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Being Present, 2015

The Intersection of Franny and Zooey and Our Sikh Cabbie

Hari Prasada Das


I hopped in a cab to get downtown to our beloved little studio apartment.
Incidentally, I was met with a Sikh cabbie who led me through quite a memorable discourse. It began with a question in thick Indian accent and took off from there: “The box... Is it a gift for your girlfriend?”

I had no girlfriend at the time for him to be coolly suggestive about… I eyed his wry grin and offered back a hint of “Are you serious” with my glance, then politely revealed the truth of the box sitting in his trunk: “No.”

It was a big box filled with cushions for meditation, shipped to our office in connection with the advanced-level Bhagavad-Gita class we teach, known as Gita Direct. I told him exactly that.

I scouted his eyes for disappointment but he was surprisingly adaptable.

Cabbie: “Oh, you teach meditation?”
Me: I nodded.
Cabbie: “I do meditation too. So does my son. I teach meditation to my family.”

I offered my genuine appreciation of his pride in meditation, even if he was a little prideful. He proceeded to explain about the body’s energy points or chakras and how he meditates on a mantra to call upon God.

He said this was the purpose of life and if you chant with enough affection, whether it be Jesus’s name or another name of God from another language or tradition, eventually, you will come to taste the name in your mouth.

He stumbled on this point and felt he could not convey the expression of this. Though in other statements he made, English was clearly the difficulty, in this case, it was not about his English.

“You just keep chanting these names of the Divine and you keep concentrated on them, then it becomes like a sweetness in the mouth... it spreads to the entire being... You become filled with this... sweetness.”

I had encountered this esoteric teaching in the sacred texts of Bhakti yoga, and it particularly hit me at a pivotal time when I came upon J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey back in college:

If you keep saying that prayer over and over again – you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. Which has a really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook. I mean that’s the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception what everything’s about.

The title character, Franny, shares this in utter earnestness with her boyfriend, Lane, as he intermittently takes drags on his cigarette and bites into his pair of frog’s legs. In the same spirit of our Sikh cabbie, Franny also mentions that Nembutsu Buddhists practice reciting the holy name of Buddha.

I marveled at the similarity of the situation between our Franny and our cabbie and saw that this man could have gone on for hours in his cab.

It dawned on me, he probably never got the chance! How many customers would entertain his enthusiasm on the topic of universal mysticism? Would he even dare breach it to the kissing couple or businessman on his way to work? They’d be as thoroughly disinterested as Lane with his frogs legs and our cabbie would feel silly, at best.

I had little doubt that’s why he tried to play the gift for girlfriend card with me... to connect in the way he thought would be most appreciated. I was so happy to see his true passion come out and his sincerity shine forth now.

Through our shared recitation of mantras and aspiration to make our lives an offering, I suddenly found that there was a strange convergence in the universe which placed the lives of a Jewish start-up co-founder and a Punjabi cab driver together.

I tried to contain the tremendous feeling of awe within me.

And when our ride was over, he kindly requested to help me carry the box in the trunk that had vastly shifted its meaning to him over the course of the trip... I declined the thoughtful gesture, and along with the tip, offered my heartfelt prayers for he and his family to uncover the meaning that they seek. I expressed a fraction of my well-wishings to him and he looked at me squarely in the eyes. “Thank you so much. I really hope to see you again...” he said.

I don’t know if he ever said that to a customer before.

I got goose bumps. And I wondered:

What would happen if we were to shift our approach to every seemingly mundane encounter with another human being by seeking our shared intersections?

Hari Prasada Das

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