Letter from London - 3: Unity in driversity

by sidin in

Beirut 1

The most time I've ever spent in a single city in the last 22 years, before packing up and moving somewhere, is the four years I spent in engineering college in REC Trichy. Otherwise it has always been brief stints of two or three years before education or employment or pub-lust, has me moving once again to Ahmedabad or Delhi or London.

I am not complaining of course. I think I enjoy this relaxing frequent nomadic-ism that ensures you never get too bored of any one city. Or language. Or food. Or Milan subway.

However this kind of thing does lead to some behavioral quirks.

For instance you are almost always coming across furniture or wall decorations or shopping mall sculptures that you are itching to buy--because it could make your house look like Frasier's--but can't because you'll surely be moving somewhere soon.

You are also constantly somewhat jealous of friends who've bought magnificent homes and splendiferous cars because they've decided they're never moving.  This feeling usually bubbles over violently when you see the magnificent wooden bookshelves they've installed in their hallways or living rooms. (Also a lot of people in London leave their windows open in the evenings. With all the lights on inside. Just going to the nearest tube station is a tortuous parade of bookshelves and open-plan kitchens and plush sofas and ottomans and wall hangings and such like.)

Personally this also leaves me constantly thinking of myself as a tourist. Therefore I am one of those people who shamelessly strike up borderline-intimate conversations with taxi drivers and auto drivers and waiters. I don't know if their views of a place are reflective of the average inhabitant's, but I've always had the most amazing chats sitting in the back of battered old car stuck in a jam on Wadala bridge.

For instance the very first day I went to junior college in Thrissur--11th class for you hep folks--I struck up a chat with the dude who was driving my auto from the bus stand near Swapna theatre to my college. The college scene in Kerala at the time was intensely political. There were huge left wing and Congress movements and a laughably small, token right wing set-up. Even before my first day in college I was leaning towards signing up for the commies. Because at the time they seemed pro-poor, anti-religion and corruption-free.

Not to mention all the movies in which Mohanlal portrayed a crusading commie.

As we rattled on in our auto we passed a small procession of commies protesting something or the other. "Are you a leftie?" I asked my driver.

"I am a member of the trade union. But am I friends with all of them," he said.

"The left is good for poor people..." I ventured, half as a statement, half as a question.

The driver thought for a while and then said something I've never forgotten. "They are the same boy. Both of them steal. But there is one difference. When the left win elections only the chief minister's children go to study in England. When the Congress win elections, everybody can steal a little. Everybody's children can at least go to an english medium school in Guruvayoor."

Later I realised that the commies were hardly distinguishable from the Congress hordes at college. But the Congress type tried to convince you to vote for a student councillor with beef biryani. The commies preferred to serve you with fresh cycle chains.

Then there was the cabbie guy in Mumbai who picked me up, late one night, outside a club in Bandra. I don't remember exactly which one. But I recall it was on top of an ICICI bank, and the dance floor had huge backlit manga cartoons on one wall.

That night there was a huge crowd looking for a ride, but somehow the cabbie gave me the once over and then told me get in. This "once-over" business in Mumbai is utterly revolting. And invasive. I believe I lost my virginity to a particularly slow, excruciating once-over on Marine Drive during my summer internship in 2004. Women have been known to miss their cycles after one.

After a general meandering chat about traffic and cabs and Bandra, I asked my cabbie why he gave me the once-over. He said he was making sure I was a 'decent party'. I asked him if he was alluding to prostitution. No, he said, he was alluding to couples who made out in the back of a taxi. "I don't have a problem with that. Children are modern these days. But how can I drive properly from here to Nariman Point if they are doing it in the back? Sometimes they make noise. It is very distracting. And then other taxi drivers make fun of you if they see. Why can't these boys and girls just wait for 45 minutes?"

We laughed the rest of the way to Wadala. Where I discovered he had a dodgy meter.

And so on to the guy who drove my mini-cab two weekends ago. Mini-cabs are the cheaper, shabbier cousins of the famed London black cab. The London cab, like so much else in London, is fiendishly expensive and best enjoyed from a distance. Public transportation is the cheapest way to get around. But if the night ends too late, or the day starts too early, then a mini-cab booked by phone is useful.

