I picked the couple up at the international airport. They were German, the girl around twenty-four, the man around forty-five. Still, from the way they talked and held on to each other, I got the impression that they were husband and wife. He had a hand on her waist, in the manner of one who married a young wife and is proud of the fact that it was out of love.
As a taxi-driver in the rapidly expanding city of Islamabad, I have learned to derive characters of potential passengers with a single glance. This is a tool that is essential for survival in the mean streets - after dark, it's always a risk that you might lose your life for your vehicle. Money is scarce, conscience even more. At the same time, a fare is worth too much to lose over fear; hence, the diagnoses become paramount.
The moment I saw these people, I got the impression that they were just plain middle-class folks, out on their honeymoon and not caring where that was as long as they had each other for company. Fortunately, I was the first cab in the stand, and at the prepaid fare counter, the cops allotted me the ride. They would get their regular 'tips' at the end of the month.
"Where to, Sahib?" I asked as they got in, greedily eyeing the generous sum they gave the porter. Obviously, German Marks outweighed the Pakistani Rupee by more than a mile, but the man, Allah bless his soul, didn't seem to be too bothered about the exchange rate. I had initially thought they were middle-class - now I felt my spirits raise as I realized they belonged at least a couple of steps above on the social strata.
It wasn't self-pity or greed that I felt; nevertheless, for a good amount of money, I was sure I could do anything. The degree in BA and MA from Jinnah-Ali college meant nothing if it can't put food on your plate, and the sudden fall to a two-room shanty at the end of Zia-il-thikan Drive from the rural bungalow that I had lived in in my youth had taught me valuable lessons about money that no commerce class can teach.
I always thanked Him for His Grace - I had only two other mouths to feed, my wife and my daughter. Being a taxi-driver did not mean that I could get her married off cheaper. Even the position of a second wife for my Haseena would cost me the unaffordable dowry of a lakh rupees. I had seventeen thousand at the most, including my 1984-model Ambassador. The house was not my own, and at six hundred rupees a month, it was a cheap roof. In Islamabad, even pure water costs money.
Behind me, the couple were talking softly, and although I heard an occasional giggle or two, I did not, nor did I want to, hear anything of what was being said. It was easier on the discretion that way - in a single day, one hears many things one shouldn't have. I choose to ignore words that are not spoken to me.
"Excuse me, Herr Driver, but how far is it to the hotel?"
"Thirty-five minutes, Madam. Could be forty if the traffic increases."
"Good," she said, "Plenty of time."
The next time I glanced into the rearview mirror, I saw the two of them kissing. It was nothing new to me; plenty of my fares had kissed in the privacy of my vehicle before. I would have dismissed this incident too as another statistic had it not been for the fact that the girl called her husband, 'father!'
The man's eyes flicked towards me, and I knew he was immediately aware of the fact that his daughter's addressing him had not lost his significance on me. I averted my eyes hastily, reminding myself that it was none of my business. I have a very open-mind. So long as no one got hurt, anybody had the right to do anything they pleased. Live, and let live.
Still, the implications of what I had heard refused to leave me alone. Incest. Father and daughter. Husband and wife. The same two people.
It wasn't that I hadn't heard about the existence of incest. In fact, a distant relative of mine living in the same colony had bragged about having laid all of his closest female relatives. His mother, sisters, aunts, nieces... hell, someone even said that the man screwed his daughter behind her husband's back. This was actually an exception; my colleagues have recounted countless stories of incest among the elite of the society. That's more common, they say.
One fellow even went to the extreme of revealing every little detail of the sordid stuff that went on inside his cab when he had a man, his wife and her niece as the fares. It was the first time he had seen a threesome - with lesbianism at that - and he had never known a woman could enjoy being insulted by her husband and his mistress until then. The man was a good storyteller, and although he must have exaggerated along some points, the story was too probable to be untrue.
I rode them the rest of the way in educated silence, choosing to resist the temptation to look at the mirror. Back in my college days, wild and wealthy, I had been a complete voyeur, even going so far as to spy on my teachers and classmates. That was how I had met my wife, Saira - she caught me stealing a peek into her bathroom at her hostel. I will never forget the way she stormed into my room the following night, took off all her clothes, slapped me once and then kissed me.
