What’s in a Key Chain?
December 30, 2016, Doha, Qatar
I took a taxi this evening from the university to reach home. The taxi App showed the driver’s name as M.A. Babu. It sounded somewhat like an Andhra name.
“Where are you from?” I asked him as I settled in the rear seat, being naturally curious to know if he indeed were a Telugu.
“How come the name, ‘Babu’ then?” I got even more intrigued.
“Oh! ‘Babu,’ that was my dad’s pet name when he was a child. Eventually it became his real name, and my surname” he explained in Urdu, a middle aged man in crisp uniform.
That dialogue was good enough to begin the conversation. We continued in Urdu and Hindi.
“You Indian? Kerala?” He was inquisitive, yet very polite.
Seeing the red dot on my forehead, his next question was if I were from Kerala. I’m sure he’s no different from any other taxi driver in Doha.
I had an affirmative “NO!”
“I’m from the south.”
“No Malayalam?” He was surprised.
“No! We speak Telugu at home.”
A new language name perplexed him a bit. “How many languages do you have in India? Must be plenty!”
“We have 22 recognized languages. Another 900 more. For one of them, there’s only one person speaking,” I said happily referring to P. Sainath’s talk I heard a few months earlier on the YouTube. I felt a bit proud too. Funnily, I was also making all out efforts to mix as much Urdu as I could.
“Mashaallah! You speak good Hindi. Your national language? That’s why?”
“No. I studied in Delhi. I learnt Hindi in school and from TV. We have no national language. All the languages are equal in India. Just like all religions. Hindi is not superior to Telugu in India. Similarly, Telugu over Malayalam.” I tried to keep the conversation simple and to the point.
“How many languages do you speak?” Now he’s intersted about me.
“About four, other than English.
Which language do you speak?” I wanted to know about him this time.
“Pashto. I’m from Balochitstan.
But a national language is a must, otherwise people will fight,” he paused.
“No! People will fight if you force them to speak in one tongue,” I said slowly, retrospectively. All the recent socio-political events back home unfolded in my mind one by one in a quick succession.
“How?” He seemed confused.
“See, freedom is most important to people. If you hold them from speaking their language, eating their food, or praying to their gods, nobody likes it. They fight back. Then everybody fights. It’s not good. When there’s a need they learn,” I gave him a bit of gyan…
“Yesss!” he said slowly. But his voice had a tone of disbelief.
That’s when my pedagogic instincts couldn’t remain dormant. I needed to consolidate his understanding. His lovely blue beaded keychain dangling under the wheel, swaying rhythmically offered the cue for the next move.
“You have a lovely key chain. Where is it from?” I just darted in the dark. I didn’t know if it would strike the right cord. But it did.
“My wife made it Madam!” He was beaming.
“Imagine, if the Karwa (the Taxi company) says ‘from tomorrow, you can’t keep your personal key chains and must only use Karwa’s key chains, or you can’t have your family picture in your wallet’ would you like it?”
“No! Absolutely!” Pat came the reply.
“Much similarly, people love their languages, food and culture. Nobody wants to be under anybody’s command. Force destroys harmony.” I didn’t have to try hard to make sense this time.
“Yes! Yes! You are right. You see, when people from India come here, they know nothing other than Malayalam. But we communicate. And learn each other’s language. I’ve many Indian friends.” He added, starting to see the point I was making. He seemed to have been pleased with my logic. Perhaps he had even begun to find a friend in me.
“If only everybody could think like you…Our countries will never fight, it’s all siyasati (political) you see…” He paused, lost in deep thoughts…
“Madam, I came here this 3rd from Mulk (Pakistan). My father passed away on 13th. I couldn’t even go.”
There was eerie silence for a while.
“Oh! I’m sorry! How? Why didn’t you go?” I sounded utterly naïve and foolish…
“He was fit and fine all along. Went for shikaar (hunting) into the mountains… had a heart attack and collapsed instantly.
I couldn’t save enough in ten days to go home,” his voice sounded apologetic…
“But, don’t worry, my brother took care of everything,” he said echoing a sense of solace.
In the meanwhile, we reached home, and I tendered a 500 Riyal bill to him, for which he didn’t have the change.
“It’s Ok! If you don’t have the change, you don’t pay,” he said generously, as I tried to go to the neighborhood Bakala (convenient store) for exchanging the big note.
“No! Thank you!
Can I take a picture of your keychain?” Paying him twenty five Riyals, I asked him hesitantly, as this blogpost was taking shape in my mind.
“But, I can’t give this,” he said gently, but firmly.
“Oh! No! I just need a picture,” I was reassuring.
“For sure! Why not” He appeared amused.
“Thank you very much! Good night!” I bowed to him gently, after taking two quick snaps.
“Madam, if you like it so much, I’ll ask my wife to make one for you. I’ll bring it next time I go to Mulk.” He was all kindness.
“…” I was speechless.