Madeeha Ansari has some thing(s) to do with development, primary schools and story-time. She blogs at writespacetime.wordpress.com.
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Distance is Time
Of course, there was a time when there was nothing here but sun, pebbles, and dust. Overnight, an invisible hand stacked the shops like matchboxes, one on the other, the second story a crooked afterthought. Now it looks like any other town on the edge of a big city, where the old people remember simpler times, and the young ones are eager to stretch their necks and limbs. It is the town that continuously builds the big city; where the bricks are brought in from the kilns, the labor is born, and, every day, buses full of thin young men in starched cotton shirts head out to fill the offices.
There are cues for the clockwork bustle to begin; a crow flaps, and a man climbs a ladder to sit on his roof, newspaper in hand.
Everywhere below, it is time for tea.
Butt Sahib of Butt Auto waits ceremoniously on his charpoy. Asif keeps one eye on the charpoy as he whisks a kettle from the row of eight—yellow and green, peeling paint—dangling from hooks above the stove. Milky bubbles rise in the pan; he adds a dash of sugar and wipes a tray. The tables are filling up.
“Make it sweet, don’t hold back!”
Traffic is slow, but rolls steadily on. Cars and wagons honk their way around potholes, pye-dogs, men shouldering shovels. A troop of children in blue sweaters and woolly hats marches to the corner of the road, where it joins the main highway. There, the cars are faster, louder, more impatient; the children must wait for the right time to scuttle across.
“Go!” shouts the troop leader. She is a big, sensible girl and holds onto two cold little hands as they make a run for it.
One little hand drops a water bottle.
A magnificent truck, all color and chains, rides at the crest of a wave of traffic. There is no time—it’s rumbling closer—the bottle is rolling on the road.
“What are you staring at, move!”
The troop leader pulls her petrified charge to safety just as the great beast draws up and slows to a stop. Behind it, brakes squeal and horns protest, but there is nothing to be done about a stubborn truck that refuses to budge.
A hand reaches out the window.
Hurry, it says. Pick it up.
The sensible sibling can only gape as her little sister retrieves her bottle from the mouth of the mammoth. She hugs the red plastic to herself, woolly cap bobbing up and down. She cannot stop grinning all the way to school.
The truck cranks into motion, and turns off the main road as the traffic pushes past. It comes to a stop near Asif’s cafe. The driver dismounts from one end, the helper from the other. He is the ubiquitous chota—small and wiry, with the stride of a lad who cannot be surprised. Approaching Asif, his bright eyes know what they want.
“Two chai, three parathas,” he pipes.
Asif slaps the pancake-like parathas onto a plate—a stack of golden, greasy glory.
The driver begins to remove the scarf wound around neck, head, and cap. Asif nearly drops his tray, but regains his balance and stares; even with the loose shirt and bony frame, even with the hair pulled back, he can make no mistake here.
The driver and her little friend pay him no heed and start tearing their parathas—they have been driving all night.
It’s funny, how quickly one settles into a routine. Through the window, the small-town landscape rolls by.
Autoshop one, autoshop two. Tyres, tyres, PVC pipes. Golden ornaments in Saif Books and Sports, gift items for a pretty girl’s birthday.
She presses the accelerator a little harder. Now, the shops are further apart and there are flashes of field to be seen through the spaces. The world is clean and sharp in the winter sun, which bounces off the road and into her eyes. She is thinking of blue sweaters and chapped hands, and the experience of school being much too early in the morning. It is too cold to be holding chalk or pencils, so the teacher will have them open their textbooks on page fifteen.
“Read,” the teacher will say. A little girl will stand up slowly, her eyes fixed on the page.
“Come on, we don’t have all day.”
The girl’s lips will move a little as she stares straight down, the words clogging her throat like a lump of disappointment. Perhaps she would have been able to do it had her older sister not been staring into her back.
But the school with the pictures of the nation’s martyrs has fallen far behind. In the truck-driver’s world, distance is time.
Shaking the memory from her mind, she stares ahead.
Already, they are in the open country, where the world looks flat and the sky looks round. This is the province of patchwork fields, stretching out from the sides of the road. A clump of brown houses teeming with life stands next to a patch of gravestones. It is a picture of strange harmony – a testament to how the ritual of passing does not affect the ploughing of the land, or gathering of the harvest. Year after year, the fields turn from a young green to a quivering gold, then to the rich blackness from which the cycle begins.
It has been a long time since she prayed, but today the words come unbidden.
From Him have we come, and to Him we must return.
Like taking a U-turn, she thinks, having unloaded the earthly burden.
