Once Upon a Rickshaw Ride

Today we turn towards Karachi.

A friend and I once nicknamed Karachi as “The Land of Smelly Winds,” after a particularly nasty evening where we encountered a convoy of trucks transporting ‘fresh’ fish from the Arabian Sea. Thereafter, over four undergraduate years, whenever either of us would come back to the city from a trip home, the other would get a text message from the airport/railway station saying “I have returned to the Land of….” Content of the response would alternate between empathy and schadenfreude. Sometimes, just a ‘Welcome!’ would also suffice. The smell of fish in Karachi wasn’t the only nuisance to one’s olfactory system; there were also the putrid odours of the hostel’s bathrooms – closer to home, and to be smelt, and survived, on a daily basis. Perhaps though, their towering stature and hypnotizing fumes merit a separate post.

Truth be told though, a more apt nickname would have been “The Land of Smelly Winds and Great Adventures,” for interesting events always seemed just around the corner in Karachi. Whether it was in the classroom or outside, we were always learning. One such story is that of a particular rickshaw ride that I took, late in 2006.

It did not, and still doesn’t rain very often in Karachi. When it did however, the city would not take to it too well. Simply put, gutters would overflow, streets would become waterlogged, there would be massive traffic jams, and sometimes people were even electrocuted as live wires fell into the water.

On the afternoon in question, I was making my way to college, which was located in Sadr, a commercial area in the heart of Karachi. Sadr is an extremely congested part of the city, where pedestrians throng the narrow streets cheek by jowl. It is full of small shops packed together, selling everything from radial tires to custom-made dentures. There are food stalls, cinemas, hospitals, banks, and several other types of businesses. Sadr also has its fair share of colonial-era architecture, which is much easier on the eyes as compared to today’s omnipresent concrete-box structures. The nicer buildings include Frere Hall, and the Sindh Club.

I was supposed to be dropped off by someone, to the ‘City Campus’ as it was known. However, as we entered Sadr, I could tell from the volume of traffic that there was a jam somewhere up ahead. The city had received a good downpour that morning, and muddy water could be seen sloshing about everywhere. Indication enough that things could be quite difficult ahead, where the traffic would become much more congested around the Electronics Market area. I decided not to put my minders through the torture, and asked them to let me off just before Hotel Metropole, which was about two kilometers from the campus. Having spent over two years in the city, I knew my way around, and figured that the best way to get to class on time was to take a rickshaw for the onward journey. The rickshaw is a noisy, smoke-belching contraption, conceived by an idle mind at the Vespa Corporation, and readily found plying Karachi’s roads in blue colour. Though they were much hated by me, they came in handy during difficult traffic situations. Time was short, and I could not afford to be marked absent for class. With the rules at my college, if one missed more than four classes over the semester it would lead to automatic failure in the course. A draconian regulation that caused many a catastrophe, and deserves much derision. I knew the rickshaw could get me to class on time by side-skirting traffic, overtaking quickly by using the wrong lane, and using the footpath where necessary.

With my yellow bag slung over the shoulder (it served me faithfully for a good eight years), I stood by the side of the road at the intersection just before Hotel Metropole; a 20-year old from Islamabad, navigating Karachi’s landscape. I quickly realized that there were plenty of other people there, also trying to catch some form of public transport. The traffic was clearly jammed up ahead, and this seemed to be a kind of collection spot for those looking to get to the other side of Sadr. i.e. there would be competition for the rickshaws.

Plenty of cabs, buses, and other vehicles passed by, but they all seemed to be taking a left or right turn instead of continuing down Abduallah Haroon road. Something did not seem right. Then, suddenly, along came a rickshaw, speeding from the intersection right behind me. Its obnoxious blue frame, cutting a despicable image in the distance. I positioned myself carefully, freeing up my right hand, and taking a few quick steps to get ahead of the crowd. With only an hour to go in class, it was critical to start moving towards campus. As the rickshaw came within flagging distance, I raised my arm and waived at it, motioning the driver to stop. Behind me, I heard other mixed cries of “Rickshaw. rickshaw, arrey bhai, abey mian!” But the neela kameena (Urdu for blue wretch) sped straight through. As it went by us, the rickshaw driver brought up his left hand, and signaled in the negative, by shaking it quickly. He also motioned wildly toward the traffic ahead, indicating that he had no plans of going into the jam. He was seated in classic rickshaw-operator style, with one leg over the other, his bare right foot pointed towards us, easily seen due to the rickshaw’s open structure. His left foot was on the accelerator, producing the awful amount of noise and smoke required to propel the rickshaw forward. As if the dirty-foot salute wasn’t enough, in a final act to add insult to injury, he let rip a sleek projectile of betel-nut juice from the corner of his mouth. The pichkari flew through the air and landed on the road with an audible splat, as if to symbolize the chances of getting a rickshaw on that hot afternoon.

