I do not always drive. Sometimes this task is entrusted unto others. Sometimes, dear passenger, this can get one into trouble.
One such journey was made a few years ago. The incident took place in the ‘Land of Smelly Winds,’ Pakistan’s bursting-at-the-seams mega-city, Karachi. For us non-natives, the goal was always to escape the crowded confines of Karachi and return to the green plains of the Punjab, and beyond, as soon as possible. This did not mean that we loved Karachi any less, but that we just missed being home. Interestingly, global oil prices affected our lives in very real ways, and the going rate for New York Light Sweet Crude determined whether we would return by air or by rail.
I always wanted to travel by rail (twinkle in the eye). I would pray that the airfare would be absurdly high, so that it would be easier to convince my parents to send me on the somewhat dangerous and slightly unreliable bogeys of the Pakistan Railways. A few times, I was granted my wish.
We had scheduled the journey for 7 pm. The final exam finished at 3pm. It would take an hour to get back to the hostel, and that would mean just enough time to finish the last bit of packing and head to Cantt. station. Generally, all happened according to plan. However, systematic problems meant that we were still at the hostel at 6:15. A friend who was supposed to drive us to the station suddenly decided to register a no-show. Insert expletive here.
I was assigned to run to the nearby market; a pleasant 15 minute walk on a breezy day, dangerous adventure by night, and litmus test for Sahara-desert survival skills on a hot afternoon. Panting and drenched, I reached the noisy, dusty ‘Maskan’ bazaar. I took a moment to catch my breath, and scoured the horizon for bright yellow vehicles.
I still remember the afterlife-facilitator. It emerged from the West, the more crime-ridden part of the city. I hailed the empty cab down and instead of stopping, it simply zoomed by…
Dejected, I had begun to turn around when I heard a screeching and clanging sound, followed by a shout. The cab driver had stopped and was waving his hand wildly, motioning for me to come to him. Feeling lucky, as you always do before getting into trouble, I ran towards the late 90’s model yellow Daewoo-racer. I told him that my friends and I had to get to Cantt. railway station in record time, as there was just about half an hour left in the train’s departure (they always left on time, it was the arrival that you had to worry about). In broken Urdu, he asked something that translated to: “Time, how much?” I told him, and directed him towards the hostel to pick up the other hostellites. He slammed the accelerator, and turned towards oncoming traffic to take a direct route to the hostel. The hostellites were at the gate, with all of our suitcases. Everything was thrown onto the roof, and bodies piled into the rear of the taxi. There was commotion and noise on the back seats. Key words: ” speed, drive fast please, we will miss the train, we’ll pay you extra, just get us there, go go go (chalain, chalain, chalain!). And so we left!
Please play the music video now, and continue reading:
Even fighter pilot training could not have prepared us for the g-force that we experienced that day. The taxi’s engine roared and churned, and the beast took on a life of its own. It launched into the Karachi traffic, bush-whacking through the smog that hangs on the roads of the Land of Smelly Winds. There were cries of approval from the back, and everyone felt there was a strong chance we would make it to the station in time. We were cutting through the traffic like the blitzkrieg. I looked straight ahead, with an intense expression on my face. It felt as if that would get us there faster.
It was then that the driver’s true nature was revealed to us. We were roaring across a large bridge, and the cab driver began swerving crazily from left to right. He would grab the steering with his large, tire-like hands, and steer sharply in either direction. Things clanged in the trunk, the engine groaned, and the tires screeched. Disturbingly, he was doing this for no apparent reason, as there was little traffic on the bridge! We lurched from one side to another as we cut a zig-zag path across the bridge! At the end of the bridge, the traffic began to collect, since there was a strip of road missing between the bridge and the continuing road. We sped towards the congregation, like an earth-bound meteor hurled down to crush an infidel hoard.
My neck stiffened.
There were gasps at the back.
You could smell fuel in the air.
A street hawker shouted ‘ganderi, ganderi, ganderi!’
Someone lit a cigarette.
I dug my shoes into the car’s frame, toes pressing down on the sole.
I dared a glance to the right. The d-man stared back. His right eye was green, left one was grey.
His right eye was made of glass.
HIS RIGHT EYE WAS MADE OF GLASS!
Overwhelming dread – the Karachiite version of Mad-eye Moody could only see half the road!
He then began shouting at other drivers on the road in Pashto, and we continued our race to the after-life. My Pashto is not very good, so I glanced back towards Jameel, whose expression was priceless. As Mad-eye continued to hurl a mixture of expletives and spit (there was plenty of spitting here) at the other drivers, Jameel explained (in English) that it was regarding their sisters.
I then told the boys, surprisingly calmly, that the driver had a glass eye. “What?!” ” Oh maray gaye! (Oh God were doomed!)” they all shouted back.
Whatever Mad-eye’s strategy was, it worked, and through just the right amount of space between a colourful bus and a khota-gari (donkey cart), we sped through. Sighs of relief at the back and front.
All of us began talking at once, telling the driver to take it easy, and that we wanted to reach the destination but safely. In fact, we were not late for the train at all, and would like it if he continued at an easy pace. This obviously was not possible. In his working eye, I could see his cracked eyeball scanning the battlefield. We raced through traffic, broke signals, honked like a despotic ruler’s motorcade, spat out the window, blew smoke, prayed, hurled abuse, and if memory serves me right, never stopped. Mad-eye kept going, oblivious to our protests.
Then, just as we crossed Hassan Square, the halfway point, we encountered what will surely go down in Karachi taxi-driving-history as the greatest of all anti-climatic moments – a screeching, swerving, just-plain-crazy grinding halt. Green-glass-eyed guy, without a word, opened the door, jumped out of the taxi, engine still running, and began running across the highway!
His off-white shalwar kameez fluttered in the wind as he zig zagged through the traffic, just like the taxi that he drove. We watched in horror as he simply left us there! Amazed, everyone gaped at him. He first crossed the two lanes on our side, then the other two of the oncoming traffic, then ran towards a taxi parked on the other side, and began pushing it with all his strength! All in one swift motion! We broke out into laughter and had tears in our eyes by the time he came back to us. Panting, he said: “Bhai ka madad karna tha! (Had to help brother!)” and floored the accelerator once more, making our heads lurch back.
In Karachi, wonders never cease. We reached the train station in record time – enough to pay the entrance fee, chat up the policemen, stock up on Gold Leaf, and grab a quick chai before the journey to the plains of Punjab began. As we emerged from the ‘afterlife-facilitator’ though, it was obvious to see that we had just experienced a miracle. There is nothing more thrilling than being to the brink and back. May you have such an experience at least once in your conscious existence .
Grabbing our bags, we walked towards the platform. I half-turned to take one last look at Mad-Eye. Arms folded, he was leaning against his machine, teeth and emerald jewels flashing, smiling his glassy smile. Epic music played in the background.
It was the end of one adventure, and the beginning of another.
Time to drop you home.