It was August 14, 2020. Pakistan’s 73rd birthday. My celebration of Pakistan’s special day was my letter to Pakistan, published in Gulf News as my weekly article. The fabulous response to my simple piece of writing is a reiteration of my belief that people always have a positive response to things that are dil se.
A few weeks ago, my cranky, creaky 2007 Honda Civic was in a very bad accident. Getting it repaired so many times over the years has evoked in me a despondency that I’m stuck with this car for another thirteen years. Varied feelings of I’m-in-a-car-rut swirl on my windscreen as I drive my manual Civic in the overcrowded world of my tiny Lahore.
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My years long reclusiveness has turned me into a very reluctant driver in 2020. I don’t want to go anywhere, and when I do, I go with my driver. This August 14 he was on leave. My mumbling of annoyance was audible. I was glad I had asked the office to arrange transportation for me. But in my mind, the only good way to go anywhere is in my own car, with my own driver.
Having recently joined a news channel, I was part of a 4-9 pm Independence Day special transmission. Everything about my new job being exciting to me I looked forward to a day of being on TV to talk about my beloved homeland.
Make-up and hair done on time, perched on a chair, I sat in front of a bright light and camera for hours. On live transmissions with many breaks and endless ads, there is not much talk time, and I being new to TV had occasional complaints about that. Some audible, some to myself.
A few other thoughts also zigzagged though my tired head: Is my face looking thin? Phew, my hair is not Karen-ish? My loose off-white top has not added pounds on me on TV, or has it?
For hours, I was on the makeshift set. The set of my own show is in the process of construction. Being a long-time bed and couch potato and every other vegetable that looks like a potato, other than getting up for namaz I sat glued to the studio chair. My chronic left temple pain makes sitting in front of a bright light a painful activity, taking me to a point where I feel as if my mind has shifted many inches away from my body.
The drive that changed my perspective
As I was all set to leave at 9pm, I was informed that I would be going in an Uber on my own. Using an Uber is not a big deal for anyone in Pakistan in 2020, but this would have been my second ever ride in a cab in Pakistan. The cab took a long time to reach the office because of crazy traffic on August 14. Driving past buildings lit up in colours of Pakistan, honking all kinds of horns and blowing those noisy long things seem to be a great source of amusement for young people on various happy occasions, be it a cricket match or the day of the formation of Pakistan.
In the lane outside the office, blocking access of cars was a noisy wedding procession. I mean, who gets married in the stifling humidity of August in Lahore, and that too on August 14 when almost every major road is hard to move a leg on, leave alone a full baraat. When I sat in the outwardly decrepit but otherwise a clean, non-clunky car, my mood went a notch lower than mildly annoyed. The driver also announced that the fare could be higher than the fixed one because of heavy traffic on roads and the resultant frequent stops. I, curt, told him that he shouldn’t make assumptions that I wouldn’t give him the extra fare.
For many a minute, the car crawled from Davis Road to the canal intersection. I talk to everyone. Soon, I got into a conversation with the driver, and both of us commented on motorcyclists’ rashness, and a car in which young children were sitting in the boot of the car, their legs dangling, the vehicle behind them a few inches away from harming them.
I wished I was home. I wished I was in my own car. I wished the Mall Road wasn’t so crowded. I wished my head didn’t hurt so much. I wished I was home in the comforting silence of my room, punctuated by my dogs’ yelping and the noise of whatever I was watching on Netflix. My mind was full of thoughts overlapping one another in their race to add their bit to my day of self-pity.
Once the road cleared, it was a smooth drive to Fortress Stadium. The Uber stopped at the first intersection, along the Stadium. The driver leaned forward. I thought he was looking for something where his feet were placed. I said to him that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, and he could get a ticket for that. He answered that he had to keep leaning forward because of the problem in his back. I said that back issues are awful as most of them remain incurable despite various treatments. I suggested to him that he should wear a belt for, at least, temporary relief. He told me that he was on a wheelchair, and every day he was strapped in the car seat for his day of driving people around Lahore. My cab driver was a paraplegic. Shocked, the talkative me did not know what to say.
