Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Taxi Driver's Story

Reading a report about Sikhs being forced to pay Pakistan's Taliban a levy, I was reminded of an encounter with a taxi driver in London back in September 2006. After landing at Heathrow, the painter Sudhir Patwardhan and I called for a cab to take us to our hotel in Southwark. Fifteen minutes later, a Sikh man walked into the terminal holding a placard with my name written on it. He was about fifty, dressed in a spotless white button-down tucked into dark trousers. He greeted us cordially and offered to take our suitcases. We declined.
After feeding the details of our destination into the GPS prompter in his car, the man asked in fluent Hindustani where we lived and what brought us to London. Our replies elicited more questions. I wasn’t in the mood for much talk after the overnight flight, but eventually felt obliged to ask him where he was from.

“Afghanistan”, he said.

My interest, and Sudhir's, was suddenly roused.

“Afghanistan? How long were you there?”

“I was born near Kabul.”

“So did you parents move there?”

“No, our family was in Afghanistan for over 300 years.”

“But you speak such good Hindi.”

“I speak many languages. Pashto, Russian, Uzbek, Punjabi, Hindi, now English.”

“And how long have you been in England?”

“Eight years.”

"You left when the Taliban took over?”

“No, before.” His voice turned bitter. “Everybody here speaks about the Taliban, but for us the mujahideen were much worse. The Taliban only made Sikhs and Hindus wear different clothing, so they could be distinguished from Muslims. That way we wouldn't be forced to say namaaz and things like that. But the mujahideen would insist we become Muslims, and we had to keep bribing them to leave us alone”

He stretched his left arm so the sleeve rode back to reveal laceration scars on the wrist. “I have these all over my body: arms, abdomen, back. That’s what they did to people who refused to convert.”

He was born in a village, but his father wanted to educate his sons well, and sent him to university in India. After graduating, he opened a chemist's shop in Kabul. Business was good during Najibullah’s reign; he imported medicines from India, tying up with companies like Ranbaxy and Alembic to supply life-saving drugs. Once the civil war reached the Afghan capital, the bad times began, and got rapidly worse after the Soviet withdrawal. Business declined and persecution of minorities rose. He sold one of his two houses to pay off the mujahideen, and closed one of his two shops. In those days, Kabul had a law that one chemist had to stay open late each night. It was done by rotation and, the day it was his turn, he was kidnapped in the small hours as he returned home after closing shop.

"They tortured me for days. I was sure I wasn't going to get out alive. I tried reasoning with them, saying that God was the god of humanity, not just the god of Muslims, and that force was no way to propagate religion. That only made them beat me more.

"Luckily, a friend from my village was visiting Kabul and dropped in to meet me. When my wife related all that had happened, he told her this country is no good for you any more, you have to leave, sell everything if you must. He used his contacts to locate the kidnappers, fix a ransom, and free me. He arranged transport, taking us all to Peshawar. I barely remember what happened in the days after that, the places we were taken to, loaded onto and unloaded from trucks. Finally, we came to Karachi and were put on a boat to England. The British were very good to us. Their mission in Kabul checked the details I provided, and once they were sure we were telling the truth, we got asylum.
"It's funny where life can take you. I'd never have thought I would be driving a taxi in London. But my son and daughter are studying now, the boy is in university, he won't be a taxi driver."


Jabeen said...

I suppose all refugees have horrific stories of how they left their homes. For this man, it was the Mujahideen. Others would talk of the Taliban, ethnic cleansers in Serbia, civil war in Southern Sudan, Israeli soldiers in Palestine, the army in Manipur... Reading this just makes me feel, the world is such a complicated, cruel place and people like us lead unreally comfortable lives.

DS said...

And now the Taliban has put a religious tax on the Sikhs as well.
And yes,like Jabeen I think despite all our travails we have been incredibly lucky to grow up and live away from the frontline,without martial law,without truly harsh strictures re religion,and a free society to say what we want, and enough to keep our stomachs comfortable.What we complain about in comparison to all else in South Asia seems suddenly petty.Looking at all our neighbours we have a lot to be thankful for.But cant use that as a standard, so lots to catch up and improve on.

shesturningblue said...

Brilliant story. Thank you for sharing:)