On a gorgeous warm and sunny afternoon this week, my car decided to act temperamental and refused to start, leaving me stranded on a busy street in the middle of the University of Michigan central campus. After much unsuccessful cajoling, I was forced to give up and called AAA for help. An hour of waiting, watching life go by around me and a jump start to the battery later, I was able to drive the car to my mechanic who told me that I would have to leave it with him overnight. He called a taxi to take me home.
As I got into the taxi and settled down on the backseat, I noticed that the driver, a caucasian man, had his long hair bunched up on the top of his head, not unlike the many Sikh taxi drivers in Delhi. I have childhood memories of seeing these men with their flowing hair, often relaxing on weekend mornings or afternoons on charpais at their taxi stands by the streets. My driver also had a beard, although not as luxurious as those one would see in Delhi. Having noted this somewhat interesting coincidence and a rather unusual choice of hairstyle in a white man, I had a passing thought about whether he may be a converted Sikh. But not wanting to ask, I let the thought go.
After a few minutes, my attention was drawn to him again because by now he was playing some music on the taxi's CD player. The music was very soft but I could still hear the continuous drone of a tanpura. Now I was really curious. Deciding that asking him about his music is potentially less offensive than asking him about his religious or cultural beliefs, I asked what he was listening to. He turned up the volume and I realized that it was Hindustani classical vocal music. Before I could register my surprise or say anything, he said that he would take a dollar off my cab fare if I could guess the musician! According to him, this was not an easy challenge because only one of his passengers has ever got it right. It made me wonder if giving quizzes to his passengers is how he entertains himself while driving around town. But still, wanting to be kind he gave me a hint that this was a young age recording of the musician and his current voice isn't like what it was on the recording. As if this was supposed to help me!
But now I was psyched. I felt that my honor was somehow at stake and I just had to get it right. Fortunately the pressure didn't have to last too long because within about 30 seconds I ventured a reasonably confident guess that it was Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. I was relieved to be right, perhaps more importantly because he is a musician whose music I deeply enjoy and respect.
We were both happy at this point and it provided the impetus for further conversation. I learned that my driver is a musician and has studied Indian classical vocal music with a teacher near Ann Arbor. I also learned that he is a Buddhist (and hence most likely not a Sikh as I had speculated). He practices Vajrayana Buddhism under a (caucasian male) lama in Ann Arbor. He has been studying Tibetan Buddhist scriptures for many years. He told me about a beautiful stupa, right in the middle of Ann Arbor.
I got home soon after. I stood at my doorstep - watching him drive away in the yellow cab and simply filled with joy at this unexpected encounter on a beautiful spring afternoon.