From Fortress Stadium to my house in Phase 4, DHA, I listened to the story of the cab driver strapped to the driving seat of his car. Twice a day, he is unstrapped. Once in the middle of the day, once at the end of the day. I asked him many questions. I couldn’t see his face. Small mercy. He talked. Throughout those twenty minutes or more, I had tears in my eyes. I felt many things in those twenty minutes or more.
Four siblings, he was the only male. He belonged to a lower middle-class family, there were many dreams of a bright future. It was 2013. He had a day job, in the evening he attended MBA classes, at night he had another job. For years he had not slept for more than four hours in a night. That day in 2013, at about midnight, he decided to walk to a shop near his house to get something to eat. He didn’t want to wake up his mother at that late hour. Just as he got out of the shop, a Suzuki Alto sped on the pavement and rammed into him.
He was stuck under the small car, his neck crushed under one tyre. The place where the neck meets the spine was crushed. His cervical vertebrae. His spinal vertebrae were damaged. How many, I have forgotten. He was 22 years old.
The car driver was a 12-year-old boy. His mother was teaching him how to drive. She was the wife of an MNA. That night, and later, there was no show of remorse from the family. Pressure was applied to change the FIR. The 12-year-old boy was taken out of the picture, and his older brother, an adult, took his place. Police sided with the family with power and money. No material or medical or any other assistance was made to the victim of the child-car-driving-teaching catastrophe.
His life changed in a few moments. All his dreams vanished as his body became paralysed. For many years, almost his entire body was paralysed. He would just lay in his bed unable to move even his arm.
Life changed for everyone in his family. All their energies, all their meagre resources, all their attention was devoted to bringing his body back to life. As he lay in his bed motionless, every action of his family centred around him.
Every night his mother would sit next to him. Cradling his lifeless foot, she wept. Touching his inanimate arm, she cried. Pleading to Allah for her son’s recovery, her eyes were always moist.
One day she died. Her son couldn’t walk. Perhaps she didn’t want to live in the world in which her son couldn’t even stand up.
Slowly, his body got to the point where he could move his arms. Soon, he started to use a wheelchair. Everything was done with someone else’s help. He was still unable to do anything on his own. Once alone, he tried to reach his wheelchair. He fell. For hours he stayed in that position on the floor with the wheelchair on top of him.
The will to fight
As his body failed him, his mind became his biggest strength. From being bedridden for years to moving around on a wheelchair, his journey was countless moments of pain and perseverance, despair and not giving up, darkness and collecting slivers of hope. One day at a time.
A friend helped him to turn a car into a customised vehicle for physically challenged. Now he drives an Uber and makes enough money for his household expenses and his ongoing medical treatment. Two of his sisters are married. After losing half of his body years ago, today he is the sole bread earner of his family.
En route to my house, he said sorry to me twice about the fare thing. Quietly, I apologised for my curtness. Before I stepped out of his car, I asked him for his phone number. I told him I’d write his story. We spoke on the phone once; I asked him to send me a few more details on voice notes. He didn’t. Today, I tried to contact him multiple times, but my calls and texts went unanswered.
His name is Ahmad Tahir. This is an incomplete story of superhuman courage, unquantifiable positivity, indefatigable resilience, of not letting his physical handicap destroy his spirit.
On August 14, meeting that very brave man was the highlight of my day, my week, my month. His story made me rethink many things I had felt earlier that day. I felt small. I felt silly. I felt ungrateful. I felt sad. Despite being someone who doesn’t take anything for granted, that cab ride has made me realise that I do.
I take sitting on a chair from which I can get up as and when I want for granted. I take my regular car for granted. I take my normal driving for granted. I take my physical fullness, of having all my limbs functioning, for granted. I take being able to walk for granted.