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LEARNING TO DRIVE

Eos presents this year's ZHR Writing Prize-winning story
Published 21 Nov, 2021 07:31am

The Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women was set up in 2019 to promote and provide support for women who wish to pursue writing as a career. This year’s prize, judged by a panel including Kamila Shamsie, Maryam Wasif Khan, Hanif Kureishi, Faiza S. Khan and Shan Vahidy, was won by a fictional story Najma, which the jury felt displayed “first-rate writing skills.” As in the past, the winning entry is being published exclusively by Eos


Illustration by Kehkashan Khalid created for the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women
Illustration by Kehkashan Khalid created for the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women

It is typical of Pakistanis to hang themselves from the ceiling fan. The preferred method, so to speak. Nevertheless, when I got the phone call, I couldn’t imagine my old friend Najma twirling like a sack of potatoes in the middle of the room.

I met her soon after returning to Karachi from Lahore, having dutifully put in my four years to earn a degree in something or the other. This general half-heartedness characterised much of my young life. I was content to be led around by the nose like a camel on Clifton Beach. Growing up, my mother had rigorous rules on what was appropriate female attire, soliciting from me not even the smallest act of teen rebellion. It was she who decided who were the good kind of girls to socialise with, while my father chose where I went to college and what course of study would be both appropriate and not too difficult. They are not to be criticised for this — I neither showed initiative nor resistance.

Najma arrived on the scene in a red motorcar, looking for all the world like Toad of Toad Hall. Her large froggy eyes pulsed with life and her belly rivalled those of most provincial ministers. She had about twenty years on me, but insisted I call her Najma anyway, which felt both awkward and gratifying. She also claimed, falsely and often, that she taught at the driving school not because she needed the money but because it gave her something to do. I was her 3pm.

The first time she took me into traffic, she had me believe I was the one flitting among the cars, motorcycles, donkey carts and madcap technicolour buses. Only when we landed back at my gate, its iron spikes gently prodding the sky, did she reveal the dual control pedals she had been manoeuvring from the passenger seat all along. She defended the deception: “You have to get rid of your fear. You’ll never get by with that fear.”

We hurtled away from our destinies, in circles, afternoon upon afternoon, two females on the run. Of course, we were caught in the end: I got married and had children and Najma ended up in jail.

***

We’d been parked outside Najma’s darzi (we often ran her errands on these afternoons) and I’d gone inside to deposit her material, with written instructions, because she was too fat to get out of the car. We were sandwiched between two jeeps so tightly that even I had to pour myself through a sliver of doorway to get back inside. Now I couldn’t reverse into the indifferent stream of traffic. I could feel the colour rising in my cheeks.

“I’m stuck, Najma, there’s no way out. No one’s stopping for me.”

The true test of mastery, I was quickly learning, was not the broad avenues, the khayabans, but the snaky marketplaces. The roads here were thin and potholed. Drivers scooted past in the wrong direction. Cars double parked and their metallic backsides jutted into the spindly lanes. Loafers floated through the humidity, gums loaded with tobacco, neither seeing nor giving a damn. Dogs napped. Men spat.

“No one will ever stop for you.”

A file photo shows Karachiites enjoying at the Clifton Beach | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
A file photo shows Karachiites enjoying at the Clifton Beach | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

She was reclined in her seat, one small naked foot on the dashboard. Across her heels dead skin blossomed like algae. She bent her leg, keeping the dirty foot on my wheel, and wheezed in the effort to sit up.

In seconds she had bulldozed a path for herself. A chorus of angry horns erupted behind. Inspired, I blasted mine to add to the chaos. Najma laughed and cursed at the drivers she’d abruptly cut off. She was in her element. A fish dropped back into water.

“These roads are deathtraps,” she declared. “Obeying the rules will get you killed. A single woman on the road is asking to get trampled.” She slid back into her laid back position, sighing happily, as if she’d found the secret to avoid this trampling. “Forget this crap. Let’s go to the beach. You’ll never learn anyway with all this fear in your heart.”

It was a harebrained idea. The sun baked us and the sand burned our feet. We’d picked up orange popsicles on the way, and already they were melting into our hands. My mother didn’t keep them in the house, saying they were made with chemicals and cancer. I washed the stickiness off in the sea, but Najma retrieved from her bag one of the many water bottles she requested me to always bring to our lessons, and used that instead.

I learned only later that running water reached her house infrequently. She opened her orange-stained mouth and began singing a generic tune I suppose I should have known, something like a sad love song, closing her eyes against the sun. Hunched on the sand, she assumed the aspect of her animal namesake — a spottiness, a flaccidity to the skin. Her lips, sheathed in a plum lipstick, had the unwanted effect of making her appear darker than she was. A scattering of camels sat neatly on the beach looking from the distance like misshapen tents. From their garlanded necks the wind carried the scent of roses.