Undeterred, I kept my eyes trained on the intersection. If not this one then another. One was never short of opportunities in the Land of Smelly Winds and Great Adventures. There came plenty. However, one after another, it was the same story. None of the rickshaw drivers were willing to cross over M.A. Jinnah road into the Soldier Bazaar area. All of them complained that the rainwater had caused a tremendous traffic jam ahead, and apart from the nuisance of navigating through the traffic, there was the additional risk of the rickshaw stalling in the water. The ride would ordinarily have cost about thirty rupees, and it simply wasn’t worth the trouble. Time was passing by quickly, and with another forty minutes to go, I was worried that I wouldn’t make it. Several passengers had given up and gone off into other directions.

As this was happening, I heard someone cursing consistently, in a loud voice, a few yards to my right. “Salah, baghairat kahin ka (shameless scoundrel)!” He was also trying to hail a rickshaw, albeit in somewhat different style. As another one went by without entertaining our flailing arms, he shouted “ja, ja! Dafa ho ja (go on, get lost)!” The rickshaw driver looked at him incredulously, shrugging his shoulders as if to say “What can I do?” Chuckling at the ridiculous situation, I turned right to face the cursing man. He was an elderly person of short stature; slightly bent and with white hair. He looked to be in his late sixties. He had a wheatish complexion and was serious looking. With plenty of wrinkles on his face, he gave the impression of a man who had survived the trials and tribulations of life. Noticing me, said “Ye saray harami hain. Salay kahin kay (they are all bastards, bloody scoundrels)! Us wakt say aik bhi nahi rukah (not one has stopped since then).” I responded: “Jee uncle, hamaisha he aisay kartay hain. Jab bhi barish hoti hay, yahan museebat khari ho jati hay (Yes uncle, this always happens when it rains).” He then continued “Baitay, tum kahan ja rahay ho (Son, where are you going)? I responded by telling him about the City Campus, located in front of OMI hospital, and that I was thinking of now walking the rest of the way. He said “Baitay, mein ne bhi usi jagah par janah hay, riksha mil jaeyga. Aik hi rikhsha le letay hain, paisay bhi bach jaingay. Kia khial hay (Son, I have to go to the same area. We will be able to find a rickshaw, don’t worry, and we will be able to save some money. What do you think)?” Usually I would be quite wary of interacting with people I did not know in Karachi, but on this occasion I thought there was no harm in taking up the elderly man’s offer. He had created quite a commotion with his cursing, but something about him told me that he was alright. ‘Theek hay uncle (Sure Uncle),” I told him.

A while passed by before another rickshaw came along. This one got itself stuck in traffic right in front of us. Since the rickshawallah was within hearing distance, Uncle and I both asked him if he could take us. He refused as soon as he found out about our destination. However, uncle was not really in the mood to accept negative responses anymore. Taking things up a notch, he inundated the rickshaw driver with a slew of abusive words. Calling him everything from salah(scoundrel) to ghatya insaan(third-class human being), he let the rickshawallah know how despicable he thought he was. At first, the driver laughed off the onslaught. “Abay uncle, agay paani deikha hay? Kaun pagal jayega us mein (Uncle, there is so much water up ahead. What sort of a crazy person would venture into it)?” Uncle did not give up. I also joined in, offering logical alternate routes that could be taken to get to City Campus. The truth was that most of them were simply making excuses for what would be a cumbersome and not-so-lucrative ride.

The rickshawallah remained unconvinced, but to his misfortune, he also remained stuck right in front of us, and within the reach of uncle’s verbal attacks. At one point, seeming to get away, the rickshawallah revved his engine and lurched forward. However, the opening closed quickly, and he came to an abrupt halt. Uncle had a field day with that one. Jeering loudly, he said “Ha dekha na kameena kahin ka salah! Teray saath tau aisay hi hoga! Teray jaisay bad niyat insan logon ki madad nahi kartey, tau yehi hota hay. Daikh nahi sakta aik burha admi aur aik student kaam par janay ki koshish karte hain. Sharam nahi ati! Salah (Hah! See, you wretched scoundrel! This was bound to happen to you. This is what happens to ill-intentioned people like you, who don’t help others. Cant you see that an old man and a student are trying to get to work, you shameless scoundrel)!” By this time, I was laughing hysterically, and several onlookers were enjoying the show. Uncle went on, hurling one abuse after another, until the driver’s face became red with frustration. Unable to figure out to do with the situation, he would make faces and move his hands in a dismissive motion – that changed nothing.

