While returning home one night from a reporting trip, I found myself in a rickshaw that was going so fast that I had to hold on to the tinsel wrapped poles for dear life. M.A. Jinnah Road, the road that forms the main artery of the city, was a blur of headlights and honking cars as the rickshaws weaved in between trucks and motorbikes. Seeing my face in the mirror, a young woman, her face and head uncovered, clearly a new customer, the old man with the grizzled beard laughed. “Here you have to learn to walk while holding the finger of death.” This was my first lesson navigating in the city.
His name was Lauri Baba, a word that means someone who is loved by his people. Lauri Baba, was an old resident of Lyari, the heart of the city of Karachi. But what is your real name, I asked him. “Even my own parents do not remember my real name,” he said. But he knew the city like the back of his hand.
A fellow reporter, also a young woman, told me she had taken a rickshaw home well past midnight one night. The rickshaw wallah veered off the main road. She began to scream. “If you did not want to have sex, then why are you out so late?” he said. He dropped her home. But he looked angry. Once I wanted to get home well past midnight. After standing by the roadside on Shahrah-e-Faisal, across from the Naval museum, for half an hour all I saw were strange cars slowly driving past, full of men. A flower seller sitting, who had long closed shop and was chatting with a friend on the pavement asked me where I wanted to go then called his rickshaw driver friend, who dropped me home. A friend visiting Karachi asked me what I did when I was out late. I take a rickshaw, I told her. It is the safest ride. I can always jump out. Rickshaws are pronounced “ruck-shah” and it is the Hindi word for protection. I always repeat that to myself. If you grew up on Bollywood films of the 90s there was a lot of reference to that sort of thing in those movies featuring macho men.
In an empty lot in the neighborhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, in one of the biggest migrant settlement, an inner-city neighborhood, beside the apartment building where my grandmother lives, there are always five or six rickshaw wallahs waiting in a row for passengers. They wait there amidst garbage heaps, where a man in tattered shalwar and no kamiz leads a herd of bony cows to graze every morning on the weeds. The paan wallah leans out of the window of his stall and cracks a betel-stained smile.
The rickshaw wallahs pass the hours playing a game using pebbles set in concentric chalk squares drawn on the roadside. They always look up and stop playing when I come by and then nods will be exchanged as to who will give me a ride. A kick to the rickshaw motor and we are on our way.
The rickshaw wallah has a hole in his ear. It is a hole the size of a small pea in the center of the cartilage. In the early morning when the sunlight is dim I believe I can see a bit of the road through his ear. Most times, there is a bright spot of light shining through. His mother pierced it with a fat needle when he was a little boy. It was back when he lived in the mountains in the north and apparently it was the only known cure for chicken pox.
A woman in a purple burqa sits by the roadside in front of the mausoleum of the Quaid, where the founder of the country is buried. The mausoleum is halfway between the area of Gulshan where my naani lives and Empress Market. A white domed structure in the center of a park. I have never been. There have been reports in the news of girls getting nabbed there so my parents never took us there. I remember reading the report of a girl who went missing while visiting the mausoleum with her family on a holiday. She was abducted by unknown men and was later raped in the basement of the mazaar. A Baloch man told me his cousin visiting from interior Sindh stopped to pray while passing by the white stone structure. “But he is no pir,” the Baloch berated his cousin who replied. “He must be have mystical powers, he gave us Pakistan.” The woman in the deep purple shuttlecock burqa is completely concealed. Nothing shows, except for her hands reaching out from the heavy folds of the burqa, moving over something on the road. It is unsettling and I see the rickshaw wallah veers a bit away from her whenever we pass by. She is there every morning, the purple of her burqa vivid and yet silent in the early morning gray.
There is another older rickshaw wallah who constantly scratches his bald head and always rushes out from the line of parked rickshaws when I come outside. He is safe I think. But sometimes I notice him adjusting the mirror and I see my face in it, and I see his eyes locking with mine. I’d much rather he kept his stare fixed on the road.
