I also like it. I have a book in my head that goes by this title. It is divided in chapters named after four seasons. That kind of sets the mood for the reader – regular romantic stories in Spring, stories of sweaty public transport romance in Summer, those of unbridled passion and blood warming closeness in Winter, and of lust and depravity in Fall. Each chapter has four stories; two on the sins of flesh and two on imagined ones. It is racy in subject selection and juicy in details. In the showbiz language such material is termed ‘bold’. My book is too bold, too hot for any publisher to touch. Which is why I haven’t found the motivation to write the first line of the first chapter.
Still, I have this consolation, even a hint of pride, that I am the creator of this idea. I have even developed an advertising line based on this idea: ‘A taxi driver in Islamabad – the capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and a city within a beard’s length from militant badlands – writes a book of 16 sizzling stories of innocence and violation.’ I know the book is a bestseller the day it is published. I have it all inside me. It’s only a matter of putting it down on paper, and I am going to start writing one of these days, I keep telling myself.
And then I saw that blasted, corroded bucket of a black and yellow taxi, and my heart sank. The owner of this taxi had already written ‘my book’ and was now advertising it on all his four doors. ‘Search on Google. For Hire, a book written by a taxi driver. Price Rs. 150’. I was mortified. I saw that I was not the only taxi driver with literary ambitions. I also acknowledged with pain that ‘For Hire’ was a lot more suggestive title and one more likely to be a bestseller.
I went through a bout of severe depression during which I stayed locked up in my one-room flat, listening to Ataullah Esakhelvi and crying at the death of a baby that was never born. ‘But I conceived it … first,’ I yelled in anger at the ceiling fan, at which the landlord came down from the floor above and asked me if the child was legitimate, and if it was mine. If so, why was I questioning the validity of my conception? ‘I’ll not have my tenant conceive someone else’s child,’ he waved a fat index finger at me before leaving. That jolted me out of my misery and I picked up the car keys with a purpose.
The bookshop in Karachi Company gave me a big discount on the cover price and charged me Rs 135. If you ask me, these booksellers are the second biggest profiteers in the civil society, after drug sellers. These are the only businesses, legal or illegal that work on a 100 per cent profit margin, as their bottom line. Maybe I should start selling books instead of writing them, or getting all depressed for not writing them.
I scanned through the first couple of pages, then the middle and end, and then settled back to read it leisurely. It was a relief to find that this wasn’t my book. There is nothing even remotely exciting in it – the kind of stories you’d expect to hear from a taxi driver. You have all sat in the back seat, and some in the front with me sometime somewhere and you’ve all looked around, smelled the air, and wondered what kind of people use taxis? You imagine rough, mean people, greasy punters, drunkards, maulvis, girls dressed up for a mehndi, prostitutes, suicide bombers … what all may have happened on these well-worn seats? Shady deals, harassment, smooching, telling lies on the phone, aggression, robbery, flirt, sex … and then you look at the man who has witnessed all this, perhaps been a part of a story or two. But he usually drives on quietly and unassumingly, like the purveyor of dark secrets that he is.
That is the mystique of a taxi driver that I want to exploit as an author, and here is a book that doesn’t even try. It’s full of the sermon that everyone at the barber shop wants to give others and is always interrupted. All the stories start with Shah jee, the taxi driver-author, picking up a notable passenger and after two paragraphs turns into a passionate monologue on, say the importance of education in an illiterate society. I put the book down thoroughly satisfied. For Hire is a very boring book, and unlike the impression the title gives, it is in Urdu. Sermons in Urdu are the most painful of all.
The exclusivity of my book is not threatened, not even geographically – Shah jee introduces himself as a resident of Islamabad but actually belongs to the old parts of Rawalpindi. I can still be the first taxi driver from Islamabad (and Rawalpindi and possibly all of Potohar) to publish a bestseller in English.
And here comes the confession part: What keeps me from writing is not the fear of censure, it’s the difficulty to reconcile my real life with the one I intend to portray in my stories – full of happenings, always on the go, rolling stone, or as Ali Zafar says in an ad film, ‘excitement guaranteed’. The fact is my life is as boring as the writing of Shah jee.
On any given day the subjects I discuss or the events and anecdotes that I share with friends are mostly to do with CNG availability, women, car breakdowns, the persistent rotting of Pakistan, bored housewives, or the latest or impending public unrest. These are all the ingredients of my mental and physical activity in a day, and decide how much cash I will take home at the end of the shift.
I have also had it with protests and rallies. I am sure the protesters have a very good reason to agitate but when they block roads, people can’t get to where they need to and taxi drivers’ children go hungry. I don’t have a family, so I am going hungry myself. I haven’t gone out for work in four days. For two days CNG wasn’t available and since yesterday all the major roads are blocked by people protesting against the killing of Hazaras in Quetta. I got some passengers today who wanted to go to Gujrat in an emergency and were willing to pay for petrol but I could only take them as far as Mandra where a mob on GT Road stopped us and demanded that we join their dharna.
These are the issues a taxi driver faces on a daily basis, and surely no one is interested in them. So I intend to make up stories of witches prowling in the garb of beautiful women to lure and make a meal of lonely taxi drivers. I’ll write about prostitutes and their procurers, politicians and their procurers, and about children who run away from home to become actors. That’s what you expect of a book written by a taxi driver and that’s what I intend to give you.
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