AK 47s?”
“Yes. Six AK 47s, two pistols and some other guns from Russia and China. We also have knives, many knives.” For once I was at a loss for words.
“Guns, knives – what you call them? Ah, weapons. Weapons in our culture, see. Not religion, culture.” He was very clear about the difference. “The Pathaan culture. When a boy is born, we make him sleep for one night with the Holy Book on one side and a knife or AK 47 on the other. That our culture.” An initiation rite, from the sound of it.
“But we Afghans, we respect other religion also. Our religion, what does it tell us? Respect all religions, and they will respect your religion. That’s what our religion tell us.”
I was fascinated. He continued, “If one man do something bad, it is not the religion that is bad, it is that man. Religion not telling, ‘do this, do that’. The man doing it. So the man bad, not the religion. Afghanistan have ministers from other religion also. We not ask which religion before we make him minister. All religion good; no religion say kill, rape; some people bad, some people good. Yes, sister?” I agreed with him wholeheartedly.
We parted in the best of terms.
Aditya tested water to see if I was still angry with him. Though I gave him a line or two about how he should be more careful in the future, I was secretly glad that he lost the card; why else would we have taken that cab?
When he knew that the ground was safe, Aditya ventured, “Amma, have you met that taxi uncle before?”
“No, how could I have?”
“Then how come he spoke so much to you? How come people speak to you so easily?”
I thought about that. It’s true, come to think of it. Some of my most interesting conversations have been with utter strangers. I thought that it’s a good opportunity to drive home some very necessary lessons.
“Maybe it’s because I listen? Because they understand that I’m listening with an open mind?” Anyone who has tried to teach an adolescent the importance of open-minded listening will understand why it’s vital to make use of every little opportunity that comes their way.
Aditya looked at me, his expression telling me loud and clear that he has seen through my ruse.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, I said, “Well, it’s the truth, isn’t it? Everybody needs somebody to listen to them; don’t you need? And there’s something to be learned from everybody, if you’re willing to listen to them without judgment.”
Think about it. How else could I have known that behind this mild-mannered, polite cabbie was a staunch, strong-willed, weapon-owning Pathaan with a family of hundred plus – not to mention the pets in different sizes – who live in a haveli in the middle of a beautiful farm in the mountains of Peshawar? And how would I have known that behind the weapon-owning Pathaan was a brilliant mind that contained the wisdom of ages?