Then, something snapped. “Acha uncle bas kar do. Le jata hun. Chalo baitho (Okay uncle, please stop. I will take you, take a seat),” he said with his palms pressed together. I couldn’t believe it. “Chalo baitay (let’s go son)!” exclaimed Uncle, cutting a heroic figure against the commercial buildings behind him. Chuckling, I jumped into the rickshaw from one side, Uncle from the other.

Once inside, Uncle continued the diatribe as if it came to him perfectly naturally. The rickshawallah busied himself with cutting through the traffic, pleading and apologizing every few minutes. “Uncle,” I said, “aap ne tau kamal kar dia (Uncle, that was amazing)!” “Han han, ye tau vaisay hi nakhray kar raha tha, (Of course, they were all making baseless excuses in any case)said uncle.

Despite the drivers innovative, and at times desperate maneuvers, it was not going to be an easy ride to campus. Uncle, sensing the need for urgency, asked me how much more time there was before my class began. When I told him, he shouted at the driver “Abay jaldi kar (Hurry up)!

Feeling that he had given him enough instruction for the moment, Uncle calmed down a bit. He turned to his left, and began to look outside. The tapestry consisted of other cars, buses, cycles, donkey-carts, motorcycles, and beyond them shops selling meat, vegetables, hardware, dry fruit, and several other items. “Baitay, I am eighty-five years old, and I have been living in Karachi since before partition. You know, it wasn’t always like this.” Turning towards me, he began telling me stories from his younger years in Karachi. We talked about how the city evolved over the years. He told me of the city’s first mayor and the challenges it faced post-partition. I soon realized that there was much more to Uncle than met the eye. Though he was dressed in ordinary clothes, he had led an illustrious life, and had regularly interacted with Karachi’s highest officials. He railed against corruption, both material and intellectual. To Uncle, almost everyone seemed worthy of being called a “salah (scoundrel)!”He also spoke at length about urban planning and city services and how they had declined over the years as the city became overly congested. Along the way, Uncle also pointed out old buildings, and told me what they had been used for in the past; sometimes more than fifty years ago. I too participated, excited by the talk of socioeconomic evolution. I told him of my own travails within Karachi, and what I thought of the general administrative culture. Both of us spoke about the city’s extensive potential, and the frustrating circumstances that constrained it. In between, uncle would break the conversation to hurl a few choice remarks at the rickshawallah, who had by now given up resisting.

As the ride went on, uncle’s expression softened. His creased forehead unfurled, and he began to tell me more about his own life. He was a senior banker by profession, and had spent his career at Habib Bank – one of Pakistan’s largest financial institutions. Even now, he worked, though in an advisory capacity of sorts. He told me about his family, and how times were changing from when he used to be young. Along the way, he friendlily asked me questions about my own life too. He was interested in my studies and plans for the future. After learning that I was from Islamabad, he asked me about how Karachi had treated me over the years.

I was saddened when he told me that he had developed a heart condition, but impressed when he declared that he still walked up the steps to the second floor of his home. Responding to my surprise as to why he was traveling in a rickshaw, he said “It lets me get more exercise, and it is much faster on the narrow streets of Sadr!”

Uncle was so full of life it was astonishing, and it was perhaps the first time in my life that I found myself in the presence of someone with as much energy at his age. Used to encountering all sorts of strange characters on the streets of Karachi, I could not have imagined being in the company of such an interesting and educated individual on a random rickshaw ride. Our conversation continued, now interspersed with laughter, and sarcastic remarks made by Uncle. As we entered the Rainbow Centre area, our journey was coming close to an end. When Uncle told me that he would be getting off at the Parsi Community Centre, everything suddenly fell into place – his mannerisms, demeanour, and stories.

Uncle had already bargained with the rickshawallah for a good fare, a discussion that had certainly not left the rickshwallah unscathed.

A short distance before the Community Centre, Uncle said something that touched my heart, and will remain with me forever.

Turning towards me he said “Arsalan, baitay, for the remainder of this ride, you are like my son. Mujhay tum itnay pasand ayay ho, k mein tumhain apna baita samjhunga (I like you so much, that I wish to treat you like I would a son). I can tell from your thoughts what kind of a person you are, and I hope you do very well in life.” Uncle had left me almost completely speechless, and I gathered myself quickly so as to be able to thank him. He reached for his wallet, and I immediately reached for mine. I still remember he pulled out a crisp fifty-rupee note, and a five-rupee coin. I said “Uncle please, mein deita hun,” but of course, that was completely unacceptable to him. Putting his hand on my wrist, he smiled and said “Iski fikar mat karo, tum meray baitay ki tarah ho (Don’t worry, you are like my son).” Stretching his other hand forward, he told the rickshawallah to accept the money “Aray mian (note the change from salah!), loh ye, aur is bachay ko agay tak chor kar ana theek say (here you go, and make sure you drop the boy at his final destination).” He then turned towards me and much to my surprise, discretely handed me the five-rupee coin. “Mein ne is ko saray rasta kafi ziada danta tha, is liay jab college pohancho, tau yeh is ko yeh panch rupay aur dey dena (I have scolded him quite a bit throughout the journey, so when you get to college, give him an extra five rupees),” he said in a hushed tone, with a large grin on his face. Then Uncle pointed behind me, and showed me the Parsi Community Centre, which we had now reached. He gave me his name, and told me that he visited the centre on weekends.

