Driven to Sing

Divorce and single motherhood aren't stopping New York cabbie Sayeeda Akhter's dreams of Bangladeshi pop stardom.

August 1, 2007

SAYEEDA AKHTER would rather be wearing a voluminous red sari-wrapped loosely around her ample hips and puddled around her feet-to hide the pedals of the yellow cab she is driving for the day. But her crisp white polo shirt and neatly cuffed khaki pants fall clean over leather sneakers as she hits the brakes to pick up her next fare.

She has surprised yet another passenger, who glances up from his briefcase and Blackberry only for a moment to yawn his intended address.

"Thirty-seventh and Park. And don't go across 57th."

"Thirty-seventh and Park," Akhter, 41, responds in her careful English, "OK, sir."

The briefcase man looks confused. "Oh, ohhh. Huh. You're a woman!"

"Yes," she says smiling.

"Well. I've never had a woman taxi driver before."

He's not alone. Of the roughly 42,000 licensed taxi drivers in New York City, fewer than 200 are women, according to the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission. Akhter is, in an industry that is made up almost entirely of minorities, the minority's minority, as one of the few female drivers.

But behind the glass that divides her passengers from the driver's seat, she dreams the dream of a 4-year-old girl swathed in a red sari who grew up in a home filled by folk music sung in her father's sweet voice. These reveries during long shifts on the screeching, clogged streets of Manhattan allow her a brief respite from her life now: the Muslim women whispering at her back about her divorce and the hard task of explaining to her young son why his father has a new family. She works hard behind the wheel so that she can finance a music career in her native Bangladesh-and someday, a different life.

"I want to be the Bangladeshi Madonna," she declares.

Akhter has already made three CDs, one of which can be purchased in several music stores in Jackson Heights, Queens, where there is a large Indian community.

"I mean, I want to be famous like Madonna. In my country, I think I can do it. I make money to work and take care of my son, that is my first priority, but I want to be recognized in my country."

For now, a taxi is Akhter's stage. Her road to driving a cab began two years ago, when the income she earned as a real estate broker in Cypress Hill, the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood where she lives, became less dependable. While most real estate brokers continue to reap the benefits of an increasingly busy housing market, Akhter had the opposite experience.

"The real estate market, it was getting more and more expensive," she says, "And people were taking too long to make decisions so my dealings were falling through." Taking longer to decide often meant places were sold or rented before her clients' made up their mind. Akhter began to look for alternative employment.

"I had to make money and I had a friend who drove Yellow Cab and I thought to myself, if he can do it, I can do it." Akhter's dark brown eyes have a hint of mischief.

It was not a typical career choice for a devout Muslim woman, but as Akther will teil you herself, she is anything but typical.

"I am divorced and a single mother. It's not what I thought would happen but it did and I have to accept that and go on with my life. Raffat [her son] is my life and I must provide for him," she explains.

Since her divorce in 2000, Akhter says she has been looked down on by the New York Bangladeshi community, where divorce-while becoming more common in Muslim communitiesis still frowned upon. Societal pressures weigh heavy on Muslim women to try to make their marriages work. About her own divorce, Akhter will only say that her former husband was not the man she thought she had married.

"I know about a woman whose husband beats her and still she gives me a nasty look," Akhter sniffs. "I told my son, Raffat, you must not be intimidated or afraid. We are the same as everyone else and life happens. I told him, 'Do you know that President Clinton's parents are divorced too?' It means nothing. He was the president."

Raffat rarely sees his father, who also lives in New York with his new wife and children. But in his mother he not only has a proud fan, but also, unlike most teenage boys, a good friend.

"My mother is the greatest mother and also a really good cook," he says in his very teenage American voice: casual, on the verge of being bored. But his deep brown eyes betray that practiced voice and make him seem much wiser than an average 13-year-old. "She makes a roast chicken and fried rice so good."

When Akhter told her son, over the dinner table one night not long after she and her husband were divorced, that she planned to start driving a taxi, he was worried for her. He didn't know any other mothers who drove taxis. But Akhter quickly sold her son on the idea.

"I know that she is doing it so that we can have money and I can have nice things," said Raffat, who is studying to attend a good high school, like Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant. "I'm really proud of her."

The dreams of a mother for her child are a common thread among the many immigrants coming to America for a better life. Akhter came from Bangladesh in 1985 when she emigrated with her husband who had always wanted to live in America. She put on hold dreams of performing traditional Bengali music to be a dutiful wife and then a devoted mother to Raffat. Now more than 20 years later, she finds herself a divorcé, a taxi driver and once again an aspiring singer.

She looks up shyly over her steering wheel. "I want to be recognized for my singing. I can't do it in America because the language is different. But in Bengali I think I can do it."

Language isn't the only difference between American and South Asian music. The East and West are as far apart musically as geographically. The entire melodic structure of traditional Bengali and Indian songs is unlike American music. To Western ears, Bengali tunes may sound disharmonious-their melodies are notes coupled and tripled together that would never be joined on the sheet music of American pop stars.

When she was a young girl, Akhter would follow her father around their house after he returned home from his factory job. Happy to be home, he would sing his favorite Bengali folk songs. Eager to imitate her father, Akhter would listen and later sing the same songs.

One day, her mother overheard her and was astonished. "Did you know that your daughter can sing?" she asked her husband.

"OK, Sayeeda," her father requested, "Sing me something."

She sang a traditional folk song her father often sang in the evenings, his deep baritone carrying through their open windows into the warm, wet night air.

"Oh my god!" her father exclaimed, "She sings better than me."

He hired a singing teacher and by sixth grade Akhter was performing on television for a nationally televised children's show. She competed in singing competitions and as she recalls, Akhter placed first in every one.

"In one competition I wore a red and green sari, but the show was done in black and white," Akhter says. "It didn't matter. I loved to wear that sari. It had black and white flowers on the skirt and was a good costume for my song. I sang and danced to a country girl style-song.

"You never forget where you started, you know what I mean?" Akhter says, now driving a young woman from Columbia University to the Fashion District. "We were wild kids, running all day long. Everywhere there were guava and mango trees."

Akhter hasn't forgotten. She drives her taxi six days a week, resting only on Sundays. But she is driving toward a goal. She plans on traveling to Bangladesh, where she hopes to meet with professional music contacts and work musicians and producers.

"Then I hope I can appear on television programs and promote my CD. They will sell it in all the music stores, and in Indian music stores in the United States, too."

Akhter confidently explains her business plan while stopping to pick up her next passenger. As bold as Akhter's career plans are, she is a surprisingly tentative driver. She slows to a complete stop at red lights. She looks cautiously to the right and the left and the right again, before proceeding through an intersection. She politely follows the speed limit and calls her passengers 'madam' or 'sir.'

At the end of a long day's shift, she sings a saccharine-sweet and tinkling Bengali tune. Her voice, like a snake charmer's horn, runs around a scale in wild skips and beats. It suddenly becomes Bollywood on Park Avenue. Her voice is warm and nuanced and for a moment, she seems to forget that she is driving on a crowded Manhattan street.

She heads back to the garage.


Rosalyn Menon is currently a graduate student at Columbia University School of Journalism. She works in television and resides in New York.

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