In school, the two of us began to spread the word among our peers. With Afzal next to me, I built up some semblance of confidence, and spoke to our classmates about a space of our own, a little space, to do whatever we wanted. My dear Laal – please try and describe the explosions of light in their eyes! There must be words for their excitement, their joy. Why, to kiss under moonlight? To drink and dance on a car seat? To wear denim shorts and tank tops? In this city? Oh joyful noise!
Afzal could not drive, and did not want to. He would focus on spreading the word, arranging pickups, and I would drive them around, hiding in barren places, while they lived their lives in the back seat.
Whenever there were couples involved, I would pick up the boy first, always the boy, for it was the easiest part of the entire operation – the mothers of boys do not care. Most of them would simply peek from behind a curtain, or a half-open gate, and on determining that I was indeed a boy, would shoo their own charges out the door with a kiss and a prayer, and return inside to watch the new wave of evening cooking shows hosted by those expat bastards forcibly thrusting unwarranted oregano into one of the greatest cuisines known to the world.
Anyway – the boys were always easy to pick up. Picking up the girl was more complicated. This is where questions of class and society came into sharp focus. It was, on average, easier with girls who lived in the mansions of semi-suburban Defence. All I needed to do was park outside and they’d appear, heads aloft.
It was different with the not-so-rich, with girls who were made to cover their heads whenever they went out, the girls from the city’s soil. In their case, I would park in an empty plot a house or two from their apartments and wait, hoping their mothers would buy the fact that their daughters’ three imaginary rich female friends and their driver could not find parking within earshot of the place. Mostly, though, we would have to pick these girls up from their rich friend’s house, where they would spend the day on the pretence of lunch but really preparing themselves for the boys of their American dreams.
It was also the year most of us discovered the tipsy underbelly of the city, the boulders of hashish in the pockets of the ice cream man, the clinking of bootleg alcohol on the motorcycles of bearded men, the ways to access it, who to call and where they delivered.
I stayed away from the stuff, of course. It was a part of freedom but not one I was particularly fond of. It did not seem as natural as the act of love, and besides, I had not yet completely erased the godliness in my blood. I mean to say I abstained.
Afzal was, curiously, already familiar with the dark side of the city. His father worked for the local electric company, and Afzal told me about the gifts of alcohol and cigarettes people would give him in exchange for fewer power cuts in their areas.
Afzal was usually home alone when these gifts came. He built a rapport with the dealers who delivered, sometimes tasting the wares and replacing the spent liquid with drinking water. So, naturally, he handled all requests for alcohol and hashish from our budding customers, called up strange men who sometimes delivered on motorcycles and sometimes in rickshaws. For those who did not deliver, I would help, but I would not partake.
For weeks and weeks I picked up lovers and revellers and I drove around this city – they paid for fuel, of course, I had no money – sometimes picking up people and sometimes alcohol from dark nooks, drove through the city’s darkest and most well-lit, through the cramped and the luxurious, through the lush green of the monsoon trees, through parking lots under malls and empty plots in need of construction and stretches of land by the airport, dead ends known only to those who are lost, under bridges with creaking girders, and gullies with leaking manholes, over speed breakers the height of coffee tables and into clouds of dust that broke, clouds up high so dry and rows of houses unkempt, past buildings shattered by some long-forgotten bomb and rebuilt, a glass crown atop a bank, past rickshaws and the carbon mist, carts of rotten tomatoes and dusty potatoes, stopping, stopping, stopping all the time to watch and listen, for the law or bystanders or rabid dogs, then finding a dark spot, getting out of the racer, sitting on the hood and thinking about the world till those in the back seat had cried all their pent-up havocs.
Girls and boys in the grip of their first loves, friends looking to get drunk on a Friday night, groups of girls taking off their tops as one when we entered a safe area to reveal breathtaking bikinis – where did they find them, my friend? Where were these shops? – then sitting around uncomfortably, wondering what to do with their arms, trying to make conversation but having it go nowhere.
But the discomfort – whatever activity led to it – lasted only for a few minutes, because that is exactly how long obligation can stand against the human instinct for happiness. They would soon shake their heads, throw up their arms and either whoop, or cheer, or drain their paper cups, or fall together in flammable passion, and I would turn away from the car, a big smile on my face.
I would go back home, in the dead of the night, park the car outside the house. And then I would scrub. I would take out the Scotch Brite sponges from the trunk, the cleaning fluid, the air fresheners, and I would scrub and rub and spray, because freedom is harsh on the nose, and it feels sticky.
I would clean all the mats, the seats, the nooks and crevices, and then I would leave the windows down, go inside and call up Afzal, tell him all about the happiness we had caused that night. The next afternoon, Baba would pat my back, call me a big boy for washing the car every time I used it, say he was proud of me for how responsible I had become.
I also found I could talk to my customers, perhaps because we had this grand idea of the city in common. I did not drink or smoke up with them, but I did not judge either. We hung out, as they say, we spoke of pasts and potentials, and we had a ball of a time. Sometimes, if there was a group of girls in the back seat, I would try on my literary words, my Hollywood words.
“How’s it going, sunshine?”
They would sometimes blush and sometimes look at me with utter incredulity, which made me wonder if the words of other places were not meant for us. Did the same hold for love? I did not know, but back then I hadn’t felt it in any form, so I didn’t think about it too much.
I simply enjoyed myself, and Afzal and I made some money in the process. I showed these young people a city they had never seen, an open city, a happy city, a city with a concept of a future. I ensured that the car remained a safe place for the duration of our journey, for them to do what they desired. Why, my friend, I even fought off the law.
Excerpted with permission from Little America, Zain Saeed, Penguin Viking.
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