He is asking for too much money but she gives in. It’s past six on a Friday. If she says no and decides to wait for another one, it’ll probably be too late and she’ll be stuck in traffic for another hour and a half at least. So she gets in the rickshaw.
But she holds her bag a little too tighter from its strap.
The rickshaw-wala starts the rickshaw and adjusts his rear-view mirror so that he has a clear view of her. She curses without moving her lips.
By now she has witnessed this thousands of times probably but she can never used to it. So she does her daily exercise of lifting her dupatta from her shoulders and puts it over her head, brings both ends of it in front and holds them together with one hand, the other hand gripping her bag-strap. This cloth over her head works as her protector right now, from ruining her hair in the polluted, humid Karachi weather and of course from those stares, or at least that’s how she thinks.
The traffic is slow, vehicles too close. The rickshaw crawls along with the rest of the transport. A bike comes twining and comes to a halt right beside the rickshaw. It’s so close she can smell the stink of cigarettes off the clothes of these boys. They peer inside the rickshaw one by one. She pretends she does not notice but can observe their piercing gaze through her peripheral view. One of them smiles.
The traffic moves. The bike manages to zigzag its way through.
The city is changing its color. From blue to yellow to orange. She sees an old man, stick thin on his crutches standing in the middle of the road, hands stretched out, unfazed by the horrors of the road. She shudders.
Saddar. Burns Road. Narrower streets. Smells of food, of rotten meat, of paan spits, of boiling gutters at sides, the stench is overwhelming. She covers her nose with her scarf. Maybe someday she will get used to it. Some day she won’t care. But today is not the day. The sheer presence of life on these streets is suffocating. Food, men, children, crows hovering above their heads, broken roads, bikers breaking signals rendering traffic officers powerless—this city frightens her. It claws at her. Imagine if there is a bomb blast at a place like this. Where is the security? Who protects these people except God? Imagine if the bomber is right here, lurking among these people, watching, planning his move. Imagine the havoc. The destruction. The lifelessness amongst life. She shakes her head trying to push away the thought of it.
She comes back to reality when the rickshaw-wala takes a turn she doesn’t recognize.Where is he taking her? Her grip tightens on the strap of her bag. She voices her concern.
“baji ye short-cut hai, fikar na karo aap ko ghar pohuncha dun ga” (it’s a shortcut baji, don’t worry I’ll get you home), he mocks looking at her from the mirror. He does not like to be dictated.
She weighs her options. She can’t jump from this rickshaw on a comparatively empty narrow road, he can catch her easily, she can’t take that risk. She can see some people walking but she doesn’t know if they can help her. Her mind wanders towards her phone. It’s in the bag along with hundred other things. The sky has turned reddish brown by now. It would be fruitless to try searching it. So she resorts to the only help. She starts reciting Ayat-ul-kursi. Soon she is reciting all small surahs she had learnt as a child and promises God that she’ll offer prayer tonight if she’s not raped, killed and thrown in some gutter.
The rickshaw takes a turn towards left and they’re out on a road she can recognize.
She breathes. Her grip loosens a little.
The sky has turned the darker shade of blue.
Another signal. Another set of billboards. Another set of beggars.
A transgender comes towards the rickshaw. He is wearing green clothes, glitter and golden earrings. He has his back on her while he talks on the phone. She quickly zips open her bag and rummages her wallet. He has seen her by now. While still talking on the phone he comes to stand by the side of the rickshaw. The rickshaw-wala watches as a keen spectator from his mirror while she looks for a twenty rupee note.
“Koi baat nahin baji das de den” (it’s alright baji, give me ten), the transgender smiles. He has read her mind and peeked into her wallet.
The signal turns green. The rickshaw starts moving slowly. She quickly takes out ten rupees and hands it over to him. The fair colored transgender holds both his hands together in the gesture of gratitude, mouths a ‘thenk-you’ and walks away.
The sky is a shade of gray clouds. It might drizzle if not rain tonight. The moon hides completely behind the thick clouds today. No play today. No pretense.
More green signals. More billboards. More beggars. More streets. She might reach home safe today.
Author’s Note: My short story ‘Guard’ was featured in November 2016’s East Lit (a journal focused on creative writing, English literature and art specifically from East and South East Asia) issue. Here’s the link to it: