May was always the toughest month. End of year examinations, the beginning of a brutal summer, and meeting the expectations of over-involved parents all in one month. Khalid’s school was in a busy district. Always overflowing with Lahore’s dirtiest traffic. The mornings were polluted, hot and noisy. The afternoons even more. Outside the school gates, there was always traffic. His ears had become accustomed to the unwelcoming sounds of horns and yells. Fumes from car exhausts and motorcycles diffused in the air, adding a metallic and synthetic odour to it. Exposing himself to these elements on a daily basis, Khalid never felt clean. He felt as if a layer of tar and smoke had formed onto his skin, never to be washed off.
Perhaps, what really caught his attention the most were the rickshaw drivers during the afternoons. Their rickshaws were lined up against the boundary walls of the school. During off time, they would sit in their rickshaws waiting for students to approach them. Some rickshaws were old chinqchis. They had unsheltered seats at the back. You’d have to grip the side rails tightly to prevent from falling off. They reminded Khalid of the dangerous and risky joy-land rides he used to take. Speed breakers on the road would cause chinqchis to hiccup, increasing the chances of its riders falling off. It was, without doubt, less safe, albeit cheaper, to travel in compared to their newer counterparts. Then again, if a rickshaw was your mode of transport, you could never be truly safe. Supported by three wheels, the rickshaw was truly a miracle. Many a time, Khalid had watched these vehicles achieve amazing feats. Once, a rickshaw was about to tip over, when its obese driver shifted his body weight to counter the fall. A disaster was averted right in front of Khalid’s eyes. On another occasion, Khalid had been safely transported to his home in a raging torrent by an extremely determined rickshaw driver. The rickshaw driver had simply recited a surah and revved his engine against the flooded streets of Johar Town. Khalid had paid him extra for his troubles.
Despite, or perhaps because of, being relics of the past, the rickshaws were a work of art. Khalid had rarely ever seen a rickshaw with minimalist features. Every rickshaw had a self-contained art gallery on it. Some sported an eye-rolling poem about love and life, some had richly coloured paintings, akin to murals, while others had ornaments and bells hanging from them.
It was finally home time. Khalid clutched his school bag tightly and strolled done the rickshaw line up. Every driver eyed him, trying to judge whether he was going back in a private car or taking a rickshaw. He approached the first one.
“What’s the fare to Model Town?” inquired Khalid.
“Three fifty”, the rickshaw wala replied. The man wore a plain brown shalwar kameez with sweat spots around the neck. He had in his rickshaw a small fan that made a light buzzing sound. It did not seem adequate enough to prevent the man from sweating profusely.
Three fifty was just too much a price for a suburb two fifty rupees away.
Khalid shook his head in disapproval and almost started walking towards the next one. This was the rickshaw wala’s que to bargain.
“Three hundred, bhai. It’s a good price”, he said.
“I pay two hundred and fifty always, sir”, replied Khalid politely.
The rickshaw wala’s face seemed to show hints of irritation. Perhaps, he wasn’t going to get a good deal out of Khalid. He shook his head with disapproval and eyed the next student who came to bargain.
Khalid then moved towards the next one. The same process occurred and no deal was struck.
The third one Khalid approached seemed much more reasonable. His rickshaw seemed to have aged along with him. Brown rust seemed to have replaced the paint on the front while the back cloth seemed to have a lot of scratches and marks on it. The rickshaw wala was an old man with a haggard face.
“Three hundred, uncle”, he said to Khalid. He had already heard the bargaining Khalid had tried to do. Yet, he hoped that Khalid at that point was weary and wanted to head back home finally.
The rickshaw wala was right. Khalid, indeed, was not in a mood to bargain anymore. So he tried an older trick up his sleeve. One that was risky that he had learned from his friends. He quickly opened the door and hopped in the back. Point to be noted here is that no deal was made at this point. No agreement had occurred between the Rickshaw wala and Khalid. The rickshaw wala, too, was used to this farce. He used the rear-view mirror to lock eyes with Khalid and simply said, “two eighty” and revved the engine.
The road that led out from the district was full of potholes and cracked asphalt. Rainfall from the previous week had given birth to brown and murky puddles in the road. The danger of being splashed by an oncoming vehicle was omnipresent among the pedestrians and motorcyclists. Even Khalid in his semi-covered auto rickshaw wasn’t truly safe.
As the rickshaw drove down the road, it bumped, jolted and coughed. The high pitched engine screamed but Khalid’s ears had already acclimatized themselves to the numbing noise.
It was customary for rickshaw walas to make small talk with their riders. Khalid was used to rickshaw walas recounting tales of rude customers, catastrophic motor accidents and their personal lives with an uncomfortable amount of detail. Yet this conversation was one that Khalid remembered for years into his adulthood.
“Education is important”, announced the Rickshaw wala in broken English. He was looking at Khalid from the mirror, waiting for his reaction. Khalid had never seen a rickshaw wala speak in a language other than Urdu or Punjabi. He decided to respond in English as well.
