IT WAS on May 23, 2008. After a tiring yet fascinating Village Walking Tour in New York’s Greenwich Village, the three of us (my poet friend Narayana Swamy, my companion Vanaja and I) engrossed ourselves in seeing places where 19-year-old Bob Dylan first sang, the pub Dylan Thomas used to frequent, 1969 Stonewall Rebellion where the Gay Liberation Movement began, houses and restaurants and pubs that speak of their attachment to James Fennimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Herman Melville and John Reed among others. Finally stepping out of New School on 12th Street, our next destination was the Brecht Forum on West Street.
Getting into the cab, I noticed the registration plate and read out the driver’s name: Rammohan Puni.
‘Oh, Indian,’ I exclaimed.
‘Yes, Punjabi,’ he said with a bit of pride and enquired about us. Brecht Forum is also the place of Biju Mathew, a noted Marxist intellectual and a Hyderabadi like us. He organised the powerful cab drivers’ union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and wrote Taxi!: Cabs and Capitalism in New York City. We asked Rammohan whether he knew Biju. ‘Oh, that leftist guy. Unionist. Heard about him, but haven’t met,’ he said.
I then asked him whether he knew Sant Ram Udasi’s songs. Even as my question did not leave my lips, he started singing and asked me how I knew Udasi. I told him about my involvement with revolutionary literature and started tracing back my interest in Punjab. ‘I wrote a piece in Telugu about a revolutionary student leader of Punjab, who was killed by communal forces in the late 1970s,’ I said. My article was published in September 1979 issue of Srjana, a monthly forum for modern literature. He asked me who the student leader was. I said Prithipal Singh Randhawa.
Rammohan stopped the vehicle in the middle of the road. Luckily, there wasn’t much traffic on the street. He opened the door, stood on the road and asked me to get out. I didn’t know what it all was. As I came out he gave me a typical, warm and solid Punjabi hug and I could see tears rolling down his cheeks.
We resumed the journey and he went on, “Prithi was a close friend. He was from Dasuya village in Hoshiarpur district, from where I come. His village and mine were next to each other. I was with SFI then and he was with Punjab Students Union of Naxalite politics. He was killed brutally in Ludhiana in 1979. I came here 25 years ago but my mind is still in those villages. Every inch of my body and all my thoughts cry for Punjab even now,” he cried like a child.
Then I told him that I also translated several poems of Avtar Singh Pash into my mother tongue. As if triggered by the mention of the name, he started reciting Pash’s poems including the famous one – Sabse khatarnaak hota hai.
Then to come out of the mood, he began reciting his own compositions in Punjabi. But every poem was speaking of the anguish of a forlorn child. ‘It is my body that is here, but I am there’ was the refrain. Narayana Swamy, living in New Jersey for the last 15 years, has been writing similar nostalgic verses and they exchanged their moments of anguish. They started singing Pash together – Sabse khatarnak hota hai hamare sapnon ka mar jaana.
We reached our destination and paid the fare but Rammohan was not in a mood to leave. At least three other passengers were waiting for the cab. He ignored them at first and then waved them off and went on reciting poems, talking about Punjab, remembering friends and dreaming of India.
In the middle of the road on the Washington Street.
Between Bethune Street and Bank Street.
On a sunny afternoon.
We paid tributes to revolutionaries killed long ago.
– From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 40, Dated October 10, 2009