DAYTRIP: UMAIR NAEEM
Umair Naeem is a marketer by profession and the author of Drowning Shadows, a novel. He has taught creative writing and free-lanced for various publications including Brand Channel and CIO Pakistan. He is currently working on his second novel and lives in Karachi, Pakistan. Apart from that, he is an avid cricket and football fan.
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"Sirjee," the driver of the Hertz rent-a-car, my company has set up for me, looks into the rearview mirror and meets my eyes. "Can I give you a brotherly piece of advice?" he says in Urdu that is heavily accented with Punjabi.
I look at him and all but roll my eyes. I can't appear rude, that wouldn't be very nice now would it. But at the same time I don't want to hear his brotherly advice, let alone have a conversation with him.
I want my solitude… and he's not part of it.
I hate these daytrips. I've thought that for the umpteenth time since I landed in Multan an hour ago. Unfortunately, the daytrips don't quite feel the same way about me. Otherwise why would they come back so frequently in my life? And why would they come back bearing irritating gifts such as this driver?
I shake my head and look into the rear view mirror from the back seat of the White Corolla. He's still looking at me, waiting for an answer. His name is Rana Malik, the Hertz driver, and I've never met him before today. Why should I have, in fact? After all, every time I come here there is a new random driver in a random Hertz car, and even though I know I'm pathetic at remembering faces and names (especially those of people I don't want to have a life changing conversation with) I do believe this man I've never seen. That in its own self, the fact that I was not aware of Rana Malik's existence before today, appears to be something of an affront to all that's held holy, if his introduction of himself was anything to go by.
"Sirjee, the whole of this part of Punjab knows Rana Malik, and knows Rana Malik very well," he had said in that distinct accented Urdu I wanted to copy and make fun of. "Whenever anyone needs anything, Rana Malik obliges and helps." He had waved at a couple of people passing by at the airport as if to emphasize his point. It appeared that he was so famous that he liked to refer to himself in the third person.
What a day. Apparently I should be honored.
But damn, I hate these daytrips.
That doesn't matter right now, because Rana Malik still awaits my response. I am quite certain I want to deny him that response in the misguided hope that utter silence will result in him NOT sharing his brotherly advice with me. You see, I know that any utterance from me will result in the continuation of this conversation.
Somewhere deep down inside I even know what his advice is going to be: marriage. I don't know why I know this but in my heart I'm quite certain, even though I've never been psychic to begin with. Well, except for that one time when I knew somehow that the girl I was trying to chat up would eventually slap me.
But no, I am quite certain that I have not been endowed with extra sensory perceptive powers.
That' s quite a mouthful!
Despite this quite semi-certain inherent knowledge that I am in possession of, and I am of course referring to his upcoming advice rather than the fact that I'm not psychic, I am also quite hopeful that I'm wrong and that he will talk about something else.
Perhaps Rana Malik intends to advise me to leave this job so I can be rid of these goddamned daytrips. But that would mean that he doesn't know that the job market is saturated for a solitude loving lazy marketer.
Damn, he's still looking at me. Peering into my eyes…
Then there's always the hope that he may advise me to tell my boss how much I hate these daytrips. Hang on though, on second thought I think not. I'm sure even he'd know how that would turn out.
I sigh inwardly and decide to bite the bullet. I still have to spend the day being chauffeured around by him. Can't have him getting me lost.
"Hmm," I mouth, as imperceptivity as I humanly can, hoping that he'd ignore me and decide that I'm not worth his advice.
His eyes brighten. My response has clearly been registered and much appreciated.
"Sirjee," he begins by licking his lips, looking someone who's about to start a very tasty meal. "You look as if you're single."
Oh dear God no…
"I think you should get married," he nods his head vigorously as he says, as if the nodding will create tangibility to his abstract stratagem.
I guess I may need to reconsider the possibility that I am psychic.
And as a corollary, I'm not even sure if there can be such a thing as a tangible abstract stratagem. Isn't it sort of like flawed perfection? A phrase which is perfectly flawed in its own existence?
My digression cannot save me from the salvation offered to me by Rana Malik, so I nod my head non-committedly in his direction, again praying to all that's holy that this be the last of this conversations. After all, I'm in my twenties and I've known about a fling or two. I may even have considered a long term commitment with one of the flings; all for five minutes before I decided to bring light to my clearly deluded mind through a good and proper glass of red Tomato juice laced with Vodka.
But no matter what my past, and no matter what my future intention, I sure as hell don't need relationship advice… no wait… marriage advice from a fucking driver I've just met an hour ago.
