Cabbie bhaijaan: Being Indian but ‘almost Pakistani’ in Abu Dhabi

Updated October 17, 2015


'Fawad Khan jaisay bohut milenge ji Pakistan mein.' —Photo courtesy of Sammy Dallal
'Fawad Khan jaisay bohut milenge ji Pakistan mein.' —Photo courtesy of Sammy Dallal

Yes, we love to mistrust each other. It is a Partition thing. We have fought four wars against each other, there's the ‘K’ word that crops up like chai pe charcha and now Sartaj Aziz has even dismissed any hopes of cricket.

But, as Mehdi Hasan sang in his timeless ghazal, ‘ranjish he sahi, dil dukhane ke liye aa…’, there is a thread of lingering curiosity connecting both sides that refuses to snap.

For my family, Pakistan invokes immense nostalgia. My father was born in our family home on Lahore’s Nisbat Road. The house is long gone, replaced by shops, as he discovered when he went with the media party to cover Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore. But the link remains.

You watch our films, we stay up late for your dramas. And sometimes, we simply open ourselves up on instinct and let the conversations flow, like my conversations with these Pakistani taxi drivers.

Away from the daily suspicions and endless conspiracy theories, I live in a melting pot called Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s richer and greener neighbour. Here, the pot runneth over with some delicious mutton and naan rotis that are bigger than any feelings of personal animosity.

Indian or Pakistani, here we are all ‘desi’.

I came to Abu Dhabi over a year ago. Almost immediately after my arrival, a taxi driver here from Islamabad took me on another journey.

With Bollywood songs blaring nonstop in the taxi, he introduced me to the delights of Pakistani food. Soon, I learned there was nothing called a vegetarian diet in this game (‘Koi meat chorh ke sabzi kyun khayega, ji?’), and that ghee wasn’t something used only in children’s food (‘Woh qeema nan hee kya jo pehle ghee mein na daala ho’).

Since then, every weekend, my husband joins the taxi drivers at Student Biryani for some biryani, haleem and the most divine kebabs we have ever tasted. In return, I have challenged a Pakistani friend that we can cook and feed them vegetables so deftly that they wouldn't even find out.

Away from all the mistrust and jingoism, thus began these taxi rides, involving some learning, some unlearning, and all equally enlightening.

Most of the Pakistani taxi drivers who I have met here are from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

Aap kabhi Pakistan aye toh paharri ilaqa dekhain, bohut khubsoorat hai (If you ever happen to visit Pakistan, visit the mountainous areas, they're beautiful).’

I wonder once again if he means the areas where the drama Dyar-i-Dil has been shot. I have yet to see a more stunning landscape, although my over-imaginative mind always expects the Taliban to be lurking behind those tall trees.

Iss ilaqay mein koi bhi militant nahi hai ji, bohut safe hai (There are no militants in the area, it is very safe).’

When I hear this, I wonder if I have been out of the newsroom too long?

Also, here I must mention that Imran Khan may have lost his looks, gotten a new wife and suffered a hundred losses in different political games, but for these proud drivers, he is still the messiah.

A belligerent Faisal once roared: ‘Agar aap us ke khilaaf ek bhi lafaz bolenge toh mein aap ko taxi se utaar doonga (One word against him and I'll have to ask you to get out of the taxi).’

But most other cabbie bhaijaans stop at the self-explanatory ‘Hum Pakhtun hai’, like Feroze, who not only insisted that Imran will come to power next time but will also take everyone along.

That ‘everyone’, my horrified Indian brain soon realised, was a truly all-encompassing word, because the list began to include intelligence agencies and the Taliban.

Also read: Tough Pakhtuns find solace in Afridi’s Pakistan

Kachra logo ne kachra kar diya hai, Imran Khan ka saara paisa awam ke liye hai (Rubbish people have rubbished everything, but Imran Khan’s entire wealth is for the poor).’

