Who doesn’t have parents waxing lyrical about the halcyon days when Karachi was as placid as a cow chewing on cud enlivened by a sea breeze? Driving on the clean smooth roads amidst vehicles mostly minding their manners, one could apparently drive from Clifton to KDA, PECHS, North Nazimabad, Mehmoodabad, Nursery et al to visit friends and relatives, go shopping, eat out and chill like the teenagers in James Dean films.

Cut to today’s dystopian Karachi, where sizzling heat, surly drivers, battered roads, garbage and traffic jams make such idyllic journey almost impossible. Add to this volatile mix the motorcyclists who consider themselves no less than the artists from Cirque du Soleil, weaving and dipping in front of cars, and you can gauge why mindfulness and relaxation classes are the new kids on the block.

Since driving is no longer a skill left for the faint-hearted or those polite to a fault, in steps the driver — a species which merits a case study on its own. Those used to typical Karachiite drivers are in for a shock, because those people have either retired or are extinct. The city is a magnet for the rest of the country, so one comes across a motley collection.

Hired drivers — can’t live with them; can’t live without them

In the parade of drivers our family has endured, a few stand out. Nadeem with a surreal taste in clothes: commando pants with skinny T-shirts and a pot belly were the norm as was his penchant for turquoise shirts; Athar with his blow-dried hair and Ray Bans; and Hashim, a hirsute, sweaty fellow, who sported a crop a la Jawwad Ahmad. He boasted of having a side business which entailed supplying domestic workers to homes. Then there was the unshaven, hair standing on end, sleepy Younis, whose life was made miserable by his high-maintenance fiancée who called at all hours of the day. When questioned why he kept flipping the car’s rearview mirror up, he claimed that he was not the sort who stared at women seated in the back of the car. He should have been a racing car driver, but what he got instead was a Toyota Corolla, which he not only dented innumerable times but also crashed.

Granted that drivers are lifesavers, but the downside is that they know it. Thus, once they net you, it’s time to milk you to the utmost.

A perennially dissatisfied lot, they find a hundred reasons to drive you batty (excuse the pun). No matter how they beam with good cheer on the first meeting, it does not take long for them to become disgruntled. A frank discussion being beyond them, they would rather inform you in a non-verbal manner. The scowls and constipated expression is the first sign of trouble. Then comes the inexplicable deterioration in eyesight which results in driving at full speed over the speed bumps and potholes we are blessed with.

Barely have you survived being thrown from one end of the car to another like a sack of potatoes that ailments of all kinds attack the fellow. Stomach ache, fever and headaches punctuated by loud moans. After you end up giving him all of your imported medicines, you are informed that the ailment requires injections from mysterious doctors who you can never meet. You dole out money so the poor fellow recovers, only to spot him strolling hand in hand with a friend in Neelam Colony munching on samosas.

The moment he steps back into the environs of your house, the dreaded symptoms lay him low. Apart from the new medicines, drips and injections, you have to prepare a special diet for the sensitive stomach which is somehow never quite up to the mark. Vegetables, rice and yoghurt is all he survives on, but he does manage to put away milk from Rahat Milk Shop with ease. At this point, you realise that the driver is asking for an increase in his salary. Honesty would have led to quicker results but, then, as a school friend remarked when I asked for a water tanker wallah who’s efficient and speaks the truth that I was asking for the impossible.

Granted that drivers are lifesavers, but the downside is that they know it. Thus, once they net you, it’s time to milk you to the utmost.

Bowing to the inevitable, you give him a hefty salary increase which restores the driver to good health in no time. That is, until he needs to go immediately to his village because either his kids/wife/parents are sick, or he needs to drive the tractor to till his land, since otherwise the harvest will be ruined and, no, there is no one else in that district who can drive that tractor apart from him.

Once the driver leaves for his impromptu holiday, it is anyone’s guess whether he will return, leaving you in a semi-permanent state of anxiety and accelerated heartbeat.

Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

 The columnist is a freelance writer.
She tweets @MaheenUsmani
Email: maheenusmani25@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 22nd, 2018