“Yes”, he replied.
“That’s what my son said to me when he graduated from high-school. He said to me ‘education is important.'”, the rickshaw wala had switched back to Urdu. “He taught me how to speak this phrase and then told me what it meant. That’s the only bit of English I know”, he smiled. He had known three words in English and had been more proud of learning it than Khalid had in all his years of English medium education.
“Ji, uncle. Education is important”, Khalid agreed. He wanted to hear more of what the rickshaw wala had to say.
“I served in the navy back in my younger years. Unfortunately, I had to retire due to an injury”, he recounted.
The revving of the engine, and the traffic outside had made it very hard for Khalid to hear every word. However, as he became more engrossed in the Rickshaw wala’s story, he felt as if the words were becoming louder and clearer. The traffic’s noise seemed to slowly die down.
“However, beta, I never learned to read or write even a single word. Everywhere I searched for a job, I would see a door shut on my face. Finally, I decided to settle down for a rickshaw. I have been driving this for 20 years now. It has aged along with me. I will drive it till one of us dies out”, he said.
“I have four sons”, he continued, “This rickshaw has enabled me to nourish my family throughout the years. Yet, I don’t want this life for my family, beta. All of them, attend school now. The eldest one doing his bachelors”.
“MashAllah”, said Khalid. These stories were rare to hear but all the more inspiring.
“My eldest”, chuckled the rickshaw wala, “he is studying law. He wants to be a barrister. Not a rickshaw wala like his poor father”.
Ahead, the traffic light turned red. The traffic halted save for a couple of joy-riders who whizzed past the intersection. Normally, Khalid dreaded red lights. It meant that he had to wait a couple more minutes before reaching the comfort of his bed and lay under the cool air conditioner. Yet now, he welcomed the red light, hoping to hear more from this rickshaw wala.
“Beta, my eldest is a true character! A charming gentleman! He comes home one day and tells me about the girls who approach him”, he laughed. “I look at him with a straight face and tell him that until you are done with your education, don’t think about girls!”
Khalid laughed light-heartedly. It reminded him of his own household and of the laws and rules laid out by his own parents.
“Beta, he is going to London next year for his masters. I have been saving money for twenty years just for this. I look at the other rickshaw drivers and imagine how their lives are”, the rickshaw wala wondered.
“I could have been like them. Spending whatever I earned on drinks and smokes. Not leaving behind anything for anyone. One wrong habit and my son would never see the inside of a school”.
“Yet, I saved and I saved. For twenty years. Now finally, he will go to London”. His smile stretched from ear to ear. He had already started envisioning how it would look like. Khalid had never seen anyone so proud and so successful in life. He had seen his father’s business friends cruise around in Mercedes and wear flashy clothing. They had never looked ‘successful’. Their flashiness, and extravagance had only served as a guise for their insecurities. They wanted to look successful to others and had done their best to look the part. However, Khalid could see through their guise. The success story that now looked at him from the rear-view mirror was genuine and well-deserved.
As they rode through Model Town, Khalid kept gesturing and pointing towards the streets that would lead to his house. He did not want to interrupt the rickshaw wala, who kept recounting cherished memories of his son. He told Khalid of how he’d miss him once he was gone and what plans he had for his other children.
Finally, the journey drew to a close. Khalid courteously asked the rickshaw wala for any refreshments to which he refused politely. Then he asked him to wait while he went in his house to fetch the fare that was agreed upon.
As Khalid opened his drawer for money, he could not help but imagine the amazing person who had drove him here. Surely, a bargained fare of two-eighty would not suffice for the lessons he had learned and the story that he had enjoyed. He grabbed a crisp thousand rupee bill. It was money that he had been saving for a pointless gadget that he would buy in the future. He always had buyer’s regret whenever he stepped out of a store or made a transaction, however today he felt certain on his investment.
Perhaps what was even more baffling was that the rickshaw wala throughout the journey had not even hinted on asking for money. He had seemed content and satisfied with the agreed fare.
Khalid stepped outside in the scorching sun and headed towards the rickshaw. He handed over the thousand rupee note. To his surprise, the rickshaw wala refused to accept it at first.
“Beta, this is a little more than two eighty”, he chuckled.
“Please have it”, Khalid insisted. The rickshaw wala could surely use the thousand rupees much more wisely than Khalid could with all his thinking and planning. A thousand rupees could buy him some modest shoes but what was that compared to a promise of education?
He kept on insisting for a minute more before the rickshaw wala finally accepted it. He looked at Khalid with a wide smile and thanked him. His thanks seemed to be only a figment of the gratitude he felt towards Khalid. When the rickshaw wala revved the engine back up, the familiar numbing noise rattled Khalid’s ears once again. As he finally drove off, Khalid smiled. Before going back in, he whispered to himself, “Education is important”.