Dream of the Crisp White Shirt

Farid was the chauffer. He had been working in the city for the past twelve years. His family lived in his village. He had two sons and a daughter. He was proud, he had two sons. He had high hopes for them. He would have brought them to the city but there were no schools around in the area where his sons would go. This was one of the “posh” areas of Lahore.

He was happy to have found this job. He got a reasonable salary for a driver; shelter and food. He was content; though he would have liked to have his family with him, or to afford a school around here for his boys, or bring his mother here instead of sending money to her. ‘But you can’t have everything now can you? Koi baat nai. One day my boys will be sahibs and then I won’t have to drive people around anymore. I’ll just sit on my manji at home, smoke my huqa and enjoy my old age’, he had always thought to himself with a little smile.

It was getting warmer; the summer was coming. He was beginning to sweat in the midday sun. He started singing to himself; any distraction from the shirt starting to stick to his back. A call from inside the house suddenly snapped him out of his daze:

‘You’re being called inside,’ the maid came out and said to him.

‘What? Who’s calling me?’

‘The sahib’s daughter wants to talk to you.’ She went inside the house.

‘Why would she want to talk to me?’ he wondered. The only time he ever saw her was when he took her to college, or the market, or her friend’s house. Much less be called into the house to talk to her. ‘Maybe she doesn’t like me around? Can she fire me? Why am I nervous?’

He took off his shoes at the door and went inside. The maid directed him into the dining room where she was sitting with her books spread over the table.

‘Sit,’ she said very politely.

He bent down to sit on the floor.

‘No, no, what are you doing, sit here,’ she pointed to a chair, ‘Sit.’ He pulled out a chair to the space to the left to her and sat.

‘Maybe I should have sat another seat away,’ he thought. She was looking at a paper, had a pen in her hand. ‘What is she wearing?’ he thought looking at her hooded jacket and jeans. His hands were sweating, why was he nervous? He was never nervous with his daughter; but this wasn’t his own daughter. He was perplexed.

She looked at him. She had to admit, she did not really want to do this. ‘Why has he combed his hair like that?’ she thought. Was it her, or did he actually smell? It was somewhat interesting too. She had never talked to such a person before.

‘I just wanted to ask you some questions. I have a paper to write for college and I needed some body po…’ she paused, she might offend him, ‘Er… where are you from?’

‘I’m from a little village just beyond Thokar Niaz Baig.’

‘O yes I know that place.’ She knew Thokar Niaz Baig. That’s where the motorway signs were and a friend who was a designer had a factory somewhere over there. She had once seen a fashion show there. He was surprised she knew that place. ‘How many children do you have?’ she continued

‘Three. Two boys and a girl.’

She was surprised; she expected at least six, rounding off the 5.5 figure she had come to know in one of the courses she took at college.

‘And two boys and a girl who died,’ he thought to himself. She didn’t need to know that. Maybe that was why his wife never smiled too much, or maybe it was because of his mother? Her next question broke his trail of thoughts.

‘How many people live in your house?’

‘My wife, my children, my sister, a brother and my mother. Yes, eight of us.’

‘What does your brother do?’

‘My bother, he well, he…he does nothing.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Yes nothing.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I do.’

‘Is what you do enough for eight people?’ she said in disbelief.

‘Yes,’ he lied, ‘He takes care of my mother and takes the children to school and…’ In reality his bother was just too lazy to do anything. He could never hold on to a job and so he just gave up. ‘Why does she want to know what my brother does?’ he thought indignantly.

‘And…’ she prompted him,

‘Er…what did you ask me?’

‘Your brother…’

‘He works at the market,’ he quickly lied. He didn’t like this inquiry. He wanted to go now.

‘But you said the does nothing.’

‘He keeps changing jobs.’

‘So he is employed.’

‘No…yes, well sort of…yes most of the time.’ He wished she would stop asking about his family. He felt like asking her what her brother did.

‘Are you happy with your children’s schooling?’

‘Yes,’ he replied. He had never thought about that, they went to the same school all the other children in the village went to. It was a different matter that many times they were often sent home as there were no teachers there, but was there anything wrong with their education?

‘So what do you see you children becoming when they grow up?’

‘I would like to see my one son become a doctor.’ That would be good, and then they would take care of him when he got old. ‘And my younger one I would like him to build things.’ A huge grin covered his face. Yes, his son would be an engineer; just like the man who had come to their village with a starched white bush shirt, a pen stuck in his front pocket, ordering people around, taking measurements for the new drainage pipe that was to be built… ‘What ever happened to that drainage pipe?’ he wondered.