As the rickshaw jolted to a characteristically-abrupt halt, he grasped my hand firmly and said “It was a pleasure to meet you baitay. Good luck with everything!” I reciprocated, telling uncle that it was a privilege to have met him. With that, he jumped out of the rickshaw, and walked off toward the Centre. We continued towards City Campus, weaving through the traffic, which was thankfully lighter now. As I mulled over the interesting experience I had just had, absorbing everything, I noticed a black bag on the floor of the rickshaw. Immediately realizing that Uncle had left it behind I told the rickshawallah “Roko, Roko(stop, stop)!” By now he was quite agreeable and stopped immediately. I jumped out and turned in the direction of the Community Centre. In the distance, I saw Uncle, running back towards the rickshaw, his arms waving. He started laughing once he saw me, and I went up to him with his bag. “Bohat shukria meray baitay,” he said as I handed it back to him. “Khudahafiz uncle,” I said and watched him disappear into the rush once more.

As we sputtered into City Campus, I handed the rickshawallah his 5-rupee bonus. He chuckled and waved his salaams. We were in time, with a few minutes to spare. Things turned out well after all.

I never met Uncle again, but in that short rickshaw ride, he taught me so much. In him, I saw someone who had lived a life of honesty, hard work, and diligence. Someone who had lived with true spirit, and a desire to see socioeconomic improvement in society. A man who understood and respected the value of good education. At his age to be working, and moving around as he was, is quite an anomaly in Pakistan. I learnt the importance of taking care of oneself, of being resourceful and providing for oneself. He was also not bothered about the rickshaw that he was sitting in, or by the plainness of his clothes. Instead, his achievements and experience spoke for him, and through them his personality shone through. He was confident, and ever-ready to speak his views, as the interaction with the rickshawallah showed. He was also a caring individual, which I could see when he spoke of his daughter and son.

It is surprising how many special individuals can be found in Pakistan, on the streets of Karachi and elsewhere. Sometimes, when we are least expecting it, we encounter people who touch our hearts, and leave an everlasting impression on our lives. They break through the hustle-bustle of daily life, and their good souls and outstanding character instantly become visible. They evoke only a good feeling when we look up at their face, and as they part, they elicit a prayer for their prosperity from our hearts.

I have been extremely fortunate to have met such people in my life, and their thoughts and words always remain close to me. Uncle, if you are out there, thank you for the rickshaw ride, for patting my head as you wished me luck, and for sharing your experiences with me.

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10 thoughts on “Once Upon a Rickshaw Ride

  1. great article!…reminds me of how once, in the library, you and zainab were complaining about the condition of karachi (after returning from a semester break!), while samia and i tried to defend OUR city! hehehe

  2. Thank you for the compliment Zainab. I am glad that in the last two years in Karachi, I was able to learn how to look beyond the obvious, and that opened up a very different side of the city to me. What I liked best was the diversity, and that enabled me to become friends with people from all walks of life. I also realized that Pakistan’s strength was in its diversity, and the ability of the population to recognize this as a source of strength and opportunity. I am afraid that we have not been able to do that, but it is still my firm belief that that is what needs to be done.

    Thanks for taking out the time to read, and for sharing comments.

  3. Absolutely loved it! As a born-and-raised Karachiite, it pains me to see what the city has come to; but at the same time makes me happy knowing that people like “Uncle” still exist. And also knowing that people like you, Arsalan, are there to bring out the best in them. From your initial description, “Uncle” did indeed seem like a Parsi (independent despite his age, the constant outbursts of “Sala”). Karachi has a soul…a beating heart…a spirit. Despite all the trials and tribulations thrown at it; this spirit still lives on…in people like you and Uncle.

    1. Hamza, glad you enjoyed reading it, and thank you for the compliment! Uncle was certainly one of a kind. I only hope that one day the residents of Karachi will be able to see strength in their diversity, Indeed, that is my hope for all of Pakistan.

    1. Thank you Rabeea. Haha, it was written to pay tribute to a person who taught me something, to make friends laugh, and to encourage people to look beyond the obvious when in Karachi.

  4. No actually I am from the same college and we have to write such stuff for our English composition course and it was amazing to come across such a classic piece while searching for a project.
    The fact that you wrote it to encourage people to look beyond the obvious and not just to gain marks is applaudable!

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