Depositing me home, she asked me to bring her a tall glass of water from inside. Her demands were humble though numerous. Water, old clothes, a few hundred rupees here or there, English-language books to help her children learn. Listening to the ice clinking in her glass, I said, “This was a good day, Najma.”

***

The day I killed the boy was fresh and new. Gulls cawed over the shoreline. The salt breeze huffed inland. Najma had chosen the empty hour of daybreak to teach me the joys of speeding. Opening the heart, as she put it.

Navigating Karachi’s traffic is no joke | Shakil Adil/White Star
Navigating Karachi’s traffic is no joke | Shakil Adil/White Star

“Unless you let loose, get some confidence, we might as well give up. There’s nobody on the road. It belongs to you. I came here at 6am for you, to give you the road.”

I nudged the accelerator. She slid back lazily into her seat as she always did and draped her arm over her head like something out of Hollywood. When it was clear I hadn’t the guts to pass the 40 mark, she coaxed me again. Then somehow, we were soaring at 80. The wind tore through my hair, blew Najma’s dupatta off hers, and I felt like I was leaving the world behind, on another plane, where there were no problems or rules.

The boy came out of nowhere, as it always goes, tailing a tape ball. Black electrical tape. This much clings to memory. He went flying up, a dark little sparrow up in the air and then suddenly curled up on the road. I must have gone to him, because there I was, standing over that small strange body, leaking, just leaking, I don’t know from where. Najma wasn’t next to me anymore. I was trying to pick him up. Don’t touch! she called from the car. And later, I’m begging you. And finally, as I screamed for her to call someone, get in now or I’m leaving you here. I don’t remember getting in, but later the cars, buses, rickshaws were creeping into the drowsy morning like nothing had happened, so I must have done.

I saw Najma a few more times after I mowed him down. She tried hard to recreate our former intimacy, singing stupid songs, tittering at her own vulgarity and bad language. She also began aggressively throwing money at beggars. I did in my own way too, joining a charity that provided free meals across the city, surprising my parents with this show of initiative.


The true test of mastery, I was quickly learning, was not the broad avenues, the khayabans, but the snaky marketplaces. The roads here were thin and potholed. Drivers scooted past in the wrong direction. Cars double parked and their metallic backsides jutted into the spindly lanes. Loafers floated through the humidity, gums loaded with tobacco, neither seeing nor giving a damn. Dogs napped. Men spat.


Anything was better than laying beneath the covers, as I had been in the days following, feigning illness and springing out of my skin at routine sounds. A feral cat’s whine, the fridge door slamming, my mother’s hair dryer, the air conditioner rumbling to life. Each one felt like a tap on the shoulder, and a voice, the game is up. Nobody came knocking.

His name did appear in the paper though.

“Joseph,” I told her, the last time we spoke. “He wasn’t a boy either, not exactly. Seventeen.”

Najma was licking orange stickiness from her fingers, the popsicle a beachside ritual now. Perhaps she thought it would help. I pulled out the city pages from my bag and thrust it under her nose. “Look.”

She recoiled, as if it were a weapon. “Get that away.” There was only one camel today, his owner nowhere in sight. A fish truck had passed by moments earlier, so instead of roses the air smelled of guts intermingled with salt.

“We should go to the newspaper, or the police station, find the family. Give them a cheque at least.”

Najma turned to me, her huge eyes comically round. She grabbed my wrist and pulled. “Are you crazy? Keep your mouth shut. I’m trying to protect you.”

I reclaimed my hand and lay back on the hot sand, closing my eyes beneath my sunglasses, trying not to gag. After a few moments’ silence, Najma started singing her familiar sad tune.

“Oh no you don’t,” I said, jolting to my feet. “Don’t you sing.”

“Sit down,” she barked. We stared at each other through the rank air. I lowered myself down again.

“I know you lied to me. I know you did it, Najma. You pressed the accelerator, like you always do.” I shouldn’t have pressed her — she’d warned me, with a hard finality, to keep my mouth shut before dropping me home that day — but I couldn’t stop myself. My heart was open. And why should I go down for Najma anyway? Najma, who’d been slamming on the accelerator, deceiving me as she’d done on our first day together? Najma, who would pin it on me anyway — the careless, inexperienced driving student, the spineless girl who’d take the hit for anyone, she did it officer.

“Listen, you f****** brat —” her face contorted in hatred and fear — “do you understand the difference between you and me? You pay off the family with your cheque. I get hanged. Do you get it now?”

***

As the years passed, I believed Najma was sailing about the city, enduring her life, choosing to forget me. A few weeks before my marriage to an appropriate man, inspired by a sudden fear of the future, I felt a great urge to call her. The manager at the driving school told me that she had been let go; she’d been pestering the customers, getting too familiar. After that — he had no problem spilling her secrets — she’d ensnarled herself with moneylenders, the worst kind of rot, somehow involving herself in some shabby scheme to manufacture fake documents among a smattering of other petty offences. They added up. One misdeed uncovered another. She was tossed in the slammer. She never left.

