Saturday, February 21, 2009

Conversations in cabs

I get along extremely well with cab drivers. I can hardly remember a ride without an enriching conversation. Many drivers in the major cities of the United States are immigrants; most I met were from Africa. In Washington DC there is a fifty percent chance your driver will be Ethiopian. My discussions have always been political: I ask about how things are going in this or that country; we then talk about India. Invariably, the drivers tell me about Indian acquaintances in their respective home countries – Indians settled as teachers, doctors, professionals. I also use these conversations to test my still-evolving notions about Africa.

Let me present here two vignettes. These two don’t follow the trajectory I’ve described above -- well at least not entirely -- but they are the ones that stand out in my mind.


I met Steven in 2007, in a small suburban town in Maryland. Steven was from Ghana; his demeanor was hurried and his tone aggressive. But this turned out be just an external manifestation, a habit. Steven was friendly and eager to talk. Like many other drivers I've met, he was well traveled. He had even been to India: he had visited Calcutta in the late eighties, remarkably, to participate in an international ping-pong tournament, and had been impressed. What had he found striking?

“Well, you guys have your own cars, and you have your own transportation systems. I could tell you were well on your way to becoming a superpower.”

I wasn’t surprised with the superpower part – that was a common refrain in the Western media as well. I was surprised because Steven’s conclusions were based on an India glimpsed before the country’s economic liberalization. The cars he was referring to were hulky Ambassadors, and the transportation system, Calcutta’s trams. Many Indians lament the period before the economic reforms of the 90s, when growth in India was sluggish and stifled by bureaucracy.

Steven, in contrast, had been impressed by the achievements of the Indian state. Admittedly, he could not have learned much from one short visit. But perhaps Steven looked at it that way because African states, with a few exceptions, provide little for their people. I told him I thought Ghana was doing well. He did not think so. “There are no jobs,” he said unhappily, with something approaching rage. “What do you do when you have no work?” He wasn’t convinced that other parts of Africa were doing well either. “People say South Africa is doing well. But it’s just the white people, a small minority. For the blacks, it’s the same story.”

Steven wasn't the only one with such cynicism. The same sentiments constantly resurfaced in almost all my conversations. There was frustration and helplessness over the divisive, ethnic nature of politics in Africa. What I’ve heard from Africans only provides anecdotal evidence that supports a well-known fact: that Africa’s nations – whose borders were decided rather arbitrarily in European capitals in the 19th century and not on any templates from African history – are not nations fully yet.


In Atlanta earlier this week, I rode with a driver whose accent suggested he might be African-American. But I was mistaken. Paul was from Jamaica. And since the Caribbean is full of people of Indian origin, it wasn’t surprising that Paul had several close Indian acquaintances; his own half-brothers were half-Indian. To top it off, Paul, like me, loved cricket. As we headed towards Midtown Atlanta, we were bogged down by the morning traffic. But I didn't mind at all: we had plenty to talk about.

I called Paul again in the evening for a ride back to my hotel, but he was busy, and instead sent someone else. This time, it was a middle-aged man, Olivier Kone, from Côte d'Ivoire. It felt like a relay: one interesting cabbie was passing me to another. I had never met anyone from Côte d'Ivoire before. But I did remember VS Naipaul’s long travel essay about the country, The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro. Yamoussoukro is the capital of Côte d'Ivoire – rather it was made into a political center by the country’s first leader, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. In the 1960s and 70s the country was booming: exports in cocoa and coffee fed the economy. Naipaul, writing at the time of the boom, had presciently stated it would all collapse. He saw an excessive reliance on French expertise. The country unraveled in the 1990s after the death of Houphouët-Boigny; I am not fully cognizant of the reasons, but ethnicity – Africa’s bane – played a role here as well.

I discussed all this with Olivier. As we approached my hotel, he asked what I had seen in Atlanta. I told him I’d been too busy. I'd been considering the Coca Cola Center -- which many recommended -- but I was much more interested in the Martin Luther King Center on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta. Atlanta had been King’s home and is where he is buried. The Ebenezer Baptist church, where King and his father had pastored, is also in the neighborhood.

