if you are in the mood for a poetry-reading session and do not mind hopping into a taxi for that, watch out for Akhtar Singh and his WMT 2623. On a rainy afternoon, he could be your dream travel companion as you step into his taxi to be greeted by “Panchanadir teere, beni pakaiya shire”, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore inspired by the Punjab.
If you think it’s the work of a hidden cassette player you are mistaken. Singh’s taxi, like the man, has no fancy trappings — no lights that shimmer or tape-recorders that blare. The voice bringing Tagore’s verse to life belongs to Singh, who is now more Bengali than most Bengalis.
If Bengali is his medium of expression, his taxi is the source of both livelihood and literary sustenance. For starters, Singh has converted the glove compartment of his taxi into a mini-library where passengers can take a peek into the world of Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Suniti Chattopadhyay… Sometimes, on a longer drive or when stuck in a traffic snarl, he enthusiastically passes some books backseat.
“In my humble home on S.N. Roy Road in Behala, I have an extended library where volumes of Tagore, Michael Madhusudan and Vidyasagar adorn the shelves. I could not go to school due to a financial crisis but I have got my two sons educated. I made sure they took Bengali as their first language. In fact, I have mastered the poems while listening to them do their homework,” says the septuagenarian as he carefully manoeuvres the city traffic on a windswept, waterlogged weekday morning — the day the cyclone brushed past the city.
Singh, who hails from Ludhiana, has been a Calcuttan for almost 60 years now. In all these days, months and decades, he has gone back to his hometown only once. The need to build a roof for the family had taken him there but he was back where he belongs, within a month.
“Bengal has culture, Punjab has just agriculture, nothing else. I cannot dream of staying away from Calcutta and its literary culture,” declares the turbaned old man with salt-and-pepper beard.
Besides the collection of poems and stories, Singh also carries with him fan mail from across the country — passengers who have hailed him and struck up a friendship with the cultured cabman. “The journey from Beleghata to Behala was one of the most enriching ones in my life. Despite being a Bengali, I had to take a hard look in the mirror to understand my literary heritage. I was suitably humbled,” reads one of the letters.
Singh will have his 15 minutes of small-screen fame when he will recite Prarthonatito Daan, a poem from Katha O Kahini, or Madhusudan’s E Bongo Bhandare, this Sunday evening. Don’t miss the culture cabbie on CTVN.