There are six mirrors in the rickshaw. Two on the outside for cars, but the ones inside which are trimmed with bright multicolored stickers are always directed towards the backseat. I am seated in the center and all four reveal a part of me. My right thigh and my clasped hands in the lower right one. My glasses and cheek and mouth are visible in the upper right. The left one shows my shoulder and neck and the lower one has an image of my hand over my bag. I shift to the left and disappear in two of the mirrors, only to reappear in a few moments. I adjust to the right and disappear and reappear. I never know when the mirrors are adjusted. I keep shifting this way and that. The mirrors now all crooked. But I am not in any of them. Then suddenly I reappear.
The rickshaw shakes, rattles, then rolls. The tassels hanging from the top mirrors doing a little shimmy. Some rickshaws are quite beautiful. At sea-view, the ocean-front where the city flocks every evening and paani puri and hot channa is sold in paper cones, a rickshaw I hailed had black and yellow interiors. Glazed plastic covers. It was pristine. Perhaps, the rickshaw wallah was aware of how good the ride looked. On the lower left corner of the windscreen he had stuck a BMW sticker.
Other times, rickshaws are in shambles. Like the old man who often comes to pick me in the morning. His rickshaw has peeling paint and a big patch missing from the side. One of the mirror is missing its sticker trim. He sleeps sometimes in the backseat, his legs propped on the poles, while he waits for me. His rickshaw smells of sweat and stale cigarettes. He looks apologetic. Once, he asks me about my brother. “How do you know him?” I ask. He smiles, some of his teeth missing. “Your brother broke bread with me once,” he said. “Call me Sabir Chacha,” he tells me lighting a cigarette. The smoke disappearing in the breeze.
Sometimes rickshaws have music blaring. Others have neon lights on top that cast a blue or green light. My face looks ghostly in the dull colored light. Some rickshaw wallahs charge a lot, knowing there are few rides around. Others take so little that I feel bad and insist on paying them more.
Once, in Saddar, the old city center, the European part of town, a car cut the rickshaw’s path and the rickshaw wallah cursed at him. The car’s driver stopped and asked the rickshaw wallah what he just said. “Nothing,” he said. “I just said get out of my way.” The man glared, then got back into his car. Rickshaw wallahs know never to pick a fight on the road. A rickshaw does not go fast enough. On weekend near the sea front, donkey carts and motorbike riders and souped up cars will race each other. A rickshaw has only three wheels, the young rickshaw driver explains to me, and can overturn easily. “Papa says don’t race,” he says to me by way of a motto he picked up on the admonishment of elders regarding rickshaw racing.
Once I hailed a rickshaw, near Tariq Road, once the most popular shopping center in the city, and it was a young man with a heavy mustache. In the left top mirror, his eyes watched me. I looked back. There is always a moment when you sit in the rickshaw and the driver adjusts the mirror and meets your eyes. I always wonder what would happen if I smiled or grimaced. But I look back, equally curious. The man looked like he might have been Bengali. I was doing a story, I told him, and then asked him if he was from the Bengali colony nearby. He told me he was Punjabi, his eyes turning red. I felt that I had surely offended him.
Rickshaws follow their own road rules. The drivers nod to each other. I have seen rickshaw wallahs nod to truck drivers who will allow them to pull in ahead of them at a traffic light. A fraternity of transporters. Rickshaw wallahs will not think twice about going down the wrong way, or taking sharp turns midway through the traffic. They can go down impossibly narrow lanes. I once took a rickshaw through a town by the Indian border. It was a long drive, and I was cursing myself. But when we finally entered the small town, and sped through impossibly narrow, water-logged lanes, where cows and children romped, I realized that it was a journey that only a rickshaw could have accomplished.
Another rickshaw wallah once took me to a far flung neighborhood of Karachi. It was a tricky neighborhood, with nationalist slogans covering the walls. The rickshaw wallah waited for me outside the whole time. “I thought I should wait for you. This is dau number area,” he said, when I came out after finishing my interview. He often took my grandmother whenever she went to the Tuesday bazaar for grocery shopping, he explained. “I am a syed. I am very poor. I also have a son. Take me or my son to the U.S. with you.” My grandmother had clearly told him about her granddaughter who lived in America. He took me everywhere in those days. I was doing a story on chai hotels and he took me to them and introduced me to the owner of one of the oldest chai hotels in the city. I have not seen him in a while. He became my Facebook friend, but he rarely updates his profile.