***

This is what I know about Najma, what I have left of her: She didn’t come from a tidy family like mine.

They emerged one, two, three, four, five, six, from their resigned mother. After one and two died, others trooped out, more determined for life than the earlier ones. Najma was number four.

India’s carving robbed her father, Baba, of his chance to join the family business. In the new city he had to settle for construction. He didn’t come from the north like the others. His was a nut-brown face in a sea of fair faces distorted in the act of physical labour. His unlikely Pushtun friends later secured him sporadic, then regular, work in the transport sector that they would soon come to dominate. Long nights softened into days for Najma’s Baba, plying his truck up and down the new country. Would she make it or end up like his first children, dead on arrival? He ingested what he could to stay awake on the road and it sent his mind to philosophical places.

Baba lovingly painted his truck as if it were a woman’s body and whispered sweetly to the hunk of metal. He slid his fingertips down her nose, checking for spots where the paint was thin. A peacock displayed his plumage across the bumper; the sides of the cargo bed were divided into brightly coloured squares, each containing a different image — a bird, a rose, a fish, a pair of kajal-rimmed eyes.

Najma, nine or ten, sat on an upturned bucket and watched her father inspect his lover. Eventually he allowed her to pick up a brush or a sponge or steel wool and together they spruced her up, Baba belting songs about love or God. He was proud of Najma. It was almost like having half an extra son. “Don’t grow up,” he’d plead. “Don’t get bigger than this.” He taught her how to drive in his brother-in-law’s second-hand car and by twelve she was roaring around the neighbourhood, belting her father’s tunes or blaring the radio. She defied his wishes and kept growing.

When she met the man before the man she would marry, his devotion to the party representing her people wrenched her into the chaos along with him. Najma was not political. The collective meant nothing. An opportunist, she was, like her own Baba, out for herself. But the student’s eyes shone so ferociously when he spoke of their rights, their great Indian culture left behind, their homelessness within the state, their right to the city, that she joined the party for the most personal and pointless reason a person could, a crush. It felt good looking at him pounding his fists on tables or shouting so intensely spit flew from his mouth. What a thing, to believe in something! And to look so good while doing it.

Najma drove vans, ambulances, even small trucks for the party. She learned the city and its sprawl. It became intimate to her as her own body, the cracked skin of her feet. The party came to run the city, won municipal elections, buried itself in public institutions. It demanded total obedience and Najma hated giving it. But it also felt good to be part of something powerful and the perks were undeniable — water, electricity, medical care, whatever her family needed. Her Ammi smiled to herself, unworried, when her daughter left the house at night, like a man. Baba hated it but said nothing because it was for the party. Her superiors praised her for her fortitude but wouldn’t give her a TT pistol.

Eventually the student left her. Without his good looks she tired of the tumult and turf wars, the yes-sir-no-sir script. On a cold, late night, a motorbike swerved in front of her ambulance. Najma swore and hit the brakes. Two men hopped off. The bigger of the two knocked the beak of his gun against her window.

“Out.”

He pinned her to the van like a butterfly. The other nosed his gun into her belly, the soft flesh of her abdomen flopping over it.

“What are you doing out at night?”

His breath was like something dead.

“Sir,” — how she must have hated saying it — “I -I have a patient…”

In the heat of that night, they rolled up their sleeves, revealing punctured veins. After they’d done what they had to, what men do, and some warnings to cover her head, they grew bored, softened, and left her retching by the ambulance. Some months later the army entered the city to put the overblown party in its place, scattering its members like rats. She didn’t give a damn. She was done.

***

Confession: The car was not a red motorcar. It was a grey broken down Alto with neither a functioning air conditioner nor indicator. White stuffing erupted from the seats in angry tufts. Someone had painted a peacock on the bumper and white lettering across the side: CLIFTON DRIVING SCHOOL FOR LADIES AND GENTS. But in my reimagining, Najma is the mad angry toad and the red colour fits.

I see us racing this clown car along the wide avenues and underpasses, inching past the numerous construction sites tricking residents into believing this place is going somewhere, into the narrow bazaars and out on to leafy residential lanes, to the old colonial centre, bright and bruised, past the high court, dotted with roadside notaries, stopping always so Najma can run her errands and eat roadside cafe filth wrapped in greasy newspapers. It was the freest I’d ever been.

The question now is whether or not to attend the funeral. Not a culture to keep the bodies around, Najma will be buried beneath the earth in no time. I have to decide fast.


The writer is a journalist and editor whose work has appeared in the Herald, Dawn, and the New York-based literary quarterly The Hudson Review

This winning story was originally titled ‘Najma’.

Copyright © Alia Ahmed 2021. All rights reserved

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 21st, 2021