I, at once, recalled how years ago, the television network that I worked for had to drop an interview with the former cricketer after he had allegedly asked money for it; it was unheard of in those days. Hopefully, the ‘awam’ is benefiting.

Inam Khan, a rather jolly-looking taxi driver summarised it: ‘Peshawar ko dekho aur Nawaz Sharif ke Lahore ko dekho ji (Look at Peshawar and look at Nawaz Sharif's Lahore).’

I replied, though without my usual chak de spirit, ‘Mein bhi Punjabi hoon ji (I am also Punjabi).’

To make amends, the driver came up with another gem.

India ki security sirf Punjabiyon ne sambhalee hui hai. Yeh hatte katthe log hain, meat khaatay hain na iss liye (The Punjabis are taking care of India's security. They are big, burly people you see, because they eat meat).’

Referring to some other parts of India, he added: ‘Yeh vegetarian khana kha ke kya desh ko sambalenge (Can these people really support their nation on vegetarian diets)?’

And then, the punchline: ‘Agar Punjabi nahi hotay tou Pakistan kab ka India ko kacha chabaa jata (If it weren't for Punjabis, Pakistan would have devoured India a long time ago).’

I was too choked for further conversation.

But what would these cab drivers do without our Punjabi sense of humour? Or their humour at the expense of Punjabis?

Sharif toh pukka businessman hai ji, uska bas naam hi sharif hai (All Sharif cares about is business, he's innocent only in name).’

Take a look: Pakistanis buy Dubai property worth $379m in three months

I still try to extract some friendly sentiments of Punjabi loyalty by pointing out that my family migrated from Lahore. In post-partition India, families got classified as ‘Peshawari’ or ‘Lahori’. Now, there was a third phrase.

Tou phir tou ji aap almost Pakistani ho (In that case, you are almost Pakistani).’

The more things are different, the more they are also the same.

Ajmal the driver kept pointing out of the window, saying: ‘Idhar Dubai mein ji Zardari ki properties hi properties hain, per PPP toh khatam hi ho gayi. Bilawal kya karega, woh Urdu tak tou bol nahi sakta (There is no end to Zardari's properties here in Dubai, but PPP has finished. What can Bilawal do when he has such a hard time speaking in Urdu)?’

And just like that, a vision of Rahul Gandhi came to mind, speaking in Parliament (one of those rare times), clinging on to his Hindi speech sheet written in roman. Clearly, the dynasties share more than just a tragic history.

With Modi under so much scrutiny back home, I am always curious to know what others think about our prime minister.

Yeh Modi dhamkee bohut deta hai (This Modi guy keeps hurling threats), announced a sheepish driver Aslam, but perhaps trying to kill two birds with one stone added: ‘Aap ke Punjab ka bhi khayal nahi rakhta (He doesn't care about your Punjab either).’

I smile, because what else can I do? Modi isn’t really my chief minister, present or ex, like Amarinder Singh, whose interests across the border are an open secret.

But our shared love of the dramatic inevitably ends up at the movies. Shahrukh and Salman Khan, revered equally across the border, just as long as we can also claim Fawad Khan.

Fawad Khan jaisay bohut milenge ji Pakistan mein (There are countless Fawad Khans in Pakistan),’ the drivers tell me proudly, and somewhat dismissively.

For someone who is hooked to Pakistani dramas way more than the saas-bahu melodrama on the Indian side of the border, no one yet has come close to being a humsafar, nor has zindagi been as gulzar since Fawad started with films.

See: Compliments to Pakistan shouldn't be construed as anti-Indian, says Naseeruddin Shah

There is one thing I have missed on these rides though: For every ‘abhi tou party shuru hui hai’, I wish someone had played a Farida Khanum track.

But who knows? There are still many drives to go on, many stories to listen to, many trips to take to the Khaadi store, and hopefully, somewhere in the middle, a chance to come across those haunting vocals at least once:

♪ ‘Waqt kee qaid mein, zindagi hai magar, chand ghariyan yahi hai jo azad hai.’ ♫