I get my share of marriage advice from my friends and family back home. I can't get through a single conversation with anyone without someone mentioning marriage.
I sigh and realize I'd give an arm and a leg for that Red Tomato Juice with Vodka. It may sound weird, but the tasty concoction is a result of my creativity and I bloody well love it. At the same moment I also realize once again how much I hate these daytrips to assorted towns in Pakistan where I must come either for a market check (to make sure my company's brands are available and displayed), or for an activity check (to make sure those who are supposed to be doing their job are… well… doing their job). Today is a daytrip with the objective of the later: I am here to train a bunch of executives on how to conduct an activation activity my brand is paying for.
You can judge me if you want; yes, this is part of my job, but goddamn it, I hate these daytrips.
To be fair, Multan is actually a much nicer trip than a bunch of other towns I end up visiting. After all, it's a lovely city famous for the multitude of dead spiritual saints buried here and is populated mostly with nice, friendly people. I guess the only thing making me hate this particular daytrip is the insane summer heat (48 degrees to anyone who wants to know) and my very own Oprah Winfrey celebrity driver.
"How far are we from the training office," I ask quickly, stopping him from continuing his train of thought. I know a trick or two, too! After all, I have been doing this for a while.
"Sirjee, just half an hour more," he smiles.
He's a young man, our Oprah Rana. Probably in his early twenties, and clearly married since he's spewing out such gems of relationship related knowhow.
Well, I have half an hour more to survive…
"Sirjee, marriage is a wonderful thing," Oprah Malik smiles at me through the mirror. He's got a day and a half's beard on his face, and probably a four-day-old attempt at a moustache. "You see, once upon a time Rana Malik was like you, minding his own business and enjoying his life… but that was before it happened."
God Almighty, I know I've been a bad person in your service, but come on! This is worse than hell!
Isn't it? Surely?
Unless hell is made of a bunch of self-important sods smiling and talking to you about redundant things that you don't want to talk about. Actually let me rephrase that: a bunch of self-important jerks giving you unsolicited redundant useless advice.
Another corollary to the above thought now, does this mean I'm in hell?!
Um… God, I'm too young to be in hell. I haven't even been married yet.
*cue punch line drum*
That makes me laugh, and I chuckle loudly.
Rana Malik thinks I chuckled at what he said.
"Sirjee, you think Rana Malik is joking, haan?" He looks at me with a conspirator's smile. "No no sirjee, Rana Malik knows exactly naa! He was just like you. Rana Malik even had a girlfriend!!" he winks at me.
I know now officially that this is indeed hell.
Hell, ladies and gentlemen, for those uninitiated, is in Multan… in a Toyota Corolla from Hertz, where the driver, a delusional self-important bozo, gives relationship advice, while talking about himself in moronic third person.
Thank you and good night. You've been a lovely audience.
"But then Rana Malik's life changed when he got married," he says and it's not thank you and good night. Not even close. "She made him rethink about everything. She changed Rana Malik; gave purpose to his life." He's somber and I want to die.
I am not interested… don't you get it? Can't you imagine the possibility of me not wanting to know what you have to say in some dark weird corner of your fluff-covered mind?
"She is so beautiful… so beautiful in fact that she hardly ever goes out because people may get jealous," he nods again, quite energetically. "But Rana Malik makes sure she has everything she needs."
Perhaps I should just tell him to stop?
No… I control myself. I must try to be more social. I may learn something about the consumers I market to.
"She changed all of Rana Malik's bad habits. Rana Malik let go of his girlfriend, he even stopped looking at other women," he says his forehead creasing. He averts his eyes as a giant hoarding passes us by in which a very attractive young woman with a sleepy seductive pose sports the latest lawn ensemble from a designer brand.
I have no such qualms, and I give her my full attention. I make a mental note to find out who she is so I can perhaps have her be part of my next ad campaign. There could be the possibility of fringe benefits also.
I smile as I think of her but my holy preacher, Rana Malik has seen through my indecent thoughts and has not approved.
"Sirjee these girls are too fast," he says turning his head to look at me while he drives. I want to scream at him to look ahead… I don't want to die just yet… but I nod instead and that is enough for him to turn his head back in the right direction. Our vehicle somehow stays on the road nearly missing a bus spilling over with people.
Everyone remains idiotically calm.
"These girls have no izzat, no haya," he says and he is referring to respect and shame; two massive concepts that clearly in his mind, the young attractive girl on the lawn billboard did not possess.
She did possess other things though!
