A cab, a conversation

Posted on February 8, 2015


About “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon probably meant it in a bigger, more existential sense. But I found life happening to me, in the face of my other plans, when I walked into the zero-degree weather outside Berlin’s Tegel airport. While in Chennai, I decided I’d take the bus to the hotel – or a train. After all, every euro comes with a multiplication factor of 80 – a euro saved is a euro earned. But at Tegel, with that weather and with my bags, I just said “Muck it” and decided to take a cab. (I didn’t say “muck it” exactly, but it was close enough, and this version can be printed in this family-friendly paper.)

A cab pulled up. The cabbie got out. He had fair skin and a silver beard. He took one look at me and began to talk in Hindi. I swear, they’re everywhere. We talked all the way to the hotel. My Hindi is pretty good, except for two things. One, the accent. Sometimes I slip up between the light and heavy sounds, tha and thha, ba and bha – a lot of south Indians tend to do that. Second, the gender thing drives me crazy. I don’t see any reason for tables and books and trees to be declared masculine or feminine, and whenever I use ki instead of ka (or vice versa), I end up doing my bit for the equality of the sexes, the malapropian equivalent of bra burning. (I fervently hope that bras are feminine in Hindi.)

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Normally, I don’t think about this, but the cabbie was going all Gulzar on me, casually using words like lutf and mohtarma – and I began to feel a tad self-conscious. But he didn’t mind. According to him, I was making myself understood. The conversation was flowing well. That was enough. That instant, I wished this man had graded all my science and maths exams.

We spoke about the Indian-Pakistani community in Berlin. (He, not surprisingly, was from Pakistan.) He said the numbers had dwindled. You could be a worker here, nothing more. He wasn’t talking about the IT generation, of course, and a lot of people didn’t want to continue being just a worker. He said he’d come to Berlin in 1976, hoping to become rich. He’s still in Berlin. He never saw those riches. Hearing him sum up his life in such a matter-of manner made me feel something. He kept pointing out the sights. This is East Berlin. This is West Berlin. This is the Wall. I think he took the scenic route, and I kept looking at the fare with the eighty-times table in mind, but I didn’t mind that much. He was a born yarn-spinner and he was fun to listen to. He spoke, for instance, of this Turkish ghetto whose inhabitants are so violent that the police, when summoned, never came alone. It was always a hundred cars. I tried imagining a hundred cars swooping into a ghetto. Even Michael Bay might dismiss that as overkill.

We then spoke about the movies. I asked him if he saw films in theatres, and how much the tickets cost. He said the last film he saw in a theatre was in 1978 – it was Guide. But the young Indian kids, he said, go and watch Hindi films. He keeps in touch through DVDs.

He said he liked realistic films like A Wednesday and Encounter, Bombay and Roja. He seemed to like the director who made the latter films, “Mani Rattan” as he called him. He cited the climactic courtroom scene in Guru and said that this “Mani Rattan” chap was so good that he even made Amitabh Bachchan’s son act. He told me he didn’t like pk. He felt the theme was good, but Aamir’s performance wasn’t great. By “great,” he meant it wasn’t like the performance in… Ghajini. The mind boggled slightly and I considered putting up an argument, but the hotel didn’t seem too far away and I told myself: “Ah, muck it.”

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