Some rickshaws go very fast, other engines cough loudly as they wheeze forward. In the early morning, I smell exhaust and then the breeze carries it away. To ride a rickshaw is to be one with the city. I smell roses as I cross the garland makers’ street in Lyari, the oldest part of the city, and then a sudden cloud of dust that makes me turn away, but it hits my face anyways. From the plastic square window behind me I see a corner of a cage perched on the tank of a motorbike. Children come running behind a rickshaw with white pearly motia bangles trembling in their hands, the white matching their teeth. Sometimes when a motorbike passes closely by, I hear snatches of conversations. Once, a man on a motorbike dropped the paint bucket he was carrying, a pedestrian crossing the road stopped and picked up and handed it to him and then walked on. Other rickshaw wallahs will ask for directions or a place to take a u-turn on a long road. Once a rickshaw wallah leaned over and pulled out a plastic bag that had got stuck in the wheel. A rickshaw wallah will not hesitate to get under the rickshaw no matter where the rickshaw is parked. I have seen a rickshaw wallah lovingly bathing his rickshaw in a puddle in the street.
There are hardly any cabs in the city. Once I found one, a rickety yellow alto, a relic of a government cab scheme of years ago, and he was furious I was late as he had two more rides booked for the day. He had children to pick up from school he said. He charged me twice as much as the rickshaw would have cost for the same journey. Which means nothing. I have gone to Cantt. near the racecourse close to the sea front for a hundred rupees and for the same journey I have paid three hundred rupees. The rickshaw wallah’s age, the upkeep of the rickshaw, the time of the day, the location, and my knowledge of the city are all considerations that determine the charge. The economy of the rickshaw runs in the small change. A rickshaw wallah asked me for 150 rupees to get to sea view. I said 120 rupees and no more. He argued as he drove, but I saw him grinning in the mirror: I had learnt how to save in tens and twenties from every ride.
I have a habit of speaking to myself and often I catch myself, conscious suddenly that the rickshaw wallah is watching me in the mirror. Sometimes I end up sitting in one of those old rickshaws that have tiny seats that are higher than the driver’s. I crouch forward, feeling awkward. A rickshaw sometimes looks like a flying gondola— something out of a fairy tale. Other times it is just an awkward ride. I have heard the rickshaws in Peshawar are even more beautiful than the minibuses.
At traffic lights I see faces of men in other cars looking at me. Men on motorbikes peer back as they drive past, grinning in the wind. Khwaja Sira (trans people) at Bahadurabad lean in and ask for money. One dressed in a low neckline leans down and admires my ring. She wants it. I give her a pack of biscuits. I expect a curse. But she smiles. I never get such love riding in a car.
Sometimes my rickshaw is driving past another rickshaw, and as the two come together I see a young woman looking back at me from the other rickshaw. A fraternity of women passengers.
One morning Sabir Chacha gave me a ride to Lyari. As we crossed the roundabout where the black, red and green flags circle the roundabout near the party house where large portraits of the Bhutto family hang on the facade, the daughter holding the hand of her father, Chacha told me the city was empty because a man was going to be hanged that day. “He killed a man who insulted the prophet. Now the judges have hanged him,” he went quiet. “I can tell you about the city just looking at the roads,” he said.
We stopped at a petrol pump. Chacha slid the thin straw-like pipe out of the plastic bottle tied with a wire around the pole attached to the back of his seat. The petrol pump wallah inserted the pump nozzle inside the bottle and a yellow liquid swished into the bottle. The heady smell of petrol permeating the air. As Sabir Chacha dropped me off home he asked me if there was anything bothering me. I told him his smoking in the rickshaw bothered me a lot. “My daughters scream at me for the same reason,” he sighed, slumping into the seat. I waved goodbye to him as he drove away.