I smile again, thinking of the girl, and Rana Malik mistakes my smile for agreement.
"Jee Sirjee," he nods and I notice he has brown eyes. His complexion is quite clear and not very dark. "These girls would do anything haan? They have no qualms. Rana Malik's own girlfriend was like that!" He says.
I want to bang my head against the window and shatter it into a thousand shards.
"But sirjee, the best part is you can have many pleasures with your wife without worrying about sin, haan jee!" He says giving me an excited grin.
I look away from him and out of the window I just fantasized about destroying. Mid-afternoon traffic goes by oblivious to my plight. I consider writing a secret message asking for help.
I don't want to know personal pleasure filled details about his marriage life.
"But let me tell you how Rana Malik's life changed," he now says turning the car left onto a side road. "You do want to know how Rana Malik got married haan?"
Perhaps I can jump out of the moving car? But then, just like that, there is salvation.
"Isn't that the office right there," I say pointing into the distance.
"Jee sirjee, you're right," he said and I can tell he is sad that we have reached our destination and his story will be cut short. "There's the office. But I thought you wanted to know how it happened?" he said.
"Perhaps later," I said willing to car to move quicker to the office.
"I'm running late," I say to Rana Malik as I get back in the car.
It's nearly 8 pm and my flight is at 8.30. Damn the training and the incompetence.
"Sirjee," my celebrity driver says. "Don't you worry sirjee! Rana Malik will get you to your flight."
I nod my head. It's been a long day and I'm exhausted now. I dearly want to cling on to his promise.
But damn, have I told you how much I hate these daytrips?
"Sirjee how was your meeting?" Rana Malik asks as he waves at a couple of executives who have come out of the office. They wave back gleefully. All of them seemed quite pleased to see him.
Perhaps he is something of a celebrity here.
"It was ok, took longer than I had hoped for," I reply distractedly as I send a quick text to my boss.
"Don't you worry sirjee," Rana Malik smiles a bright large smile. "You won't be late. We'll reach the airport on time."
To support his words, he accelerates the car and we careen rather wildly around a turn, but then the car is stable and headed towards the airport.
"Sirjee, if you were married you wouldn't be so tense all the time," he now says and I know I'm back in hell.
Training a bunch of incompetent executives might have been purgatory, but this is hell.
I shake my head. I really don't want to listen to him. I'm tired and I'm running late and I want to be on my plane back, preferably sleeping.
Oh and I hate daytrips.
"Don't you worry sirjee," he says and his beard is now thicker with a further four hours of growth. "I'll tell you about how I met my wife so you will not think about your tensions."
No… please no…
"Umm Rana," I finally say. "Let's just get to the airport for now."
I try to find my headphones. If I can put them on then surely he can't talk to me.
"Arey sirjee," the preacher from the church of happy marriages speaks. "Don't you worry na!"
I can't find them in my bag.
Is this how it is in the end? Stuck in a car with someone I don't want to talk to, and no headphones to find.
I must have forgotten to bring them.
"Rana Malik and his family were at a wedding in Rahim Yar Khan," he starts wetting his lips again. I can see his canines quite distinctly. "that's how it started."
Too late. I'm now caught in the whirlpool of well-intentioned stories.
"It was the wedding of the daughter of a friend of Rana Malik's father," he goes on. "It was a simple gathering, a happy occasion."
I don't want to know.
"We were sitting with the guests, minding our own business," he says with a faraway look on his face. "the bride was there and everyone was waiting for the groom to make his entry on a white decorated horse."
Is it just me or did he just forget to use third person?
"She was beautiful, the bride. Strangers weren't supposed to look at her, she was ghair to everyone except her close relatives, but Rana Malik hadn't changed then and so he stared at her," he says with a straight face so I know he's not joking. "She had the whitest skin I had ever seen, and the red on her lips and cheeks shone like Rana Malik had never seen before."
Lord Almighty. I'm sorry for everything? You've made Your point! Please deliver me from this…
"Everyone waited and waited, but the groom never showed up," he shakes his head sadly, as if condemning of all the world's evils. "It became late and the guests started to leave. The bride began to cry."
Please save me? Someone? Anyone?
Why did I have to forget my headphones?
"Her father was besides himself and everyone began to avoid him," he says. "But Rana Malik's father, a great man, calmed him down. It turned out the groom's family wanted more dowry and the bride's father couldn't arrange it. As a result they had not shown up."
Marriage and money… that's what it all boils down to then. Perhaps if we can get everyone married then we'd have fewer issues.