And yet, it’s not always so; some linger among the worldly for longer than others. A little further down, the trees hold up colored rags marking the presence of a saint. In the midst of the plains, the minarets of the shrine stand out, covered with geometric patterns of tile and glass.
“Herein lies greatness,” it seems to say, reflecting light every which way.
Her hands caress the steering wheel. There is something comforting in being nothing but a moving speck, passing by ossified greatness. With a blink and a dazzling wink, the saint and his mirrors fall behind.
The sun rises higher in the sky, gently toasting her elbows. Sher Dil sits up, alert.
“We’re making good time. That Rana Sahib won’t be able to say anything now. Remember last time, when it rained? What a trip, I swear. I mean, what’re we s’posed to do if it rains? If I was you, I would have told him: you try driving that thing through the mud. I would’ve told him.”
She smiles lopsidedly, and he rushes to his own defense.
“I’m serious, I would! These warehouse men wouldn’t last a day on the road. And the shopkeepers, they’re even worse. We’re never late and if we are, well, there’s always a good reason. Just like that, being Sahib folk, trying to prove they own the world.”
“Of course not, Sher Dil. That would be us.”
The thought is a new one; his face lights up with the sudden laugh of a little boy, just happy to be king.
“Ha! Yes, that’s us all right.”
“Next place with water, we’ll make a stop, okay?”
There is a well on the side of the road, a neon yellow rope dangling into its innards. She feels the muscles in her back and arms strain as she turns the handle, watching the bucket come up. They drink and let the bucket down again, this time to wash. Spreading her scarf across her chest, she quickly passes wet hands under her kurta, then rinses them out again.
There is a pre-emptive protest from Sher Dil’s side.
“Baji, do we have to? It’s winter! And we’re not really that dirty!”
She’s quite sure he won’t catch a cold from being clean, but lets it pass this time.
A ragged horse stands tied to a post at the edge of the field. Its coat is a patchy grey, splashed with mud from yesterday’s rain. She feels a tugging at her kurta, and Sher Dil’s voice is just above a whisper.
“Look,” he says, with glistening eyes.
Just behind the filly stands a very thin creature on very long legs, peering at them out of round, black pools of wonder. It senses being sensed and retreats; then, can’t resist peeping around. Awkward, gangly, beautiful thing.
“Tch-tch-tch. Come.” Sher Dil holds out a hand.
The little one takes a few steps forward but a single authoritative neigh and it is back behind the safety of its fortress. The mother stamps to assert her presence and turns around to nuzzle her baby, neck curving in an arc of mine-ness.
Sher Dil looks at his Baji, and she turns around. They have no time to stay and build an acquaintance. Yet, while mounting her seat, she steals a look to see the shy young foal brazenly kicking up its legs and strutting about. The old grey filly pays no attention.
For a while, they amble along without speaking. The sound of the engine drowns out thoughts of a distant baby girl, playing in someone else’s lap.
Now that they are on the road again, Sher Dil sits with his cheek to the window counting trees, signs, and buffaloes in a sleepy herd. He never liked to spell, but numbers—they made sense.
Two-three-four buffaloes in a group of five, jaws going round and round. Like placid old ladies chewing betel-nut leaves.
One aspiring cricketer practices his bowling action in a field. Sher Dil is strong and fast—boom-boom like Shahid Afridi. He could outrun that boy, he knows it.
He has been running for as long as he wanted to remember. Two years ago, he had been running from a store with a pack of biscuits. They were the new kind, chocolate on the outside, cream on the inside. The big boy on the billboard licked the side of his face while eating them, and there they were, lying at the very corner of the counter. It had only taken a minute—he had snatched them, turned and run, run, run while peeling open the wrapper and stuffing them in his mouth. He could only eat two while zipping through the crowd, over the cobbler’s rows of shoes, and onto the main road.
Catching the bumper end of a truck, he had pulled himself up into a ball and wrapped fingers and toes around whatever he could feel. The movement made his stomach turn and so, instead of looking at the racing white stripe on the road, he had turned his eyes upwards.
When they stopped, he hadn’t let go. Suddenly, his view of the sky had been blocked by a large face with a bushy beard and twinkling eyes. Two strong hands had hooked themselves under his arms and lifted him off the bumper.
“Next time, young lion-heart, try a wagon!”
The laughter was loud and appreciative, taking in the tiny specimen of manhood.
“What’s your name, then?”
The eyes continued to twinkle.
“All right. Since you are like a fearless lion from the mountains, Sher Dil is what we’ll call you today! And since this truck is like my home and you are my guest, now we must have something to eat.”
