INSIDE MY HEAD
“No one is smiling anymore,” I said, adjusting my collar against the wind.
An act in futility it seemed though, for the chilly winds still swept through the thickness of my shirt, making me shiver and utter curses. I rolled up the windows of the car, and then tucked my seatbelt. I wasn’t used to a weather as cruel as this, neither did the incessant driving from home to home did anything to acclimatize me to it. It had already been three years, three lonely years since I had left home and arrived at this place to earn some money. My home, those days was in total chaos.
“What do you mean?” the man now asked.
“People seem too wrapped up. They run from place to place, ruthlessly, and no one knows where they want to go. They don’t want to be talked to. Everything seems to be falling apart.”
The man said nothing. He was a heavy-set man, quite handsome, with curly hair and a face, which appeared shaven recently. He looked no more than twenty-five,and he was looking right into my eyes. After a moment though, he looked out of the window. The heavy rain had given away to a steady drizzle. People now started to come out of the sheds in numbers, filling the streets once more. The traffic officer standing at his post, once more started waving his hands. The man, at the back, sighed. I, however, said nothing.
It was one of those days that made me nostalgic, even made me feel a tinge of sadness at how things had come to pass. I hated the job. It depressed me to drive people to places they would rather not go, like the person now that I was driving to the hospital to. I felt terrible how sad people seemed when they sat at the back of my car, staring out of the window. Take the lady I took the other day to the end of the city for an example. She was perfect. She was with a baby, and she was going to meet her husband at the railway station, who had been away for just fifteen days. But she was crying in the car. It wasn’t such a big thing, but it made me sad, to witness this kind of crying. For one thing, I have seen people cry so much in the secrecy of the cab, letting go off themselves at the anonymity that they find themselves in that I could not help but feel sad. And for another, this evening, four years ago, I had lost my son in an accident, and I remember driving to the hospital much as I was driving now. It was a drizzly Saturday, I recall.
He was a good person, my son. He was sixteen when it happened. Once, a few weeks before he passed away, I went inside his room and found all the work he had been doing. He had joined some organization or something, helping in raising money for building a club in the village for sports. He didn’t pretend, that’s what so special in him. Most people do that, work for something and expect appreciation in return. He worked hard, went to people, and even met some ministers, but he never said anything. Not that he was not human, he liked when people patted his back, but I didn’t see anything that got to his head. That’s what most I liked in him. It was sad though how he died. A man had come running in the evening to our house, screaming that a drunk driver had run a car over him. When we got to the hospital, he had already passed away. We never found out the driver.
The house was a wreck the weeks following his death. His young sister, Neila, two years younger to him, had gone mad. We took her to the hospital for a week. She refused to eat, refused to be helped, and we, in the sorrow of death of a son, drowned in the grief along with her. It seemed like it would never end, that abyss.
“Here,” the man at the back said in his deep voice.
I nodded. I steered the car away from the road. It was almost seven in the night, and the hospital was silent now. There was no emergency that day, I guess.
“Keep the change,” he said.
He nervously got out from the car.
“Don’t worry, sir. Your wife will be fine. Your child will be fine. Allah is watching over you,” I lied. It made me sick lying, but I would lie again if I had to, because for a moment it seemed that even he believed me. And then, after shaking my hand, he walked away. It depressed me even more. I hoped his little boy came out alright.
Then I drove away from the hospital till the end of the road, where beside the petrol station, a few taxi drivers were playing cards, waiting for someone to hire their taxi. Ah, the whole situation seemed too pathetic. But it stung me more that they could return home once they were done, return to something familiar, whereas I had only a lonely sack to return to. And it made me even sadder that I had not called home for the last twenty days, but I gave up the idea as soon as it had come to me.
I decided to park the taxi and go over to Ali chacha. He was an aged man, who lived by the side of the parking hub. He lived with his wife in that house. He was the only one who helped me when I first came to the city. What a ruckus everything seemed. He helped me get a taxi finally to drive. It didn’t pay much , but it was better than sleeping in the curb at least.
I knocked a few times. No one answered. Theywere often like that. A few times, I had come and gone back without even meeting them. They had been asleep, they would tell me later. But this time, a red-eyed Ali opened the door.
“I thought I heard something, Amir. Come on in.”
They must be have deep in sleep, for I heard nothing as I went inside the room.
