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.
Over the course of the next week, with me driving them all around town, and once, even a trip to a neighboring city, a good rapport developed between the two of us. He was an extremely talented man at putting someone at ease, and before long, I had opened up to him about the way I was leading my life. My family, my wife, my daughter... he was willing to hear about them all, and I was only too eager to boast about my precious ones.
His daughter, whose name I learnt was Katrine, was just as talkative - when she wasn't smooching with her father, of course. I turned a blind eye to whatever went on behind me, the cue for me to do so being her throwing her arms around him, and the tinted glass kept their amorous conversations from being seen by others. Once, on the highway, I accidentally looked back, and saw the man with his face buried in his daughter's naked bosom.
I suppose that should have evoked enough teostosteronal imagination for me to start seeing my daughter in a different way, but Allah graced me, and I managed to keep my head free of incestuous thoughts.
It was on the following Sunday that Herr Bunder put forward a request. He wanted to visit the red-light areas of Islamabad. I have driven many male passengers there, into that seedy locality, and I warned him that it wasn't exactly the kind of place you could go with a female escort. Especially when his female escort was his daughter-wife.
Nonetheless, I did as he directed, and we drove around the place for around half-an-hour. I was ashamed that such a place existed in Pakistan... I am aware that it exists in every nation, every city, but to see it in person is really heart-wrenching. Burqa-clad women standing beside drunk pimps, who, as a preview for the customers, would pull up the long, black dress to show potential customers the woman's legs. It was the breeding ground of AIDS and other STDs, and had plenty of bastard children playing on the streets as part of the total package.
The tourists seemed to be scouting for someone. Occasionally, they would ask me to slow down and whisper hurriedly, pointing at one whore or another, and then signal me to move on. We had almost reached the other end of the area when I was asked to stop.
It was the girl who got out of the car. She spoke to one of the women there, and I could see her gesturing something like a video-camera and money. Apparently, the deal didn't cut through, and she came back, disappointed.
"Wouldn't do it," she reported to her father. "Says she won't have anything to do with cameras and pictures."
We reentered the mainstream traffic, and the two of them were silent for some more time. It was only when we neared the hotel that Bunder spoke again.
"Rahman," I had asked him to drop the Herr part, "Do you know anybody who would do porn stuff? For a price of course."
"Porn? You won't get common whores for that, Sahib, they are too worried about the rest of the family finding out. The only ones who do porn here are those in the white-collar section, ex-actresses and models. But they will cost the heavens, Sahib."
I pulled up in front of the entrance. The doorman, although used to my arrival by now, still shot me that same disdainful look. He opened the door for the guests, shooting me a contemptuous glance that ordered me to leave as soon as the fare had been paid. I smiled back sarcastically at him.
Bunder got out, then turned towards me. "We are looking for middle-class, Rahman. It's got to be natural. Just a man and a woman, locals. That's all. It's just for a movie we want to send back home."
"How much will you offer, Sahib?"
"Fifty thousand," he whispered, casting a wary glance at the doorman who had resumed his bored position beside the door. Noticing my awed look, he added hastily, "Ready Pakistani Rupees."
"Are you certain, Sahib?" I asked, still trying to figure out the number of zeroes in the amount. He nodded sincerely before turning around and following his 'wife' into the hotel.
It was my plump woman Saira who had the brilliant idea. "Did it occur to you that it is a wonderful opportunity?"
"For whom? What?"
"For us, my simple husband. Just imagine - fifty big ones, just for acting a little bit."
"Acting in a porn movie," I reminded.
"Yes, but an opportunity nonetheless. We could do it, Rahman dear, just the two of us. That way, we will be a significant step closer to getting Haseena married off to a good family. Never mind it's a porn film - obviously, they intend on selling it back in Germany. Only in Germany. Besides, I don't think you can get anyone more middle-class than us."
I had to admit it - it was a good idea. If no one would ever come to know of it, we could easily pull it off. After all, it wasn't like we were going to have sex with anybody else, and I was sure the chemistry between us could more than offset the more mature looks of my wife.
A quick call to the Germans later, the three of us - Saira, me and Haseena - piled into the old trustworthy. Bunder was under employment to the studio that made these videos, and he informed me that I would have to send a picture of the two of us to the Head Office back in Munich before the amount would be released.
In the short time that it took us to get dressed, Bunder managed to book up an entire guest house for the following week. I was proud of my two ladies as we waited for Bunders in the parking lot of the hotel. Saira was dressed in a light blue Salwar Kameez that seemed to have been toned to her complexion; but it was Haseena who was everything her name proclaimed.
Haseena. The Beautiful.
She had on a silk saree, a grandmotherly inheritance, and the thin alloyed necklace I had brought for her when she had graduated hung around her neck. She was incredibly fair, with the smiling face and long, black hair accentuating her beauty. On this night, she had the hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head, looking more like a high-level socialite than the simple daughter of a taxi-driver.
For once, I felt sorry about myself - if only I had been reasonably well-off, she might not have had to wait so long to find a mate for herself. She handled herself with grace, and in spite of myself, I felt a slight twinge of envy for the man who would have her by his side for the rest of his life.
Heinrich and Katrine Bunder showed up only a couple of minutes late, and the younger German had a photography camera around her neck. Heinrich greeted me warmly the moment he saw me, and in spite of my earlier admonition, addressed me with the 'Herr' prefix.
"Herr Rahman! It's a pleasure to see you again! And this must be the loving family you talk about all day." He bowed to the ladies, and Haseena giggled like a little girl when he took her hand and kissed it in the manner of a gentleman. "Frau Saira, Haseena - the pleasure's all mine."
