Thursday, July 22, 2010

Samad et son pousse pousse

I know the title sounds funny. Although 'pousse pousse', in my opinion, seems a more befitting name for the atomizer attached to some luxueus perfume bottle, in French it actually refers to our very own "Rickshaw". 'Pappu' with his pousse pousse anyone?

Today I was watching an entertaining documentary on a cable channel from back home, which was documenting and appreciating the amount of rickshaw and truck "art" and "poetry" that we take for granted in our society. I had a really good time reminiscing about blue rickshaws thuk-thukking about the busy (and hot) streets, trying to squeeze into the smallest area available between two cars, and their dire warning for those driving behind them "pass kar, warna bardasht kar" (something like: either pass me, or bear me thuk-thukking in front of you) in flowery script atop a thickly kohl-lined painted eye (kajrare naina). Aah! rickshaw art, and their amusing attempts at poetry.... "Kabhi aao na Sargodha, surma lagakey!" (not translating this :P)

I was reminded of a very strange occurrence one hot day, several years ago, when my mother and I had decided to go to a market nearby to get something. My mother was having a hard time maneuvering the car among the collective chaos of rickshaws, motorbikes and random people, when a blue rickshaw suddenly decided to block our path head-on. Mother's instinctive reaction: angry outburst at the driver for not noticing this big red car in front of you, daring to drive on the wrong side of the road...are you really blind, rickshaw-walah?

The rickshaw driver caught my eye and gave me a big boyish smile. I recognized him instantly. His rickshaw wasn't overly decorated (as is the norm), it was quite used, with peeling blue paint, and the rickshaw-walah was thinner and shabbier than I'd last seen him. But he had the same smile, and the same nod, and the same wave. He grinned at my mom and me, and then backed his rickshaw into the chaos, and was lost amongst it.

Mother parked the car, and tried to find him among the other blue rickshaws, but we never did.
We didn't speak about it until we were driving home. "It was Samad, can you believe it? Driving a rickshaw?"

Many years ago, for some strange reason, or most probably because my Mother wanted me to, I was enrolled in French classes for the summer at the Alliance Francaise institute. Our teacher was amazing, I made great friends, one of them actually got married soon after and we even got invited, we played table-tennis endlessly during those days, and Samad was our favourite guy. He'd come from a small town near Peshawar (northern province of Khyber) after completing his 10th grade, to look for work in Karachi. A French lady, working as the director of the Alliance Francaise in those days, had taken him in as a doorman and assistant, and Samad had consequently picked up fluent French and broken English, without paying a cent. He was our "Guard" (in Karachi, almost all official buildings and even residences have such guards who own Kalashnikovs for safety purposes), our table-tennis tutor, our unofficial French tutor, and our very own tea-maker. Also, a gardener and the sole caretaker of the 30+ Australian parrots that were living as decorative pets at the institute. Samad and his parrots entertained the staff, the students, the parents, and the members. Occassionally, university students dropped by for a game or two and to chat with Samad, the French pathan of Karachi.

He was quite young, as my mother often said, and quite intelligent. Which was why he picked up the language so fast, he could even read the French magazines, while we would stare at pages trying to make sense of the headings and captions. In his spare time, Samad liked to sing songs in Pushto and French (which he had learned from the French tv in the AF lounge), cook in his kitchenette, and then clean his Kalashnikov. He was quite an interesting person, and a great friend to all. He was highly in-demand around exam-time, as he could help out with almost all the pronunciations and the grammar, not to mention his free tea was a great refreshment.

One day, some religious fundamentalists went on a rampage around the area, burning and attacking buildings they considered were "Western" influences - or maybe they were trying to pretentiously protest yet another something, and the AF building was obviously targeted. I had finished my course a long time ago, and hardly visited the area, and it was quite some time before I realized that the AF institute had closed down (and that it's windows were smashed, and the main-gate was charred). I wondered where everyone might have gone. I thought about Samad sometimes, when I really missed French songs and early morning table-tennis.

Never did I imagine that Samad, our French pathan of Karachi, would be forced to become just another rickshaw-walah roaming the hot and humid streets. When people would wave his rickshaw down for hire, and tell him where to go, they wouldn't even have an inkling about what this ordinary rickshaw-walah sweating in the heat with flushed cheeks actually was: a brilliant table-tennis player, an excellent gardener, and a most amazing French-speaker. Has he forgotten his earlier life? Or maybe, he entertains his passengers still, by singing in french, and writing amusing statements in french on his rickshaw? I honestly hope, that Samad chose the latter outcome.

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