My taxi driver is from Pakistan. A large man, he swings my bag into the trunk of the cab. As we pull away from the airport I ask him if his first language is Urdu. Yes, he tells me, but he also speaks Punjabi and now English. Does he know anything about ghazals? I ask. I have been learning about Persian poetry, and in particular, the ghazal, a form that predates the sonnet. Oh, yes, he says. I see him smiling in the rear view mirror. Would he recite a few lines in Urdu for me?
We are driving through the city, past the new rapid transit stations, over the Arthur Laing Bridge, north on Granville Street towards the mountains. It is a summer evening. At 49th Avenue we are held up by the aftermath of an accident. Tow trucks are loading cars in the middle of the intersection. My taxi driver begins reciting in Urdu, lines from a poem by the great poet Iqbal. I listen to see if I can hear the word that is repeated at the end of each couplet. While I do not understand, I can hear the pathos and longing in the words. Ghazals are traditionally about love.
My taxi driver came to Canada at age 22. He went straight to work. He never had a chance to go to school, or to study English in any formal way, but now he goes to the library and reads novels and poetry, both in Urdu and in English. He loves libraries. He loves to read.
“Do you like to read?” he asks me. “What type of book are you reading?”
I tell him that I love to read books from all over the world, thinking of two writers I read this summer, Orhan Pamuk and Snow, his novel of a poet returning to Turkey from exile, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose story for children is set at the time of the independence movement in India. He suggests I go onto the Internet and find the poetry of Iqbal, in bilingual translations with romanized Urdu and English side by side. He confesses that he not only reads poetry, he also writes it. Do I write poetry as well? Yes, I say, and tell him about writing a ghazal this summer.
“Poetry brings a richness to life,” I say to him.
“Yes,” he agrees. “It is very peaceful, at the end of the day, to sit quietly and write poetry.”
We turn right onto my parents’ street. I point out the lamp post by their house. When he drops me off I wish him well and shake his hand.
The next morning I need a taxi again, this time to get to the bus depot. Again, the driver is from Pakistan, a man in his 50’s, with a bluetooth clamped onto his right ear. I tell him how I’m on my way from Michigan to Victoria. Do you travel a lot? Well, yes, I guess so. Are you a doctor? No, I say, laughing, do I look like one? It is your clothes, he says. I look down at my wrinkled linen jacket and my black pants.
“Are you a teacher?”
“Yes,” I laugh again. “Your second guess is right. But I am also a storyteller.”
“Tell me a good story,” he jokes. So I tell him about riding in the taxi the night before and the taxi driver reciting poetry to me in Urdu. How he had recommended Iqbal, how he himself writes poetry.
“What was his name?”
“He was the taxi driver,” I say. “I didn’t ask him his name.”
“Taxi drivers also have names,” he reminds me gently. He is right. We turn down Oak Street towards the water and the mountains.
“Iqbal,” he shrugs, “is one poet, but the best poet writing in Urdu is Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a modern socialist poet.”
Every day he reads the poetry of Faiz. His wife scolds him and tells him he should be reading the Koran, but he only wants to read this poetry. He begins to recite a few lines from Faiz, about how the poet is not a practical man, how he is no good at practical things.
“He speaks for all of us,” says my driver. We turn right on Broadway and soon we are on Main Street, heading down the hill to the train station and the bus depot. He recites verses that Faiz, who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, wrote at the time of partition, in 1947. The poem is about freedom, how the dream of freedom hadn’t yet been accomplished, even though India had achieved independence from Great Britian, and the nation of Pakistan had been created. Again and again, the poet describes the fighter leaving his beloved, going off to fight for freedom.
“ ‘I have a dream’, — that is what one leader in the West has said,” offers my driver, “and in Pakistan too, there was a dream for freedom, but that dream is not yet accomplished. I go back. I see the poor people. It makes me unhappy.”
He came to Canada with his family in 1986 and raised his daughter here. “This is a wonderful country,” he says.
His daughter is 23. She is finishing a degree in Criminology. Does she live at home? I ask. Yes, because she doesn’t know how to cook, he laughs. He takes my luggage out of the trunk and shakes my hand, then tells me I am a wonderful person. No, I want to say, it is these two taxi drivers from Pakistan who are wonderful, poets and philosophers both of them, reciting in Urdu as they take me through the city.