Oh wait, there's still that money thing.
"Her father was worried about their family's izzat, and what people would say," Rana Malik says. "Sirjee, it is a huge insult to a family's name if the groom forsakes the bride on their marriage day."
He is nodding his head and I am wondering how far we are from the airport.
"So Rana Malik's father, being the great man that he is, offered up Rana Malik as groom for the girl," he nods proudly now. "That is how Rana Malik's life changed."
I can't believe this story. It is so wrong on so many levels. What happened to freedom of choice? But I reiterate to myself again that the most important thing is reaching the airport. Five minutes to my flight.
"How far away are we?" I ask him.
"We are here," he replies with a big grin. "Rana Malik said that you wouldn't be late na sirjee!"
I smile and pat him on the shoulder with something that approaches as close to genuine affection as I can get. How I hate myself sometimes.
A couple of minutes later, I've said my good byes to him and am rushing into the airport with my day bag. The official at the gate stops me and asks for my ticket.
"You can't go in," he says.
"Why the hell can't I?" I say.
"The plane is taxiing. It's going to fly shortly," he says.
"Look, it can't leave without me. I have the reservation," I plead.
He shakes his head and looks elsewhere.
"Let me talk to someone, I need to be on that plane," I say.
"I am the person you talk to," he says and looks away.
As if to back him up, the sound of a plane on a runway floods my head from behind the building of the small airport. He smiles as if to say 'I told you so.' I want to hit him now, punch him perhaps but I try to keep hold of my sanity. I'll have to call up the office to arrange a fresh ticket.
"When's the next flight to Karachi?" I ask him.
"Tomorrow morning at 6 am," he says.
I turn back and call up the travel agent.
Five minutes later I'm back out in the large parking area outside the airport. I'm booked for the morning flight. Now I need to find a ride back to the hotel and then come back here really early. Or perhaps it would be easier to just stay here till the morning.
I'm still debating my million-dollar question when he returns into my life.
"Sirjee," he exclaims. "I knew there could have been a problem so I waited. These airport people can be really unhelpful sometimes."
I look at Rana Malik and he seems genuinely happy to see me. There is a strange gleam in his eyes though. Despite the irritating day, I can't say that I'm not glad to see him right now. It would have been a pain trying to find a cab from this deserted Godforsaken airport.
"Umm thanks Rana," I say. "That's really kind of you. My flight's at 6 in the morning so I'll need a drop to the Serena Hotel in the city."
"Nonsense sirjee!" he exclaims. "This is fate that has brought us together again. If you go to the hotel how will you come here in the morning?"
He looks at me daring me to answer. I try to think of something but dammit… I'm too tired…
These screwed up daytrips. Flights are delayed when you don't want them to be, and are on time when you want them to be late. If something can go wrong it quite often does go wrong. I should get a hold of Murphy and whack him for making his stupid law.
"You will grant Rana Malik the honor of being his guest tonight, haan jee?" he asks with a smile. "Rana Malik will make sure you get back to the airport on time for tomorrow."
Somewhere deep down I don't want this. I don't want to go to his home; I don't know how it will be… how uncomfortable. I want to go to a nice hotel room and just pass out. Besides, it may not even be convenient for him to put me up tonight.
But I'm too tired to argue and he does have a point. He's suddenly begun to make sense.
"Thank you Rana," I say. "Are you sure it won't be a problem for you?"
He guffaws a laugh that borders on merriment, joy and insanity. "Sirjee, you have made Rana Malik truly happy. I am honored that you have accepted this poor man's invitation!" He takes my bag and carries it to the car.
"Sirjee the best part is that you'll get to meet the woman who changed Rana Malik" he says minutes later as we drive out of Multan airport.
I am genuinely grateful to Rana Malik for helping me out when I needed help, but dammit can't he move on from that one thing?!
"It will be good haan jee," he says looking at me. "Maybe meeting Rana Malik's family can inspire you also."
I nod sheepishly wondering if this was a mistake. I'm too tired to wonder for long though; my head aches and my eyes burn. I've been up since early morning, and I'm beginning to feel the ramifications of the long day.
"But you know, life is seldom simple," Rana Malik says seriously. "Rana Malik married the bride and loved her, but the trouble was waiting to start."
I look out of the window, hoping to fast forward the conversation somehow. Night has fallen. We are moving to the outskirts of the city, and fog has descended on the fields around the road. I know I will have to turn back towards him; I must face up to this now. This man, however irritating, is helping me.
Even though he is probably now going to tell me about how he tried to have kids and couldn't.
