A Kirpan from Hoshiarpur

I met Kuldeep about 6 months ago. It had just been a few months since he arrived in Melbourne. As we conversed, Kuldeep mentioned that he’s studying cookery at one of Melbourne’ lesser known universities. He didn’t like cooking much, but this particular course, expensive as it was, could help him in his Permanent Residency in Australia (since cookery and hospitality, among other trade skills like plumbing and hair-styling, are in demand in Australia).

I had been working late at work that Friday night. We were really gearing up for releasing a major update to a financial application. This project was critical, but, not because it catered to almost 7 million Australians for a net $80 billion. The real challenge was to deliver before time and within budget. Calling it a night, I walked down and hailed at a cab. A 20 something young guy greeted me, and we were off to my destination.

Ever since I came to Australia 5 years ago to study technology (of all things, of all places), I’ve fancied Melbourne. Let’s just say that I like the unpredictable weather here. Most people I’ve met, socially or professionally, have been friendly. My uni days were tough, but I had fun, and learnt a lot about myself. I enjoyed the casual dialogue with the cabbies (specially the philosophically comical conversations after those late drinking nights at the city pubs). These guys have stories to tell, and interesting viewpoints to share, many of which go unheard, apparently.

While we were still far away from the destination, the young cabbie anxiously asked me if I would pay cash or by card. I had a Cab-charge voucher in my wallet, but I left the choice of mode of payment to him. The neon clock in the cab was flashing ’12:09 AM’, but the streets were still buzzing with traffic that mid-night. I was tired. And I didn’t really want to fuss over how to pay what I owe. To initiate a conversation, I asked him if he had been busy that night, to which he replied that he was hoping for business to pick-up before he finishes his shift at 9 in the morning. While I could never appreciate working late nights, be it the cabbies in Melbourne or call centre attendants in Delhi, but I realize that odd-hours are a norm at times to make a living.

I asked him where he was from. He looked at me with a friendly smile, and said “Punjab”. It seemed like he took pride in binding an ethnic bridge. “Where in Punjab?”, I asked, being familiar with the Northern states of India. “Hoshiarpur… and you?”, he replied, while keying some buttons on his radio console. “I’m from Delhi”, I said. We talked about our life outside India. I guess, at some level, we both didn’t want to chat about much else.

Breaking the odd silence in between, the young cabbie threw a candid question at me, “did you watch the footy game tonight?”. Perplexed for a few seconds, I told him the truth — that I’m not a huge footy fan, so I don’t follow the sport. I expected some sort of a balant reaction from him, for footy is a religion for many Oz sports fans. But wait a minute. My Indian friend has been in the land down-under only for a few months. How would this munda (young man) from Hoshiarpur know much about footy, when even some Oz baby boomers I know of dislike footy for it being too rough. “I support the Carlton Blues”, he affirmed, gazing in his rear-view mirror, “they’ve won 16 premiership titles, but they haven’t won since 1995. I’m hopeful for them.”

We were near the street corner close to my destination. “Myself Kuldeep”, he later introduced himself. As I was stepping down the front-seat, he handed me a Yellow Cabs business card with his mobile number scribbled on it. “Brother, call me anytime you or your friends need a cab”, he prompted professionally, before disappearing down the street.

I called Kuldeep on his mobile this Thursday, months since our rendezvous. Not to book a cab though. The business card he left, had already been through a machine wash in my trousers. Everything on the card had been erased, except his mobile phone number, scribbled in blue ink. For some strange reason, I was worried for my acquaintance. I kept the conversation short, although it took him a while to recollect our journey. “Are you and your friends doing fine?”, I inquired. We chatted for a few seconds, and I could sense that he was assuring me and reassuring himself for carrying a kirpan (dagger) now-a-days for his “personal safety”. Kuldeep sounded furious, “I pay my taxes. I even helped the Bushfire victims… why then is this happening with us?”

Amidst the recent events in metropolitan Australia, I’m worried for Kuldeep. International students like him, don’t need daggers, or hospital expenses from assaults. They spend large sums of money, unimaginable by the average Joe, to attain a quality education abroad. Moreover, this “invisible army” of workers deserves safety and equality. They aren’t menial to have silently contributed billions towards the Australian economy.

The news media may have given a xenophobic texture to the current situation, but I have bigger doubts — on the future of the so called multi-cultural society of Australia. The “White Australia” theme was gradually relaxed after World War II, when the slogan “Populate or Perish” expressed the national mood more acutely. Apparently, the crime rates lowered during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. This time around, “curry bashing” may well provoke disparity with severe diplomatic consequences.

Today, the First-World President is an Afro-American, and yet I wonder if Kuldeep will continue driving a cab with “Victoria – The Place To Be” written on its license plate. The answer lies hidden somewhere in how well the Indian diaspora unites together at this hour.

Update (31 May) – Up to 2000 people (Indian and Australian) march through Melbourne CBD to raise awareness of ‘hate crimes’. Some images, courtesy Reuters.

Update (8 June) – We’re even more racist than Aussies: “Caste is India’s unique contribution to the lexicon of racial bigotry.

Update (13 June) – Lifting the veil on our ingrained racism: “AUSTRALIA is a racist society. There, I’ve said it. I’ve wanted to say this for the past 24 years — from the time I arrived here.

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