Last Name Singh
I’m running late to class. It’s 3:20 p.m., right in the middle of the hour that cab drivers switch shifts. It feels impossible to get a cab at this hour. Just as I give up hope, a cab pulls toward me. The man inside asks where I’m headed and agrees to take me. I figure I’m on his way.
I get in and glance at his ID: last name Singh.
“Are you Punjabi?” I ask.
“Haan jeen (yes)!” he immediately says.
We start speaking in Punjabi, and when my less-fluent Punjabi lapses into Urdu, he gently switches to Urdu without drawing attention to it.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Lahore. I missed the Sikh Day parade on Saturday, did you go?” I ask.
“I didn’t go, I had work, but my family went.”
“What do they do there?”
“The usual parade stuff.”
“Of course,” I say. We laugh.
“I missed out,” I say, regretful. “Did they have dholis (drummers)?”
“Dholis? They had dholis.”
It’s a short drive, and we arrive at my class. I reach for my wallet.
“Koi gal ni (it’s nothing),” he says, refusing my payment. I argue with him, but he won’t relent.
Finally, I say, “It is something. You have a good heart. Please accept my payment and you’ll have my duahs (prayers).”
He softens. I pay and put on my backpack. “Khudafiz,” I say.
“Satsri…kar?” I ask.
“Yes, satsriakal,” he says, smiling.
I get in a cab driven by a Sikh man named Lakhi. He wears a turban and I wear a headscarf.
As we head to JFK, he looks in his rearview mirror, straight into my eyes, and asks, “Is it hard for you to wear the scarf?”
I look in his eyes and say, “Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s really hard. Sometimes I wish someone didn’t think they knew something about me before they met me.”
“Me, too,” he says.
We both have tears in our eyes.
“Assalamualaikum,” he says, the moment I enter his cab. I look for his ID to learn his name and can’t find it.
“How many years have you been driving a cab?” I ask.
“Well, I started in my freshman year, so now it’s been two years,” he says. “You know I have a funny story. I was born here, then I went to India for ten years and I lived with my grandparents. And then I came here.” We talk about the difference in school systems.
“My parents are from Punjab. We used to be from Faisalabad. Then, you know,” he says, referring to the partition.
“My grandma didn’t have to move, so they didn’t have to see all of that,” I say, implying that my family didn’t have to experience a lot of the violence that took place during partition.
“Yeah, my family did, along the way. They would line up the women and… So much bloodshed… They had a lot of land and were very wealthy, they lost all that.”
“Are you Sikh or Muslim?” I ask.
“Sikh. My grandfather’s sister who lives here, she went back to see her old home in Faisalabad for the first time last year. She went and saw her neighbors and they were there and they remembered her.”
I’m in awe. We hold a knowing silence between us. I think I see tears in his eyes, but I’m not sure.
We arrive at my house. “Thank you for the conversation,” he says.
“Thank you! Thank you, for talking about all that,” I say.
“No, thank you,” he insists.
“Satrsiakal,” I say as I leave his cab.
He rolls down his window and says, “Assalamualaikum.”