“Sit down, sit down. Rohini will be here in a minute too.”
I nodded as I took a seat. Ali chacha walked off inside. From the kitchen, I heard sounds of water being splashed against something. Ah, I regretted waking them up from their slumber. For a moment, I considered bidding goodbye, but I knew they would not hear any of my requests. So, I sat down. I guess, more or less, they were used to it by now, me barging in on them.
“It is such a rainy day. I wish more days were like this,” chacha said as he came and took a seat.
“Yes, a good day for the fares too. I just took a man to the hospital. His wife was having a baby.”
He nodded. He did not say anything more. He could be very quiet sometimes. There were times when I had come to their house and sat with chachi and he just sat at one corner, saying nothing. And other times, you couldn’t just make him stop talking. He could get pretty excited too.
I noticed that rain had started again, splattering hard against the tin roofs. It elicited a whole different response in me now. Unlike when I was in the cab, I relaxed now, enjoying the music the raindrops played. And for a moment, it took me back to my home. I wondered what Aasma might be doing. When I was home, she was always running in the house, from the kitchen to the kids, she would spend some time with them, and be back again. That was the only image I had of her. The kids, they were her world. That is why, it hit her hard when Dastaan died. She would not do anything after that. She sat around the house, sat with people from the village who came to visit, talked with them. For some time, when the guests were in the house, it seemed normal too, but when they were gone and we were alone at night, we felt something awful in our hearts. She always insisted for the lights to remain after he died, even when she was asleep. She said she was too afraid of the dark.
That same year, the crops had failed too. And we did not have much to fall back upon. I worked as a labourer for some days. I worked in the fields, cleaned people’s houses even at half a day’s wages. It irked me more that I could not stay with her, but we needed to eat, so I worked. To tell you the truth, a tiny part of me was relieved too, the house felt so hollow, so sad, that being away for some part of the day helped me keep my sanity.
“Where have you been these days?” Chachi asked.
“Ah, I have been running around. It is already first of the month, and I haven’t sent any money home. I have been working a lot lately,” I said.
“It seems futile though, everything I am doing. Neila is sick at home. Aasma is not what she used to be. And I just gave a ride to a person to a hospital, who believes his wife is too sick. No one is smiling anymore.”
Chachi was silent, but Ali Chacha put down the newspaper he was reading and looked at me. However, he said nothing. Chachi went inside the kitchen to bring some more sugar. I felt ashamed. I did not like the idea of coming to their home and crying like I was doing. But I had nowhere else to go, so I sipped in their tea, and looked up. He was still staring in my direction, I noticed. He could do that often too. He was one of those people really, who could right through your eyes. He didn’t care if it made you feel uncomfortable, but he would stare right at you, until you said something, or averted your eyes from the gaze. I decided to do the latter.
When Chachi came, the conversation resumed. I didn’t mention home anymore. We ate, and talked about the weather. I talked about the fares, how the policemen asked money from us sometimes, how difficult it was to bargain the fares. We talked about nothing then.
It was about nine when I thought I should let them sleep. But Ali chacha started, “Go home Amir. You will regret it later if you don’t.”
I did not say anything. Chachi was silent as usual. It saddened me, the way chacha said these things. My home was broken. It was too damn far away for me to go. Yet it depressed me a lot, for the things that came to my head. It was all so dark, the fleeting image of my wife with our daughter.
“Go home. Find some peace.”
I said nothing again. What could I have said? I felt so much that he said all those things, that he gotten out of the image he had set for himself. Finally, I nodded. I said nothing more. I walked out of their home. I heard Chachi mumble something to Ali, but I didn’t exactly get a hold of it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t care anymore. A gust of wind invited me as I set foot out of the house. At the side of the curb, the drivers were still engrossed in their game of cards. A torrent of rain drops spluttered inside my spectacles as I walked toward my car. At halfway, I turned and returned once more to the shed. What was it, I wondered, that reminded me so much of my home today? Was it the rain, or was it the sinister resemblance of the whole scene to the death of my son some years ago. I could not be sure. But still, it caught in my throat, this feeling, and it spread to my heart like a cold reptile seeking a home. I could not cry. I stood that way for some time. Then for the first time in three weeks, I picked up the phone.
“Hello,” I heard a soft voice in the other end.