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From Lion To Pussycat

Popularity 1Viewed 1019 times 2020-5-24 09:05 |Personal category:StoryTeller|System category:Life

It was my early days in Australia. I was in the hospital emergency room with my kid in  Melbourne. He had been attended to and then discharged. It had been a long night and we were relieved knowing we could go home now. Since I had arrived in the ambulance with him the previous night, we were taking a cab back home. There was a phone booth near the entrance of the emergency room that one could use to call a taxi. I used it and booked one. They said it would arrive in about 5 minutes. Rather than sit inside and wait, we decided to come out. It seemed like a good day. We were ready to go home and catch up on some sleep.

Just outside the door was the taxi drop-off/pick-up spot and a covered bench. A scrawny, unkempt man of indeterminate age was sitting on it. He appeared to be one of the rare homeless people I have seen around Melbourne.

Just as I and my son stepped out into the fresh morning air, I saw the homeless looking man stand up and look around. Seeing us, he started to make his way towards us. A gust of wind brought up a sudden strong whiff of alcohol and smoke from him towards us. His eyes looked rheumy, his face was grimy, unshaven and he looked a bit spaced out. He was very gaunt, emaciated and very small in loose fitting clothes. He appeared very drunk and/or high on something as he staggered along a crooked line, mumbling to himself. My kid looked at him and asked me softly, "Is he ill?"

"Perhaps," I replied.

"Mate! Would you have a couple of dollars to spare? I have not had anything to eat," he spoke revealing that several of his teeth were missing and the remaining in disrepair.

I fished in my coin pocket in my jeans and pulled out a couple of coins totaling less than a dollar. I gave it to the man.

"I am sorry, mate! I don't have anymore," I shook my head as I patted my pocket. I did not even have the money to pay the cab until I got home. 

"A smoke, do you have a cigarette?" he asked again.

"I am afraid, I don't have one. I don't smoke."  I replied.

My young son, as he stood next to me, looked at the man with an honest, open interest.

Just then a taxi pulled up. That taxi was certainly not the one I had called in. Ours would still be a few minutes. The cab driver in the approaching taxi gave a glance at us and nodded. He seemed of Indian appearance and a Sikh, as is common of so many taxi drivers in Melbourne and other big cities in Australia.

The homeless looking man made his way to the cab that had stopped. He banged on the passenger side window in the front. The cab driver opened it a little. I and my son had turned away and were looking around, when suddenly we heard loud swearing, shouting, cursing, all from the direction of the cab. The cab driver seemed to be saying something in a quiet, steady, calm. polite but firm manner. The homeless man was trying to reach in through the partly open passenger window, abusing and threatening the cab driver.

"Saab! Indian ho? [Sir, Are you Indian?]
" suddenly, I heard the cab driver shout and realized he was addressing me.

"Haan bhai! Kya baath hai? [Yes Bro! What's the matter?]," I asked. My son realized there was some trouble around and he instinctively came close and slipped his hand in mine.

"Taxi ke liye wait kar rahe ho? [Are you waiting for a taxi]?" the taxi driver asked.

"Haan. [Yes"]," I replied as I moved closer to the taxi, pulling my son along.

The aggressive homeless looking man was momentarily quiet, perhaps stunned by the strange language he was hearing. He was still partly with his hand and shoulder in through the half-opened passenger side front window, trying reach for the cabbie.

"Aayiye mein aapko chhod deta hun. [Come on, let me drop you off]," the cabbie yelled to me.

"Par meri taxi aa rahi hai! [But, my taxi is on its way]," I replied. 

"Koyi baat nahin Saab,  Pehle Aap PLEASE andhar aake baithiye!! [Does not matter, Sir, First PLEASE, come inside and sit down]," the cab driver pleaded, desperation in his voice looking towards me. 

"Ek second [One second]," I replied.

Suddenly, I realized that the cabbie was seeking help to avoid something he saw as big trouble. I wanted to help him.  I looked towards my son, who was looking at the proceedings with concern, but seemed OK as he clung to me closer, I was shielding him from the angry man in front of us. I decided to help. I moved closer to the back door of the cab.

"Saab, Jaldi Please! [Sir, Quickly, Please!],"  the cabbie yelled, dodging the aggressive man and I heard the doors of the cab unlock. The cabbie appeared to be truly frightened of this aggressor.

I pulled open the door, pushed by son ahead of me into the back seat asked him to move over quickly to the other side. The open door was now between me and the homeless looking man. I too got in and shut the door quickly.

 The homeless man looked at the cabbie angrily, but he looked at us too, and the anger subsided a little.

"See! These are my passengers. They were waiting for me," said the cabbie to the man, in a soft, almost pleading voice.

The angry man looked at us for a second and then decided to call it quits and backed away, pulled out his hand with one final torrent  of abuse at the cabbie. The cabbie rolled up the window and inched the taxi forward slowly.

I asked him to pull aside for a moment into a parking spot.

"Shukriya Sir!  Aapne bacha liya [Thank you, Sir! You saved me]," said the cabbie, visibly relieved. The frightened expression left him.

"I have already booked a cab with a different company, it should be on its way," I told the cab driver.

