Outside the Window | Empress Market

Empress Market in Saddar, Karachi’s commercial area. During college years, 77longdrives spent many afternoons and evenings traversing its treacherous streets. You have already heard some stories from Karachi. Others you may hear at a later point. When I think of Empress Market, a few terms come to mind – colonial architecture, hustle and bustle, cheek by jowl, Rainbow Centre, and 4M.

 

 

Flagstaff House, Karachi

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I fussed over my tie-knot as Salim weaved through the traffic in Karachi’s Saddar. There were a few minutes to go till the first meeting of the day. The Avari, however, was close. As I walked briskly into the hotel’s lobby, my phone rang. It was my contact – meeting cancelled. Normally I would have uttered an expletive, but I couldn’t have been happier. With just one more day to go in Karachi, I had been dying to find a few hours to myself to visit Flagstaff House. I had known it was a museum since college days in Karachi, but had been unable to visit. It was time to make up for the omission. Salim gunned the engine and we were off.

The Flagstaff House was one of Quaid-e-Azam’s properties in Karachi. It is now owned and managed by the Government of Pakistan. The house is an impressive stone building, located near Karachi’s busy Saddar Area. Quaid-e-Azam purchased the house from a Parsi businessman much before Partition, but lived in it only briefly. I had been informed that the house was now a museum, and contained certain of his possessions. As we pulled into the driveway, I noticed a group of gardeners tending to the lawns. A smart Pakistani flag fluttered on a pole upfront.

As we pulled into the driveway, I was surprised that one could drive right in. There was only a single semi-interested security guard.

Upon walking up to the house, I was greeted by its government-appointed caretaker, Rashid. He seemed quite surprised to see me, and kindly offered to show me the house himself. We walked around to a back entrance. He unlocked an old kundi, and we stepped through into a corridor. It was as if one had stepped back in time. I recognized the musty smell as one I had known from childhood afternoons spent rummaging through my grandfather’s storeroom.

On the ground floor were the main drawing room and dining room. The former was large, and filled with elegant, high quality furniture.  A Persian carpet covered the floor. There was a study area on one side. One of the table-top decoration pieces showed a map of the two wings of the Pakistan of 1947, which Mr. Jinnah had called ‘moth-eaten.’ I wondered what term he would have used for what remains today. Several portraits of Mr. Jinnah were hung around the room. A layer of dust, perhaps a few weeks old, covered everything. Rashid, who was very well informed, narrated the history of the house.

To the west was the main dining room. A foyer before the room contained a sideboard and an iznik-style ceramic washing-bowl. There was a long, engraved wooden table in the centre. Overlooking it was a sketch-portrait of Ms. Fatima Jinnah.

Next, we took the stairs up to the first floor. Pausing at a landing, Rashid pointed out that when she came to Flagstaff House during a visit to Pakistan in 2004, Mrs. Dina Wadia (Mr. Jinnah’s daughter) had stopped here to take a long, careful look at the photograph frames on the wall. These included a picture of Mr. Jinnah with a young Dina and their dogs – a black Doberman and a white Terrier.

On the first floor, there was an open area with a breakfast table, a second ‘upstairs’ drawing room, and two bedrooms belonging to Ms. Fatima Jinnah and Mr. Jinnah respectively. The rooms were preserved, as if someone had locked up the house in the 1940s and not returned since. The second drawing room, likely for special guests, was more compact than the first.

Both rooms were sparsely furnished. Ms. Fatima Jinnah’s came first, and had a separate dressing area. Inside, I noticed a picture frame depicting a laltain (lantern). This was her campaign symbol in the 1965 election, during which she had led a coalition of parties to give fierce opposition to Gen. Ayub Khan. Many say that had it been a direct election, she would have won.

Mr. Jinnah’s room was done in dark-wood furniture. Like Ms. Fatima Jinnah’s room, there was only a single bed and bedside table, and a small sitting area. There was an intercom system, which must have been quite advanced for the day. A pair of his iconic two-tone shoes lay on a rack in the corner. I took a few minutes to observe the room in silence.

Mr. Jinnah’s house and his possessions contained therein reflected his personal style well – austere but of high quality, befitting of an individual of substance.

It was time to return. As we made our way back down, Rashid, who has cared for the house for decades with pride, informed me that the per annum maintenance allocation for it was Rs. 5,000! This shockingly low figure is a good indicator of the respect that the government accords the memory of the man who gave his all to create Pakistan. The house does not require large-scale expenditure, but enough resources should be dedicated to ensure its upkeep and safety.

Rashid then asked me to sign the guestbook, which was an honour. When I opened it, I understood why he had been surprised to see me earlier. There were only a handful of entries per month. Flagstaff House, like the principles of the man it belonged to, had been largely forgotten.

As I walked along the gravel-lined driveway towards the car, I looked back at Flagstaff House; Pakistan’s flag fluttered proudly in front of it. Perhaps Mr. Jinnah’s principles had been forgotten by the state, but in that moment I hoped that they would be remembered by the people of Pakistan.

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.

Green-Eyed Cab Ride

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.