So last fortnight I went with Mr. and Mrs. Pastrami to a splendid and quite fru-fru night club. Which we left shortly because frankly we're getting too old for this shit. So we went back to Pastrami's house--yes, with bookshelves and even a fireplace--and threw back a few drinks. The missus, if you're wondering, wisely decided to sit at home, read a book, watch some comedy and do some baking.

Well past midnight, after the trains had stopped, I reluctantly called up a mini-cab. (The reluctance was due to mental arithmetic that multiplies mini cab charge by 80 to get approx. Indian rupee figure.)

They'd sent a spacious silver Mercedes-Benz that looked at least five or six years old but sparingly washed. The driver was a big, strong, lightly-bearded chap in a jacket and woolen cap. Who looked of vaguely mediterranean extraction.

After some silence we somehow started talking about something or the other. Maybe the weather. I don't remember.

"So are you married sir?" he asked.


"You went to a club tonight?"

"For a little bit."


"Ha ha. Yes."

"If I went to a club on my own my wife would cut my balls off."

And then he told me he was from Lebanon. And a big Amitabh Bachan fan. In turn I impressed him with my rudimentary Arabic--hummus, shawarma, tabbouleh, Abu Dhabi, Tahrir. The conversation turned to the topic of unrest in the Middle East.

"Like your country my country is also very beautiful," he said. "Good food, good nature, good women. No peace. No peace even for five minutes. You have no peace with Pakistan. We have no peace with Syria and Israel."

I asked him when he'd left Beirut and come to London. At which point he began telling me his story.

When he was 13-years old Israel invaded Lebanon. At which point my driver, let's call him Rafik, signed up for the Lebanese army. Five years later he fled to the United Kingdom seeking political asylum. The UK let him in but the asylum visa came with a ten year ban on going back to Lebanon. Rafik taught himself to become, of all things, a graphic designer for a magazine publishing company. He married, had children, and occasionally visited his sister who'd found asylum in the US. And then his company decided to shift base to Dubai Media City. Rafik followed but left and came back soon because he couldn't handle the people, the place and the distance from his family. But by then the economy tanked. And media, as you know, imploded. So Rafik now drives a mini-cab to make ends meet. It is not a terrible living, he told me. Yet he pines to go back.

"I want to go back. I want to die and be buried in Lebanon. You know what I mean? It is my country. This is not home. These people don't like you. They don't understand you. Some of them hate you..."

We spoke for a while about racism and home and London.

And then I asked him what he did for the Lebanese army as a teenager. He thought for a while.

"I was a sniper."

Whoa. I play as many sniping flash games as the next guy. The missus was a proficient sniper during Unreal Tournament LAN games in business school. But I'd never met a real life sniper.

"Did you... did you... kill a lot of people?"

"That is not a good question. We were at war. They invaded. I was a soldier."

But he no longer hated the Israelis, he said. At least not as individuals. Rafik said that he often ferried Israelis in his cab and some of them were also soldiers. In fact, he said, they'd often swap war stories, shake hands and chat like old friends.

And now, he said, the Shias and Sunnis were killing each other.

"But... how terrible to be made to kill people when you were so young... how do you deal with that..."

Honestly I was expecting a filmy outpouring of emotion. Rafik didn't say anything.

And then after a silence he rattled off a list of the guns he still had at home: Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles and hand guns. When he went to to the US, Rafik said, he still liked going to a shooting range.

"They are crazy there man. Before 9/11 you can buy a gun from anywhere. Any time. Go to a range. Shoot. It was crazy man..."

"But... what a horrible childhood to have..." I just couldn't get over the fact that he was a sniper and shooting people at an age when I was merely water-boarding my dad to get a GameBoy

Again Rafik didn't say anything.

Just before he dropped me at home he whipped out his iPhone and showed me an app.

"Unbelieveable app man. You just press on the picture of a gun and it makes shooting noises. And it is so accurate. You will not believe. It sounds exactly like a gun in real life. Kalashnikov... exactly the same..."

I paid him, added a generous tip and wished him good night and peace to both our countries. He called me brother. And then before starting his car he made a couple of shooting noises with his iPhone guns. And then my cab-driver cum graphic designer cum sniper drove off looking very pleased with himself.

Is there a moral to that story?

The only one I can think of is that I am perhaps much luckier than I sometimes realize.