While tearing into a steaming plate of kebab, Sher Dil found himself telling his new friend of the many times he had run in the past few days. The twinkling eyes narrowed sometimes, while the large hands shoveled food behind the beard.
“I’ve seen many places,” Sher Dil boasted, becoming more confident. “Like the ones the drivers talk about when they stop. And I know lots of things about the world too. Why, I bet I know as much about trucks as you do!”
“Really, now?” The man stroked his beard and looked around. Two Suzuki carry-dabbas had been standing close by—colorful, compact, lesser vehicles meant only to carry human loads over short distances.
“So. Quick quiz. Which of these two do you think is the newer model?”
Sher Dil munched hard. This was an important test of his knowledge—every fiber of his being was consumed by it.
“Factory-wise, or registration wise?”
“Both!” The driver laughed. “Okay, okay, here’s a hint. Look at the placement of the letters on the number plate.”
Sher Dil’s face had lit up.
“That one!” he beamed, triumphant Master of Chronology.
That had done it. Sher Dil’s new friend located someone who knew his uncle in the village, and a few days later he was a fully apprenticed chota, spending his days on the road.
A special plaque with an alarmed-looking lion was added to the bumper, so that they could tell a good story about the day that they met.
Raja of the heart/Lion of the road read the calligraphic inscription.
Sher Dil then discovered that any car driving behind the truck with a bulging load of hay always overtook them in a nervous sort of way, as if expecting the larger vehicle to tip over. He would laugh and show them, “No hands!” There was nothing he loved more than being atop that prickly perch.
Until the day that his world had lurched, and he had found himself scrambling across the load and onto the side of the truck as it swayed, swerved—tilted. When he came to, it lay on the road, like a beast subdued.
But he no longer thinks of that day. Sher Dil’s head rolls a little and he sets it more comfortably against the glass of the window.
From behind the wheel, the inheritor of the truck looks at him in his state of semi-sleep and absorbs every bit of his smallness. Dirty fingernails, agile body that clambers to the top of the load to tie good, strong knots.
It is late afternoon, and they are driving through another town. But now, the narrow passage is choked by other kinds of activity—fruit-sellers with their cane baskets and nasal cries, miscellaneous vendors pushing carts full of socks, vests, and pink plastic bowls. And women—two fat women bargaining through black burqas; tall, slim female students walking quickly past grinning boys.
Behind the wheel, she clucks in exasperation—they can only inch forward.
Sher Dil sits up a little, because the market gets interesting around this time. There are fruit vendors now, on the corner that would earlier have been occupied by men waiting for work. Piles of oranges, piles of peel. Smells sizzling and wafting from great pans of frying samosas, pakoras, and spicy chips.
He looks over at his companion—her eyes are like slits. Her palm pushes the horn as the great beast navigates through the crowd, in first gear.
In spite of knowing better, he suddenly feels like he needs to stop here. He turns to her with a pleading face.
“Baji, just two minutes.”
Her eyes flash.
“Why wouldn’t you go before? Are we on a pleasure ride here, Sher Dil? Stopping to appreciate the scenery, are we? We have places to go.”
With that, she sounds the horn like a bugle.
Sher Dil is startled, but sets his jaw and says nothing.
She pulls up to a tea-house that looks like it might have a toilet.
“Go,” she says, still shooting a severe look. When he comes back, there is a peace offering—a folded newspaper with crisp potato pakoras, waiting on the seat.
She says nothing, but starts the truck.
Suddenly, her eye is caught by a young girl who detaches herself from the group to cross the road, disappearing into a side street. Before entering, she carefully adjusts her scarf over her head.
Behind the wheel and the turban covering her face, the driver starts to smile a slow smile. She remembers another young girl, in a younger town. Adjusting her scarf while crossing the street, walking proud and straight past the men sitting in an open-air café. Walking on most determinedly, feeling a gaze burning into her back. And somehow, in spite of all better judgment, turning around to catch a pair of unblinking black eyes, and the impression of a beard.
Her old mother had been horrified when this rough stranger had entered their house a month later. Their means were limited but respectable; the daughters had left their schooling early on, but this one was the youngest and most beautiful. With dark eyes that dreamed of more, and a secret spirit that her father loved. It was only fitting that she be betrothed to her uncle’s son, who had moved to the city and was very soon to find a job as a clerk. Someone who could care for her, and give her a life that was decent, safe, and better than the one she had.
