Conversation with an Afghan-Dutch taxi driver

We got back to London yesterday, and were welcomed with atypical London weather – thunderstorms. While it is common to stereotype London’s weather as being typically shitty and grey, it doesn’t normally rain all that heavily here – most of the rain that London gets is what is called “spitting rain” – slow drizzly rain best dealt with with a nice cap.

Also welcoming us was an Afghan-Dutch guy who drove us home in his Merc (we hired him through Uber). We got talking and there were a few interesting things from what he said that I though were Pertinent.

  • When we told him we were from Bangalore he said something that sounded like “cooley”. First we interpreted it as him saying that the city is cool, and then realised that wasn’t what he was saying. Then I thought he was talking about Coolie which was filmed in Bangalore, but it wasn’t that as well. Finally we realised he was talking about Virat Kohli, who plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore. It’s funny how Kohli is identified with Bangalore abroad though he’s only nominally based there only during the IPL season
  • We spoke a bit about the IPL and he said he was disappointed that “our team” lost. A minute later he said the team was Sunrisers Hyderabad. For a while it wasn’t clear as to why the Sunrisers were his team. Then I realised they have two prominent Afghan players – Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi.
  • He was studying to be a dentist, and decided to spend time in England learning English because a lot of the dental course was in English. Apart from putting himself through formal English classes, driving an Uber was a way for him to become better at English (it’s interesting how at times in our conversation he switched to using Hindi words – some of which I’m guessing are common to Pashto as well), apart from making money
  • My wife later told me that it was common for continental Europeans to spend a gap year in England learning English. And that apart from taking classes they take up jobs where they can practice the language – like driving a taxi or waiting tables.
  • The conversation also got me thinking about gap years and saving up for education – something that doesn’t at all happen in India. In India, the standard practice is to go to college immediately after school, when one is still being funded by parents. In one way, this reduces social mobility since people whose parents can’t afford college end up not studying. Also, the returns to education in India are high enough that the compensation for blue collar jobs (that one can find without a college degree) isn’t enough to fund a later degree.
  • Despite having Afghan parents, this guy has never been there. “It’s way too dangerous. I can go see relatives but will end up spending most time indoors, so not much fun”, he said.

Every time I have a conversation with a taxi driver I’m reminded of what I was told by a friend on the day I moved to Delhi in 2008. “It might be common in Bangalore to chat up auto and taxi drivers”, he had told me, “but in Delhi it is not the done thing”. I still wonder why.

Get togethers and going Dutch

So the wife has written a fairly insightful blog post about why South Indians from the previous generation don’t meet often “without an occasion”. The basic idea is that that generation never learnt how to split bills, or go Dutch. I had a few anecdotes that would add data points to this, hence this blog post.

I had mentioned in an earlier blogpost that my parents used to work at KEB. I remember going to their offices occasionally (I’d visit my mother more often than my father), and though I was rather young then, I remember that my mother and her colleagues had a policy that they would pay for their afternoon tea by rotation.

It was a rather informal practice (don’t think they kept formal track of who paid when), but I don’t remember a single occasion (ok my age was in single digits, and I don’t have too many data points, but I trust my long-term memory) when more than one person paid for the same round of tea.

During a conversation about splitting bills (this was when I was older, and had started going out with friends), I remember my parents having bitched about two of their colleagues, who used to unfailingly split their tea bills. Back in those days, tea in the subsidised KEB canteen cost 35 paise (one paisa is one-hundredth of a rupee), which made it hard to split (since there were no half-paisa coins). So it seems these two worthies had an arrangement where they would alternately contribute seventeen and eighteen paise respectively (story from the early 80s, so one, two and three paisa coins were quite common back then). And my parents looked down upon them, that they couldn’t be so trusting to not “lend” a full half-cup of tea to the other person!

The other data point is the choice of words – my parents referred to the practice of going Dutch as “military style” and that phrase was uttered with a sneer. So when I would tell them that my friends and I had split the bill when we went out, my mother would say “oh military style-aa?”. It was as if civil people (pun intended) never split the bills and were willing to spend for each other occasionally.

This is one of those classic counterproductive things – while it might be noble to pay for each other once in a while, going out only when someone is willing to pay for you (or vice versa) puts a cap on the number of times when you can meet. Of course you need to adjust for the fact that this generation grew up in relative poverty compared to us, and that old frugal habits (of not going out too often) are hard to shake off!