Why do I get the most ridiculous daytrips?
"Strange things began to happen as Rana Malik's wife came to live in his house," he says and his face seems visibly darkened now. It has to be trick of the light. But a car passes us by and in its headlights I see that it's not a trick of the light. He does seem darker, and somehow fresher.
"Curtains would be ripped up when everyone would awake in the morning," he says. "Clothes in cupboards would be shredded with violence."
Hello? He's not talking about having kids.
"Drops of blood began to appear here and there, on the walls and on the door," Rana Malik says and he sniffs. Clearly he remembers his wife's anguish.
"Other people living in the house, Rana Malik's brother, his wife, Rana Malik's very own mother; everyone started to get suspicious of the new bride," he shakes his head. "It was a bad time for her. Some claimed she was possessed, other claimed she was a victim of black magic."
This is getting quite interesting now.
"What was sure was the fact that there was something amiss, and she had brought it into the house of Rana Malik," he says.
We drive further away from the city and come towards a narrow road that leads towards a distant farmhouse through a field of wheat.
"A hakim told us what had happened," he goes on. "The family of the groom who wanted more dowry had put a curse on her through black magic. The hakim told us how to resolve it."
He smiles as we come to a stop near the farmhouse. It seems quite old, but there are lights shining through the window.
"This is Rana Malik's home," he says with glee. "Sirjee thank you for coming. Today is such a special treat! I am too excited naa!"
I nod and get out of the car. "Thanks for having me," I say and move to get my bag.
He pulls me away from it. "No no sirjee, Rana Malik will bring it," he says. "You come with me and relax yourself while I introduce you to the family."
I follow him into the house and we enter into a large living room, sparsely furnished with an old sofa and a few tables.
"Sit sit, this is like your home now," he points towards the sofa. "I will bring your bag and you will meet the family, but first you will meet the wife of Rana Malik."
I smile and nod.
He turns to leave but I stop him. "Rana, what did you have to do to resolve the curse?" I ask. What can I say? I am curious.
He laughs and it's a strange hollow laugh. "Arey sirjee, they had cursed her with something very rare. Something that can be called unholy, but something that can also be controlled," he says. "But to control it she must have a special diet all the time."
"But sometimes, she may get a special treat," he smiles and there is love in his grizzled face for his wife. "Rana Malik makes sure of it." His eyes shine with a strange emotion as he looks at me.
He turns to leave and I sit down.
Interesting story… so there was nothing supernatural, but possibly an illness that the woman was carrying. Perhaps even a mental illness. But what is the special diet? And the special treat?
I look around and the walls seem very old. They have dark spots here and there, as does some of the other furniture, as if no one has cleaned them for a while. There seems something very odd in this house, but I can't quite put my finger on it.
Oh well, as long as I can stay the night and be back on the plane on time tomorrow.
A door creaks on the opposite side of the house and I hear shuffling footsteps coming towards the living room. There's another sound, and it is the unmistakable sound of the main door being locked from the outside. It is the main door I entered this house from.
What? I stand up and walk towards the door but it's locked. The windows looking outside have a steel mesh of sorts on the inside.
Perhaps to protect from intruders.
Or perhaps to stop someone from getting out. Huh?
Rana Malik looks at me from the outside. His face has aged and he seems to have grown taller.
What the hell? I gesture to him to open the door, but he stands there with a large grin. His teeth seem too big for his mouth and his licks them with his tongue.
The shuffling coming from the opposite side draws near and a creaking door opens into the living room.
Somehow, inexplicably, in my heart I know who it will be.
It will be her. The woman in Rana Malik's story. The woman who changed his life, made him a better man.
The woman who has been cursed, and who must have a special diet. Every now and then though, she may have a special treat, Rana Malik makes sure of that.
Deep down I know *I* am that treat for her. She has come and she has come for me. Whether for my blood or my soul, I don't know, but I know if I turn around I will see her stare at me with greedy eyes and an open hungry mouth. She intends to change my life, just as she changed Rana Malik's and his family's, who're probably sitting lifeless in a dark room in this house. Or maybe they also wait with a collective hunger? After all, a joint family shares its meals.
Suddenly I know with absolute surety that I will never be going home. I will never be getting on that plane.
Perhaps I am psychic.
The shuffling draws nearer. I can hear her behind me.
Maybe if I don't look at her, I may prolong my life… Maybe not.
One thing is for sure though, I sure as hell HATE these God damned daytrips.
Sirjee means "Dear Sir" in Urdu/Punjabi.