It was a two-room house; there was nowhere else for her to retreat into modesty, so she sat in the bedroom. But her heart had throbbed in her ears when she heard his voice, and she grabbed the edges of the bed. And all the while that he spoke to her mother, she could see him through a crack in the door.
He had said words that she hadn’t thought it was possible to utter in earnest. The honesty in his voice had nearly broken her in two—there was poetry, she thought, and she was far too young to resist.
“Is this what we raised you for?” her mother had screamed. “You, with all your freedom! This is all the fault of your father. He ruined you. Letting you drive the tractor with him when you were a little chit, going to the market ever since we came to this town!”
The words had stung.
All night, she had lain breathing fiercely with wide-open eyes. Many faces rushed past, and lives. Her mother, worn and worried. Her aunt, beaming and triumphant. Her poor, dear, stuttering cousin, with ink-stained fingers never holding still. And decades of ink-stained shirts, to be washed and wrung and starched.
And then—another. No ink, no starch. Crude hands, shaping a life she did not know.
She had left the house in the middle of the night, trembling and imagining a thousand shadowy fingers reaching out from the sides of the street to grab her bag, the scarf protecting her modesty. But then there he was, standing at the end, casting a shadow that was oddly large and gentle.
Honking through, she is done with this town. She now has little patience for the gaggle of girls still deliberating about whether or not to cross.
There is a thread she holds, that pulls her on. It is the knowledge that she cannot go back, not to her sisters, nor to her aging father and anxious mother. Better for them to imagine that she is somewhere in a village, far away, contained within a woman’s four walls.
Better for them to have the satisfaction of conjecture than the burden of her return, with a crib in tow.
It had taken all her strength to pull ahead. But one day, she had come to her door to find Sher Dil standing with arms held straight by his side.
“Don’t worry,” he had announced in the most matter-of-fact way. “I know exactly what to do.”
He had gone with her to get the large vehicle license, and to meet all of her husband’s old clients—when the hardest struggle was to keep her eyes from opening wide enough for them to see through her. They laughed, she knew, because they didn’t know what else to do.
He was with her the first time she tied the load, joining in without a word. The warehouse men had stood at a distance, joking awkwardly. The crates were full of oranges that were not light, but not unmanageable. Then, a man standing in a corner had come forward to help with the load, as simply as he would have for anyone else. He did not make conversation.
When the time came to throw the tarpaulin on the top, she followed Sher Dil to tie the ends. They would never know that they were the reason she could not hesitate and since she couldn’t stop, she couldn’t fall.
They stopped laughing, then. After that, they came forward to help every time the odd duo passed by.
It is evening as they enter a more rugged land. The sky is cold and white; the sunset has none of that summer brilliance. In the distance, there are mountains with treetops standing out in funny shapes, like camels of an endless caravan.
There is a checkpost with a portly policeman who raises his hand with authority. Stop.
She rolls down the window and pushes fabric away from face.
“You can check the back, there’s nothing but cement.”
The man’s moustache curls in a sickening way that makes her think of the softly wrapped metal bundle in the dashboard—an item inherited with the truck. She meets his gaze evenly; jaw strong, no blinking.
He chuckles softly to himself, changes his mind and shakes his head.
“What a world.”
He prods the back of the truck with an ostentatious gesture, then lifts the barrier to let them through.
There is no change in her expression for the rest of the journey. Sher Dil is glad when the time to unload comes and Rana Sahib’s men are there to slap his back, make jokes, and call him “Little Man.” She stands aloof—they will manage without her.
It is only when they are on their way back down that her knuckles relax on the wheel. She stops a little before they are meant to, and tells Sher Dil to follow her to the back.
Together, they lie on the tarpaulin, staring up at where the mountains meet the stars. In darkness so complete, the lone house on the peak before them burns like a low-hanging planet. Their voices don’t rise above whispers of respect for the night.
“You’ve been a little strange today,” observes Sher Dil. “Like there’s been something you’ve been wanting to say.”
She thinks for a moment before replying, about a town she had known since Butt Sahib had owned the only autoshop. She thinks of the girls crossing the road, and the places that they might have gone. And of another little girl who will go safely to school, and learn to read—whose voice she hopes will ring loud and clear. With twinkling black eyes, that crinkle when she smiles. It is the last thought she has at the end of each day, and the gnawing ache subsides.
Then, all the miles of the day rush in, and distance is time.
“Let’s get some rest, Sher Dil,” she says. “Tomorrow, we’ll drive through the city.”
Photo: “Karachi City of Lights Sind Pakistan – 051” by Wasif Malik is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (A cropped version of the same image was used for the Papercuts magazine homepage slider for Distance is Time)
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