This story is a combo of a friend’s recollections and fiction. Thank you for giving me ‘the savior’, Homi!
I sat in my seat quietly, brooding about the time I had already lost because of the rampant traffic. The cars in Karachi outnumbered the city’s populace. It was harder reaching a place in time these days, than it would have been in the Stone Age. Gazing out my window I clucked over the honking cars, the drivers that uttered blasphemous comments with asperity and the screaming traffic warden who was trying to clear the jammed road. Tempers were certainly high today. The whole country had stayed awake the night before, after all. Some believed it was due to the political unrest, some thought Marshall Law had been declared while others feared it was a drone attack, slaughtering hundreds of people whose loss would later be compensated for, by an apology or some financial aid and the matter would swiftly be brushed off like bread crumbs, after morning tea. It wasn’t terrorism, no. They called it “restoring the order” or “war against terrorism” or some crappy name of the sort! All it later turned out to be, were some tripped grid stations, but no big deal; people can live without electricity for hours in this country.
I grumbled about everything and despised the fact that I couldn’t help myself out of the situation. Life was a mess, one that I couldn’t wipe clean or dump in a garbage can so I had to make do with it. It was a whirlpool, down whose depths we were constantly being drained by deceit, failures, innuendoes, inhumane attitudes and financial crisis. Even with a small family, we were constantly told by our parents to keep a rein on ourselves while spending money. My studies were taking a toll on me. After years of being focused towards nothing but my books and months of preparation, I had managed to get admission in a medical school, on merit. But the happiness had subsided on Day 1 only. Medical school meant nothing but mounds of books, no social life, going bald, bearing crappy attitudes of professors, class mates, patients and seemingly everyone in the school’s compound, not to forget the failures and retakes. I desperately wanted out; to sublime in my surroundings and then condense back as a whole new person!
The bus jolted, bringing me back to my miserable world. I was sweating profusely because of the summer heat. The dirt and smoke together were making me light-headed and I felt bile rising in my stomach now and then. I searched in my bag for a sweet but all for naught. To make matters worse, the bus came to an abrupt stop and the engine was kaput. I swore loudly. Bad luck had stretched to its limit for me. Nothing could be worse or more wretched than my life. I slumped further down in my seat and closed my eyes.
I was a nervous wreck; tired and close to tears at the same time. And that was the moment she chose to speak to me for the first time. I turned towards her when she addressed me and gave her a quick glance from head to toe. Dressed in a papery thin material, she sat in the seat beside mine. She was wearing a black georgette scarf and every imperfectly woven thread of her clothes, spoke for it self. Her feet were strapped in sandals which had seen better days. The leather of her bag was peeling off from places and the broken zipper hung in the centre to prevent the bag’s contents from falling out. She made me look like a princess in her lavish apparel, robbed off her royal carriage and forced to travel with the natives. I felt another surge of bile but this time because of shame or God knows what. In a small voice she asked me, “Are you a student of MBBS?” I replied in the affirmative.
“If a person fails the Entry Test thrice, can they apply for the fourth time?”
I pondered for a second and told her that I couldn’t think of any reason why they couldn’t. It was then that she started unspooling herself from her cocoon.
“Actually, I am becoming a Physiotherapist. But you know how it is for the physiotherapists, especially women, in Pakistan. I want to give MBBS another go.”
I was so overwhelmed by her strength and hope that I had to remind myself to close my mouth which hung open in awe.
“But why don’t you go on with what you are already doing?”I couldn’t help but make an effort to preserve her courage and hope which would suffer a blow if she lost another time.
“My parents work day and night to collect small sums of money from here and there. What they are paying for me to become a physiotherapist is enough to make me a doctor instead. I could earn more that way,” she answered.
“Think of the time you will be wasting by doing a detour. And then, MBBS is just not enough, you’ll have to go a long way before you can earn a reasonable amount.”I made another feeble attempt.
“I have seen my parents fret over utility bills, siphoning money for house rent in their wallets down to the last penny and hiding the symptoms of their illness so that they don’t have more expenses to bear. I have heard their concerned whispers in the dead silence of the night. I have seen them darn their clothes repeatedly, denying that they need new ones. My father was diagnosed with leukemia last week. We can’t even afford a chemo for him. I don’t want him to die just like that. I want him to see better days. If only my luck wasn’t as bad…” her voice trailed off and tears welled up in her eyes.
I reached for her hands and squeezed them to comfort her. “You know they say, that you never know what worse luck, your bad luck has saved you from. God definitely has better plans for us.” And that was all I could manage.
Being a pessimist myself, I considered it hypocrisy, counseling her not to lose hope when I, myself kvetched about every Godforsaken thing in life. I felt my chic clothes burning my hide raw and the strap of my Rs.2K bag wrapped around my arm felt as heavy as a python. The fine leather of my shoes was on fire and I wanted to escape the suffocating atmosphere, leaving my own skin behind if I had to. For some reason my hand was still clasping hers, as if trying to assure her that it wasn’t me who had taken her place, not me who was ‘wearing’ the money which could have paid her house rent or her bills.
I think it was more of an attempt to save my life. I was drowning, trying to clutch hold of her to stop myself from sinking down the abyss of shame. When I reached home I could no more hold the dam of tears. I dropped down on my bed and cried. Guilt racked my body and my limbs splayed lifelessly on the bed.
I promised myself that day that the world was going to see a new me and I kept my promise. I saw her again a couple of times but she kept her distance. She avoided my gaze and the seat next to mine. I think she was embarrassed at having broken down in front of a complete stranger. I didn’t make an effort either, allowing her the right to preserve her dignity. Now when I come to think of it, I never asked the name of my savior. If only she knew how she had turned my life around!