Thursday, 14 June 2012

Of Taxi Drivers

Taking taxis in Adelaide is always an interesting experience. Most of the taxi drivers here are Indian. Sometimes, as I get into the taxi, I can sense that the driver is a bit unsettled by my taking the taxi. I think that this is because Indian immigrants in Adelaide, though numerous, are most often first generation migrants, and still establishing themselves. This does not mean that every Indian in Adelaide is struggling or that I am a poster girl for affluence in this city. Poster girl for too lazy to learn how to drive is more like it. Yet I sense a frisson of discomfort most times I ask an Indian driver "Will you take me to Semaphore please?"
Most conversations in such taxi rides begin with curiosity. The three most common questions are "what do you do?" "which visa are you on here?" "how long have you been here?" Most of them are surprised to find that I am a student, and that we are still on student visas in spite of having been here for so long. I often get well-meant advice on how to secure residency. I usually like to provocatively say that we plan to return to India. Some times it is greeted with bafflement, but in most cases people tell me that it is a fine plan, as long as I don't leave without securing a residency. Just for security, for the future. I think this reaction stems from two contradictory impulses that seem to effortlessly co-exist in the minds of many first generation migrants that I see here: at one level, they do not believe that anyone will ever return to India, and at another level, they totally understand the desire to return.
Some people I meet are openly hostile. How is it that my qualifications get me work in the university, while others are struggling, when their education does not get that kind of recognition? A few take almost personal pleasure in my doing a PhD. Most are pensive. They ask me where I studied, and say 'ah... Delhi' as if that explains everything. Which it probably does, to a large extent. One taxi driver wistfully told me of his teacher, who would keep telling him to work hard, and how much he now regrets not listening to him then. Most see education as a panacea, blaming themselves rather than the institutional failure of the education system they were in.
One taxi driver insisted that his university, Lovely Public University, was a truly international university that had offered him the best education. When I had heard him talking about it, I wondered at how delusional he was to think that a university called 'lovely' should be, well, lovely. But the whole conversation nagged at my mind and I checked their website out. It claims to be the largest university in India. There are other similar private universities. The more I thought about it, the more I understood where his sense of pride in his alma mater had come from. In an education system that lays emphasis on rote learning, and on engineering and MBA as the only suitable occupations for men, a private university that offers the right courses, makes all the right noises about its quality and is put together in a corporate, glitzy manner, is so much more attractive than failing the entrance exam of a public university or having to study something other than engineering.
I feel far less understanding when it comes to disciplines though. I take great pleasure in informing people that I studied literature, and am now doing a PhD in history. I think all those years of "But you seem really intelligent... why are you studying Arts?" are still with me, and squelch any sense of perspective and/or generosity I may feel. Nor is this an old refrain, no longer in fashion, much as I would like to think of it that way. I routinely come across assumptions that what I do now must not require a lot of hard work, because after all, whether literature or history, it is 'all arts' and easy. That I have to read practically all the time strikes people as idiosyncratic, a personal choice rather than a requirement of my profession.
Not every taxi driver that I come across is Indian though. I've met some really interesting people from all parts of the world. I've yet to meet a taxi driver who grew up in Adelaide, or in Australia for that matter. I met a Macedonian whom I offended by saying "Macedonia... isn't that near, or an old name for, Greece?", to which I got a vehement reply to the effect that Greece and Macedonia are separate countries, thank you very much. I hope I partially redeemed myself by remembering that Alexander the Great was Macedonian, which seemed to mollify him somewhat. I met a Syrian who told me how beautiful Damascus was, and an Afghan who told him that the popular name of the country is Khorasan, and it is only the rich, the city dwellers and the foreigners who call the country Afghanistan. I met an Iranian who had a clear theory on racism and American hegemony. I met a Zimbabwean who told me about the similarities between Africa and India, and how we were both community based societies, dependent on families and community networks for happiness, "not like white people". Best of all, the Afghan I met had an extensive knowledge of history - both Afghani and Indian. He debated with me if there had ever been historically an India conceptually, i.e. he raised the questions I am attempting to raise in my thesis casually, as he brought me home. He will not get the opportunity to explore the tantalizing answers to those questions that perplex both of us, because he is outside of those institutional frameworks. That is the unfairness and contingency of life.