Ten months later, Haseena had been born. The marriage had preceded her by a day.
Then, five years later, the stream of setbacks started. The family house was lost to moneylenders, Saira had a miscarriage, I lost my work when the newspaper I worked for was burnt down by a mob... It was only when I bought the secondhand Amby that the tide against me receded. Haseena and Saira were the only things that had kept me from going out with the ebb.
The doorman shot me a look of disdain as I pulled up to the hugely extravagant entrance of the Regency Plus, the most opulent of five-star hotels in the country.
After all, in the presence of great names like Volvo, Mercedes and BMW's, my breadwinner stood out like a giant mammoth, outdated and extinct.
"Thank you for the ride, Herr -"
"Rahman," I said. I had picked up a smattering of German and French in college.
"Thank you, Herr Rahman," and I was surprised when he shook my hand. He smiled, then gave me two-hundred rupees. "Do you do charter trips?"
I replied in the affirmative. Charter trips were often a dream come true - you claim a flat amount, no matter how much you actually ride around, and in the long run, you get to have quite a sum left over after the diesel and the oil. "How long, Sir?"
"We'll be here for a couple of weeks. How about driving us for the entire period?"
That was quite a pleasant surprise. Two weeks of devoted driving... I could make at least four thousand rupees! I nodded enthusiastically as I held up five fingers. "Five thousand rupees," I offered, expecting him to bargain down to four.
The German nodded. "Reasonable," he said, reaching into his wallet and taking out two five-hundred rupee notes. "Here's the advance."
My father, Allah bless his rested soul, had always impressed upon me the value of responsibility and obligation. I decided not to take the advance - if something happened that made me unable to come the next day, it would leave a very bad impression on the guests. Besides, it would be a greater temptation to go for other runs, and treat this amount as just a bonus.
"I am sorry, Sahib, but I would rather not take any advance. If I am not able to come tomorrow... if something unexpected, or if my car doesn't start... you would be cheated, Sahib."
I could see the man was impressed. "You are right, Herr Rahim -"
"Rahman," I corrected politely.
"Yes, of course. Sorry. Herr Rahman, I must say I am impressed by your sincerity. I think getting you as a chauffeur is probably one of the best decisions I will make in this country. Thank you, and be here at nine in the morning sharp."
"Shall I wait for you, Sahib?"
"Bunder. Call me Bunder. Yes, you need wait here... better yet, as soon as you arrive, get the bellboy to page us. That way, neither of us will have to wait."
"Very well," I bowed slightly. "But whom should I ask for, Sahib - Herr Bunder? Will you be registered under any other name?"
"Heinrich Bunder. Just ask for Mr. and Mrs. Bunder."
"Mr. and Mrs. -" I was actually repeating the name just to be sure I got it right, but Heinrich was obviously still worried about how his relationship with his daughter had popped out. He interrupted me hastily, pulling me aside, out of earshot of the doorman. He fished into his wallet again and pulled out another couple of hundred rupees.
"I hope you can keep a secret, Herr Rahman. I mean, this should be enough, shouldn't it?"
I turned the money away. "You can trust me, Sahib."
"Yes. It's just a gift, this money, for that trust."
"Trust cannot be bought, Sahib. It can only be promised. Please do not insult me by offering anything."
Reluctantly, he put the money back in his pocket. He started to say something, but I held up a hand. "It is blackmail if I take money from you, Sahib. Personal matters of yours are not Rahman's golden goose."
He smiled. "You know, for a taxi-driver, you speak pretty good English."
"Did my degree in Arts, Sahib. But it wouldn't earn me anything." It was a futile subject, one I was not too keen on going over. I looked at the watch. "Nine, tomorrow morning," I promised. Then I drove off.
That was the first night in a long time that we had a happy dinner. The food was the same - gruel and boiled fish - but the realization that things were finally looking up put all of us in good spirits. It was also the first night in a long time that I could dream about my daughter's marriage when I slept.
.... There is more of this story ...