‘You think the education they are getting can do that? Can their current schooling make them into doctors and engineers?’

‘Yes, I hope so…’ He was unsure. ‘So there is something wrong with my sons’ education’, he thought to himself, ‘Will I really be able to see one of them in a crisp white shirt and a tie dressed up like sahib like when I drive him to the courts?’ He had better talk to the school head master. ‘Who was the school head master anyway?’

She turned a paper. He snapped out of his reverie, he wanted the interview to end. ‘Can I go now?’

‘No, not yet. I want to ask you a few more things. Don’t you have any fields nearby where you could grow anything?’

He laughed, ‘You said you knew where I lived. There are no fields there to cultivate. My village is barely out of Lahore, it not even a village anymore but a part of the city. We are barely on the outskirts. All we can do is grow a few potatoes and vegetables… and I earn better here.’ These ignorant city kids.

‘Oh,’ she paused. ‘Didn’t it go like cities and the towns and then villages with fields and farmers and then the mountains?’ she thought.

He thought she was rather ignorant.

‘Doesn’t your daughter go to school?’

‘No.’

‘Why?’ she asked with a frown on her face.

‘Why should she go to school? She does not have to find a job later on.’

‘But I went to school,’ she said almost to herself.

‘She is happy at home, she helps her mother.’

‘How do you know she’s happy?’

‘She seems happy to me.’ He had never though whether she was happy or not. He hardly paid attention to her. When was the last time he had a conversation with her? ‘Doesn’t matter, I’m going to get her married one of these days, then I’m sure she’ll be happy,’ he thought to himself.

‘Is you wife happy?”

‘Yes she is, she manages fine with what she gets.’ Now that wasn’t all true, she managed fine but she was always at his throat to get more money. ‘We are starving here’, she had once said. Besides she was tired of his loafing brother. A beating once in a while had subdued her quite a bit. She did take care of his mother, but then his mother and sister were always complaining about her, it seemed she was another person when he was not around. His mother had told him time and time again to send her back to her village. But if it was not for her who would cook for the rest? His sister was just an extra person. He needed to get her married; she but she was too old for that now. He was too old too; he was near his fifties already. His joints had started hurting and his hair was speckled half white. Maybe his sister and his wife could start some work together, like washing clothes or something. But what? He had nothing in his mind. He couldn’t figure out what the problem in his house was. Maybe he needed to be at home more often, but then who would earn? He let out a sigh.

‘Are you happy with your job?’

‘Yes,’ he had to say that, there was no saying what might happen if he said no. Could the sahib have put her up to this? ‘I am, but you know maybe a little more might do…’ He figured he just might get a raise if she said something to her father. ‘But I am happy,’ he finished, he really was feeling miserable. The soft carpet under his feet was getting on his nerves, he was sinking into the silk cushion of the chair, he just wanted to get up and go now. He was confused; he couldn’t see the point of the whole discussion. He felt dirty and unkempt within the white walls. Why did she want to inquire into his life? Was she going to do anything to help him? Was this to help herself? Well it was. She wanted to write a paper about him. What did she care if he was happy or if his children were well fed? ‘Typical’, he thought, ‘But a paper about me? What use is that?’

She didn’t know what to ask him next. She was confused; his answers had not really answered her questions. He said he was happy but she felt he wasn’t. ‘Should I ask him about communism and his views on capitalism and what he thinks of science?’ she thought to herself, ‘Maybe not. Maybe I’m not doing it right’.

‘I guess you can go. Thank you.’

Did she just thank him? He felt awkward and relieved. He got up and left.

She was glad he it was over. It was uncomfortable talking to the staff. The interview had been of no use to her. She did not know what to do with what she has written down about him. She wanted a depiction of the village man. She got it but it was too abstract. Besides he wasn’t a farmer, he lived in the city. It had been a waste of time. What would she write? She had an academic paper to be written in black and white, not shades of grey. She tore up the pages and went up to her room. There on her computer she started typing, she had her book and the internet and the rest she could come up with herself.

Though Farid was relieved to be outside, his heart felt heavy. He was asking himself the same questions she had asked him. Was he happy? Was his wife happy? He hadn’t overburdened her, had he? And his daughter? He couldn’t even remember how old she was. And the future of his boys; he had gone to the same school; he had aspired to be something once. He looked down at his blue shalwar kameez. He had just realized that his life has something very wrong in it and he didn’t know what it was or what to do about it.

In Voices and Visions, OUP 2008.

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/?page=200839\story_9-3-2008_pg12_7

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