"No problem, Sir, I will call my control room and let them know. They will talk to them. It will be OK. They will understand," said the cabbie.  I gave him the details and he spoke over a walkie-talkie to his cab company's control room. He then started to drive us home. 

As we were headed home, we took stock of each other and started to chat. I asked him what was the matter with the homeless looking man at the hospital.

"He is a druggie, Sir. A junkie, I know he cannot pay the fare, but we cannot refuse to take him too. On top of it, he is very abusive Sir. You see how racist he was in abusing me. I told him, you were my passengers so he would not force his way in," the cabbie said with a sad and strangely frightened expression.

"Why, did you not have someone waiting for you?" I asked.

"No, Sir, but often we are nearby, we just stop by the hospital emergency department and usually there will be someone needing a cab. Sometimes control room will send us to pick up those who book, sometimes we just come by. I saw he was a trouble-maker from how he first started to abuse me. I told him I cannot take him because I have to pick someone else up," he said.

I noted that the cab driver was a  powerfully built young man, likely in his late 20s or early 30s. He said his name was "* Singh", from Punjab. * Singh had come to Australia as a student, worked jobs and now had a gig driving a cab. It was apparently well paying even though it took long hours and hard work. His family had recently come over and this job was very important to him. 

It struck me the way this cabbie seemed scared of the homeless man who was puny and weak physically by comparison. I reckoned that just one blow from this cabbie would have knocked that homeless man out cold. But it clearly was not a physical issue. It was more a social and psychological one.

"Could you not refuse to take him and defend yourself or push him out when he tries to force himself into the cab or attacks you?" I asked.

"Oh  No! Sir!! Very strict regulations. Cannot refuse service. Cannot touch customer. Cannot do anything if they refuse to pay. We can only report. If they report us, I can lose my license and even be arrested!! Even when we report to the police, they do not punish the offender. I just have to try and get away somehow, if I can without fuss," said * Singh.

To lighten the mood, I made the observation to * Singh that the dynamic of the cab driver and passenger relationship was so different here in Australia from in India. In my southern state of Tamil Nadu or Kerala, a cab or the autorickshaw driver was feared - an often thuggish person who one would not dare to mess with. They were individually and collectively very aggressive, looked out for each other like gangs and were known to gouge and extort fees well over the meter readings. They had the local police and politicians backing them (or even vice versa). Long term efforts by different governments in India to 'regulate' them to become less feared has only achieved a little progress even now. This was true even in the north of India.  Except in some strictly controlled places near airports with significant foreign travelers, usually the cab driver has a choice to refuse service to decide whether to take any passenger, take luggage or not, to negotiate a different fee from the official meter. Of course, things are changing a bit now with Uber, Ola and other Internet based services. But this was before the Internet era.

* Singh suddenly became pensive, a sad expression came over him and he said something that struck him to the core and I could well understand it.

"Apne wahan Sher ki tarah rahte the Saab, yahan billi ban kar rahna padta hai [Used to live like a lion back home, Sir. Have to become a pussy cat here]," * Singh said with feeling.

I observed but did not say anything to * Singh-  that all over India, for many centuries,  men who were obviously Sikh, were addressed as "Sardarji [Leader/Chief]" . They were known and seen as brave, courageous warriors who could be counted upon the step up anywhere that bravery, courage was needed on the side of the righteous, the law-abiding and to protect the weak even if they were not officially police.  The honorific of "Sardarji"  is still applied to everyone of the Sikh community. Their names had the default "Singh" which means "Lion". It was such a badge of honor that entire communities, even non-Sikhs,  added "Singh" or the local version of it to their names.  Such is found all over the North of India, from its Western border with Iran to the beyond Bengal in the East,  from as far south as the middle of India to North in Nepal.  Sometime it is plain "Singh" and sometimes it is a variation of the word "Singh" - "Sinha", "Sinh".  It is seen in their family names. But the word "Sardar" - "The Leader/Chief", is reserved for the Sikhs. Even among the Lions, the leader of the pack was the Sikh - a cultural reputation and honour earned over a long time. Even now, in India, culturally there is a default respectful approach to a Sikh. No one would think of wantonly messing with one, provoking or baiting them as I had seen the homeless looking drug junkie I had seen do.

To see a cab driver, that too a Sikh cab driver, on the defensive and seemingly even scared was a rare sight. I sympathized with * Singh on his individual situation with the likes of the homeless looking man. I also marveled at the effectiveness of the Australian system of regulations and culture that ensures that people from all over the world can come and work here fitting into the local system and culture. It would not work with everyone from different parts of the world bringing their old cultural dynamics to a taxi service, or any service, here. Here, there is a consistent, uniform service expectation, even in dealing with miscreants - physical confrontation to be avoided, things reported and dealt with afterwards in peace. This does not prevent some egregious acts and crimes, but it prevents most situations from escalating and keeps a service available to all that are willing to play by common law and rules. I felt less stressed traveling in a cab in Melbourne than in the old India - in Chennai or Delhi or many other cities.

Copyright (c) KIyer 2020
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Reply Report KIyer 2020-5-28 08:39
Thanks for the flowers, Snowipine!

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