I noticed her one morning. Walking down a street that widened into a bigger road connecting two disparate parts of Lahore in an uncomfortable conjunction, her steady gait seemed to have an unhurried purpose. Neatly dressed in simple clothes and sensible shoes, her short hair primly outlining her solemn face, every morning she walked on the street that connected to my son’s school. One morning I stopped the car. I asked her where she was going. She answered, “The bus stop at the Mall Road.” I asked her if I could drop her there. She seemed pleased.
It happened many times. We talked every time. I don’t remember her name anymore. She was a teacher, she was a mother, she had been working her entire adult life, in her middle age. Her work life had no retirement plan. Every time she stepped out of my car her shoes left mud stains on the mat. That was her life. Every morning she went to work walking to the main road through muddied streets in her neat simple clothes, her sturdy sensible shoes.
In March 2012, I began working as the op-ed editor of a national daily. My one condition was that I would leave the office at 2:15 pm to pick up my son from his school. Every morning after dropping him off at school I would arrive at an empty office. Newspaper offices do not have much activity in mornings. The editorial floor was deserted at that time, I found the silence unnerving initially but got used to like we get used to most things that bother us.
Wishing I was home and asleep, I would walk through the main door, greeting the one person present in the office before me. The receptionist, a wonderful man in his mid-50s, early 60s, I couldn’t tell. People who work their entire lives without taking a break, without taking a vacation, without pausing to care about themselves as they ensure the wellbeing of their loved ones, barely notice the lines on their faces, the untimely grey in their hair. One day, I asked him a couple of questions. He told me that every morning he rode his bicycle from his home on the Bund Road at 4:30 am to arrive at the newspaper’s office in Gulberg. It was the other end of Lahore, many, many miles away.
Not all routes have public transport, not all low-salaried people can afford shared rides. They walk, they ride bicycles, they save up enough money to buy a motorcycle. Their daily journey, in cold and in heat, in rain and in sunshine, in fog and in smog, to their dead-end jobs, last for as long as their bodies do.
One of the stories in my 2018 book Do We Not Bleed? is that of a woman who has been teaching out-of-school children for years. I met Shazia Mushtaq, a lovely woman in her 30s, in 2016, and her struggle became a tale of inspiration to me. Divorced, the single mother of a then six-year-old son whose father never gave a rupee or a thought to his little boy, Shazia, having lost her parents, lived with her two younger brothers, one of whom was a drug addict. Nothing became an obstacle in her journey of making her dream a reality. Aware that her financial status placed a limitation on her grand ambition of ensuring that no child was out of school, her efforts to educate as many children as possible were consistent and laudable.
Working as a teacher in an afternoon school, Shazia, with the help of some Christian missionaries, supervised and worked in four schools for out-of-school children, one in her own house, a modest structure of two tiny rooms and a tiny courtyard. The children in her schools were of all ages. All of them wanted to study, Shazia convinced them and their parents of the necessity of education. It was free education with the help of kind donors and noble missionaries, and with no material or other contribution from the local administration or the provincial government of that time.
In front of Shazia’s home, the makeshift school for out-of-school children of her locality, where education was free and encouragement abundant, there was a piece of land. I noticed it, it was hard not to. It “was covered with…garbage. In the absence of dumpsters in the low-income locality, the empty lot, like many others all over the place, was used as a garbage-disposal ground for the entire neighbourhood. Shazia sighed. The sigh of acceptance of what one does not have the power to change.”
Many stories, limited space. Nothing changes for the invisible Pakistani, the aam aadmi, the one of the many, many millions who should matter but do not. The very painful, the very dark, the very unfortunate truth of Pakistan. The middle-aged schoolteacher, the elderly receptionist, the hardworking educationist, three of the millions of others like them. They are around us. They work for us. They work for people we know. They work for reasons that are unrelatable to most of us. They work in places we visit. They walk on roads we drive on. They live behind the posh localities we call home. They stand behind us. They wait in queues we rarely need. They ride in noisy buses, on rickety bicycles whose creaks drown in the sound of noisy buses. They live without being seen. They toil without any recognition. They die quietly.
On this quiet, cold-ish Sunday morning of November 2020, I remember the opening paragraphs of my 2016 story of Shazia. Four years later, it is still not merely about one woman and her life. It is the oft-told tale of every man, woman, child, teenager, older person, old person that fits that one category that strips them of uniqueness, of noticeability, of being important, of even mattering. The invisible Pakistani, the aam aadmi, the one of the many, many millions who should matter but do not matter.
I wrote in 2016:
“Potholed, barely wide enough for a tiny vehicle to pass, huge, round manholes accentuating the unevenness of the hard-earth lane, grumbling not-much-changes, I got out of my car at the entrance to the street. Nothing seems to have changed for those who belong to that group of the faceless milieu in all developing countries, whose lives become indistinguishable from the congested houses they inhabit, the broken–like most of their dreams–streets they trudge on, the pile of garbage they pass by every day. The mechanical lives of those who give their all to the work they do, building communities, cities, countries, without ever expecting any real change in their dreary existence.
The aam aadmi.
The ordinary citizens whose only significance to those in power is their identity as voters every five years. Individually, they do not count. Collectively, along with all others like them, they are the machines that vote for the ones seeking power, those starched-clothed, big-promise makers, whom they only see during the election campaign days, or when there is a party rally, the attendance in which is bought with more promises, maybe a samosa or two, a Rs 15 pack of juice.”