"Daddy," broke in the excitable Katrine Bunder. "Stop flirting with the hosts!"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Saira's eyes dart in my direction - I had 'failed' to mention the acute nuances of the relationship Katrine and her father had. Even Haseena glanced sharply in my direction.
Thankfully, neither my wife nor my daughter brought the subject up. They shook hands with our 'employers,' graciously complimenting the redheaded woman on how dashing she looked. It was a warm evening, an early night, and Heinrich suggested that they e-mail a picture of us - I realized that the camera on Katrine was a Polaroid - and then, while the folks in Munich went over it, the three of us would be treated to a very generous dinner.
It was around nine in the night when we returned to the bungalow on the outskirts of the city, having enjoyed the good meal, and the three ladies were really bonding now. We had a wonderful time, and although it was a slight embarrassment when Heinrich paid the bill and not me, it was quickly forgotten when he quipped that the treat would be on me next time.
A couple of shots from the Polaroid had been scanned and - I must say the science in it all surpasses me - were e-mailed to Munich, to whoever it was who decided what people would like to see. The second snap had the three of us, a suggestion that Katrine had put forward. We all waited in the living room while Heinrich returned from the nearby cybercafe.
His face was grim. "Bad news, my friend."
My heart sank. Gone was the money. Gone were my dreams. Gone was the smattering of hope from our lives.
Katrine snatched the printout of the e-mail from her father and read it frantically, apparently looking for some loophole to get us in. I was touched by the gesture, frankly. At the same time, though, I was ready to call it quits in the face of Allah. Why did he have to give us the joy, only to snatch it away from our fingertips?
Katrine reread the e-mail again, and a slow smile appeared at the corner of her lips. "Not all bad news, though," she announced, and immediately, she had the undivided attention of eight eyes. She held up the e-mail in front of us in the manner of a politician exposing an opponent's misappropriations.
"Gunter says Rahman is okay... it's just that Saira is... to quote him, too homely. That reduced the sex appeal."
"I could have told you that," her father sulked, "But I didn't want to hurt her feelings."
My wife brushed off the apology. "None needed, Herr Bunder." She smiled wanly. "Besides, I think being homely would have been an excellent compliment for a housewife... But let me not interrupt you, Frau Katrine. Please do go on."
"I am not a Frau to you, Saira," Katrine reminded. "But never mind - here's where the silver lining comes in. It says here that if either you, Rahman, or you, Haseena, act in the movie, you get to have half of the amount. That's twenty five thou."
I didn't know if I could sleep with anyone else for a million dollars, let alone thirty thousand, but the fact that Haseena's future was intrinsic to the equation put me at a disadvantage. It was my wife who broke the ice, though.
"So if either my husband or my daughter sleeps with someone else in front of the camera, we get twenty-five thousand rupees. Right?"
Heinrich nodded. "That's true. It's the same amount we would have paid if the two of you were in it together. Please accept our deepest regrets, Frau Saira. Unfortunately, we cannot go beyond Gunter's wishes. He has the real money; we don't."
Silence. Deafening silence. Until Saira spoke again.
"What if Rahman and Haseena were to... you know, together? Do we still get the full amount?"
I don't know who was more shocked - me or my daughter. Even by way of innuendo had I never entertained such a thought, and here was my wife, laying it all out like some simple picnic lunch. "What!" I was the first to find my voice.
Saira ignored my outburst, opting to wait until either of the Germans answered her. Katrine smiled warmly; Heinrich allowed himself to relax. "Yes, we would."
"No way," I broke in abruptly. No way was I going to fuck my daughter, and that too in front of a camera. Not for a million bucks. Not for all the money in the world.
Saira turned to me. "Listen, we need the money, don't we? We have built so many dreams on it already. Can you give it all up?"
"But Haseena is our daughter -"
"I am more aware of that fact than you are - after all, I am her mother. Bore her for ten months. I am also aware that we need too much money for you to let your morals guide you."
I was stunned into silence for a couple of minutes. Noticing my troubled expression, Heinrich offered to leave the room to give us some privacy, but Saira asked that they stay back. It was a tricky situation, and as much as I found myself wanting to say no, I couldn't bring myself to voice the words.
Instead, I rallied back for another attack. "She is a virgin, and she should be for her wedding night."
Saira laughed at my archaic excuse. "It's Pakistan of the 21st century, my dear husband. Few remain virgins until marriage nowadays. Besides," she cut me off when I started to argue another point, "Hymens are not the absolute evidence of virginity. It can be torn by any number of reasons, and I don't suppose any son-in-law will want to learn more of such things about his wife."
Saira turned to Haseena. "What do you think, Haseena? Would you act alongside your father?"
My daughter lowered her head. She did not say anything. She did not say no.
Saira turned to me with a victorious smile. "See! Haseena has no problem with it!"
I wanted to point out that our daughter hadn't said yes particularly, but Saira anticipated my defense. She shushed me with a finger on my lips, and I obliged. Heinrich and Katrine were watching the unfolding situation with interest, arms around each other's waist, ready to step in if I took to violent means. But I could see that they were interested. After all, wouldn't we be emulating them?
"Listen, dear husband of mine," Saira continued in a gentler, more sensual approach. "Losing my virginity to you is something I still rank as one of my best decisions. Not just because I love you, but because I loved the way you made love to me that day. You are a very good partner, and I would say that Haseena following in my footsteps to lose her virginity to you is probably the bonus in the whole affair.
"I know she is just nineteen; and do you remember how horny we were at that age? I mean, just look at her peers. Most of them are already on to their second or third boyfriends. Premarital sex is not as uncommon as you would like to think, Rahman, it's the reality that you have to accept."
I stared at her blankly.