Fragility of it all

The afternoon sky was blackening again after hours of downpour early in the morning. There were dead cars in muddy rain puddles along Jail Road, the Canal and Jinnah Hospital Road as I drove my 1971 CJ5 Jeep to the Afghani restaurant in Model Town Extension where Jamshed worked at the cash register. On the radio, the jockey interrupted Beyonce and Sean Paul's 'Baby Boy' to warn listeners not to take Peco Road if they were going to Township. Water, he announced, had covered the trenches dug by the telephone department. Some motorists had to be rescued after their cars drove into the submerged holes. 

I was not going to Township so I swivelled the tuning knob to another station. They were playing 'The Sunscreen Song.' I turned the volume up and engaged the four-wheel drive lever. Monsoon had turned many roads into wide strips of loose gravel dotted with large chunks of tarmac. At the intersection before Jinnah Hospital, I turned left and drove through the market. On both sides were shops selling hand-dyed dupattas and block-printed shalwar-kameezes. The restaurant was behind the market, opposite the car park and a rubbish heap. I pulled up near a pile of empty coca-cola tins in front of the kitchen door and let the engine idle. I sat there and played with the radio. On one channel, a scientist was discussing the probability of robots becoming intelligent enough to replace human beings by 2050. In the car park, a rabble of half-naked boys was trying to ride a stray donkey. The donkey was struggling to free himself when its hind legs gave under the weight of the boys. Jamshed knocked on the windshield to announce his arrival and opened the passenger side door. After he had settled in the passenger seat, I turned the jeep around. 

We reached Jail Road listening to the scientist describing the benefits of having a robot as a domestic servant. I tried to think of the future but could not think of anything crisp and shiny. I switched off the radio and, for a while, we both listened to the sticky wet drone of tyres rolling on the macadamized road. I looked at Jamshed who had pulled up his knees and seemed busy tinkering with some thoughts. 

"How was your day, Mr. Cash Manager?" 

"Okay," he drawled. "Except the usual bickering of waiters about the way the tip is divided." 

"Hmm." I did not have anything to say about grumpy waiters. I tried to picture an unhappy waiter but all I could think of was the image of an angry waiter spitting in the food before serving it to a troublesome customer. Nothing out of the ordinary. 

"How was your day, Mr. Journalist?" 

"I am not a journalist. I am a pen-pusher. I sell sentences." 

"Okay, okay. I sit corrected, Mr. Pen Pusher. How did your day go?" 

"I woke up around 9 or 9:30 by the sound of rainwater streaming down the windowpanes. The sloshing noise of water lulled me to sleep again. Just before waking up at about 11:30, I had a strange dream. A police officer was trying to shoot someone who looked like an ordinary bricklayer after declaring him a suicide bomber. A nightmare or should I call it a daymare?" 

"They say the dreams that you have just before waking up are more likely to come true." 

"I don't know about that. But I don't want such dreams to come true." 

The sky was unloading all the water it had. The wiper blades were swishing at the fastest. The vapours from our breath had covered the windows. There was no defogging system in the jeep. 

A little later, I pulled up in front of a pharmacy on Jail Road to buy a pack of Cipralex. Jamshed remained in his seat as I got out. Clammy raindrops patted my head. In the medical store, there were candles lit on the counters. I wondered about the medicines kept in the dead fridge and the people who would buy them. I asked a salesman for the tablets. He rummaged a pile of small cardboard in a shelf in an unlit corner and pulled out a box and brought it closer to one of the candles and shouted "590 Rupees" towards the cash register. I went to the shadow behind the till machine and pulled out a note from my wallet. 

After a while we were at Yaqoo's tea shop on Temple Road, waiting the karak chai. Because of the rain, the traffic was thin and slow and the road had become slippery. The waiter came and placed two steaming cups of creamy chai on the dashboard. Looking at the passing cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws, we drank the chai. The hot liquid burnt its way down my throat. I looked at Jamshed who was gazing at a banner advertising the latest DSL internet connections available. 

"What are you thinking?" Jamshed suddenly asked me. 

"I am thinking about a sentence I read some days ago. It went something like 'by inventing the train and the railroad, human beings also invented derailment.'"

Published in The News on Sunday

dated October 19, 2008