“What’s there to see in the Coca Cola center man? They charge you $25 to see a beverage! Go see King’s place. It's free; and it’s a special place. In fact call me tomorrow morning; I’ll take you there and drive you back to the airport. I won’t charge you for the time you spend watching the exhibits.”

We agreed on a time and set out together the next morning. The Atlanta skyline was ahead of us as we took the interstate. When we got to the center, Olivier took off the Taxi sign from the roof of the cab and accompanied me -- he wasn't a cabbie for this visit. The King Center comprised of about three buildings, all with drab exteriors. That was disappointing: I expected the place to be grander; it was, after all, commemorating one of America's greatest leaders. The emptiness on Auburn Avenue that morning only added to the seeming insignificance of the place. The interior was better and consisted mostly of black and white pictures from the 1950s and 60s and sound clips of King’s rousing speeches.

Olivier was keen to show me the large, dark-brown statue of a walking Gandhi – a gift from India – outside one of the buildings. He led me also to a room dedicated to Gandhi; there were pictures of King visiting India in 1959 -- one picture showed him shaking hands with Lal Bahadur Shastri. King was born in 1929, sixty years after Gandhi. Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against the British had inspired King; but King’s achievement, in my opinion, surmounts Gandhi’s. The legacy of slavery and segregation is far more humiliating than of colonialism. It is also harder to fight against: the struggle is as much in the mind of the oppressed as against the policies of the oppressors.

It was time for me to get to the airport. As Olivier and I walked back to the cab, it struck me that ours was a special visit. We were certainly an unusual pair: he was from Côte d'Ivoire; I was from India. We hardly knew each other and yet it did not feel that way. Olivier is black and the struggle for civil rights no doubt resonates strongly with him. I was aware business was one reason why he had suggested I call him in the morning. But there was also earnestness: Olivier genuinely wanted to show me the place, especially the Gandhi statue and exhibits. He wanted to take pictures for me and was disappointed I did not have a camera.

And to think that it was all chance. Had Paul, the Jamaican cab-driver, not sent Olivier, I would have never met him. And but for Olivier’s insistence the previous night that I visit the King Center and his offer to take me there, I would have never gone.

But then itineraries do change unexpectedly -- I am glad mine did.


Pallavi said...

Hari, I wanted to ask you on what made you say: "The legacy of slavery and segregation is far more humiliating than of colonialism. It is also harder to fight against: the struggle is as much in the mind of the oppressed as against the policies of the oppressors."

Interesting point and it's not because I disagree but because I wanted to know your
reasoning/understanding behind it. You can ignore this if you are short on time..:)

Hari said...

Hi Pallavi,

Your question is a very good one. I thought carefully before I wrote these two sentences. I am unfortunately short of time right now, but will respond to this for sure!

Hari said...

Hi Pallavi,
I think slavery leaves a much deeper wound. Even after emancipation it is almost impossible to look back and feel pride in one’s past. Colonialism is bad too, but in most cases – and there are notable exceptions – the conquered people still are able to keep their past intact. Indians were second class citizens, it is true, during the British rule but Indians never forgot who they were, their own great past and identity – in fact, British scholarship about the Buddha and Sanskrit even enhanced India’s understanding of its past. On the other hand, the struggle against the injustices of caste in India – which is similar to the idea of segregation – is much harder. The key difference is the type of effect oppression has on one’s psyche – slavery and segregation leave marks that are difficult to efface (though certainly not impossible).

Pallavi said...

You are right! I think slavery and segregation almost never heal the wounds completely. I found similar understanding while reading stories in AIDS Sutra. Hence I find prostitution as biggest form of slavery. I personally think slavery can be one individual against another while colonialism is mostly collective invasion and also in a sense that slavery causes more of internal injury while colonialism has external impacts.

Thanks for your response!