“Happy Independence Day” We chanted one last time before the ceremony was over. My little one bade farewell to all my colleagues clinking away happily in her green and white bangles.
Outside, it was exceptionally hot with suffocating humidity. After days of continuous rain, clouds parted and the sun shone in its full glory. Monsoon had finally exhausted. Fresh greenery washed by the rain was gleaming in the bright day, dazzling the eyes. Yet neither the birds nor animals could be seen admiring this vivacious beauty for the air was heavy with precipitation. Water droplets twinkled on the blades of grass before bidding them farewell, embarking on the journey to the eternal cycle of rise and fall. Not a single leaf on the trees stirred for the air was static, making breathing a strain.
Drenched in sweat, I stepped out of the huge gate trying to avoid the big puddle just in front of the main entrance. I had to walk through two narrow damaged roads to reach the main road and get a van home. With my oversized teacher’s bag in one hand and my 5-year-old daughter’s hand in the other, I meandered through big and small puddles to the main road. Like a typical kid, my daughter was not bothered by the muddy water but I was overly cautious as I didn’t want her to end up in one of those open gutters that were often hidden under a seemingly harmless puddle.
My home was only a 20-minute ride in a local bus or van and I wanted to board the first one that wasn’t too crowded. At this time of the day, public transport was usually excessively crowded, with women sitting on the seats while men stood crouched in the aisles. One could die of suffocation and the smell of sweat if the windows were not open to let in the hot air we called ‘Loo’.
As I stepped onto the main road, I expected a crowded bus stop. I was used to loud shouts from the conductors hailing passengers, urging them to hurry, trying to stuff their vehicles as full as possible. On a usual day, roadside vendors would be selling cold ‘shikanjabeen’ and spicy ‘kanji’ around the bus stop. To beat the heat, parents would allow their kids buy colorful ‘ice gola’ while savoring watermelon or cucumber bites from the many rehri vala’s crowded near the bus stop to earn their living. My daughter also anticipated this time of the day as I would usually let her buy an ice cream or juice from a stall nearby. I bought myself ‘thandi masala mooli’ (radish strips in chaat masala). Despite the heat, humidity and smell, we would relish them as soon as we got seated in the van.
On that day, the scene in front of me was nothing like the crowded bus stop we were used to. Instead, there was a hush and an eerie silence. There was sign of neither vehicle nor human. I faltered in my step as I looked to my left and my right. Shops along the main road were closed. There was not a soul who I could ask for a reason. My daughter looked at me gravely. Panic hit me and I took out my cell phone to dial home. My heart sank as I noticed there was no signal. The mobile service was unavailable. I was alarmed. The mobile service was blocked and there were no vehicles on the road. I felt a creepy sensation that with the political unrest in the country, something had gone very wrong in the hours I was at school. That explained why there were few students at the Independence Day Celebration program.
The opposition party had given a call for a march toward Islamabad on the Independence Day, that very day, August 14. People feared unrest, lawlessness and even bloodshed due to the protest and felt safer to keep indoors for the day. I looked at my daughter who tightened her grip on my hand. I knew she sensed the unusual situation and the fear on my face was scaring her little heart even more. I patted her back with reassurance though I myself wasn’t sure what to do. I could try to walk home, but my home was far and my little one may not be able to walk that much. I sat down under the shade at the bus stop and tried to think of a plan.
We walked a little farther from the bus stop in the direction of my home in hopes of finding some kind of vehicle or a living being who could guide me or at least tell me what happened. I looked at the market and the flats above. There must be eyes behind those windows but why would any soul not come out? Was it curfew? No, no. It could not be, as such things are announced and someone at school would have known. I wondered how the other teachers would reach their homes and where they would be at that moment. After walking for a while, I heard some far-off sounds. I turned around and saw a van emerging from a street near the bus stop. It crossed the main road rapidly and disappeared into one of the lanes across the road. We desperately rushed back to the stop, hoping some other van might arrive there to cross the road. The crossing was a little ahead of the bus stop, so we walked past it and stood right where the crossing was. We waited and hoped, but minutes passed by slowly. Wearily, we made our way back to the stop. Tired and hopeless, we sat at the bench under the shade. Tears of helplessness started gathering in my eyes as I did not know what to do, where to go. I looked at my daughter, her beautiful face covered with dirt and sweat. She was unusually silent and obedient. I could only hug her when she said, “How will we get home mama? Why are there no vans on the road?” I wiped her face with the edge of my ‘dupatta’ and said, “I don’t know darling… but don’t worry, Mama’s with you and we’ll soon find a way”. I tried to smile to reassure her. The road looked bigger with no hawkers and closed shops. It looked like a vast barren place with no tree. Everything was a shade of yellow with the bright sun baking the last drops of water out of the soil.
There was no use sitting there at the stop, so we started walking slowly in the direction of home again. Soft wind had started blowing by then, putting more dust and dirt in our faces as we trotted off uncertainly. We had not gone far when I sensed a change in the air. There was nothing visible far ahead or behind us, but there was a hum in the air, a distant buzz that pulsated through my soul, and a spooky feeling started engulfing my senses. I stood rooted in fear. My daughter was looking at me with a questioning and frightened gaze. There was nothing to be seen but a very, very distant shrill was breaking through. As though a tsunami would emerge from tranquil waters, I saw hustle, far, far behind us. It was so far that I couldn’t make out what it was. If not for the silent noise, I would have considered it a mirage in the burning noontime.
As if on cue, I stepped off the main road. It was a deserted street and I didn’t know where it led. There were rows of shops on either side. Further along the street after the first bend I could see rows of houses. Houses with people tucked in safely. With the current political situation of the country and opposition’s call for anti-government march for the very day, no one in his right mind would have left his home.
“Should we call abba? He could come and get us” my daughter asked.
“I tried honey, but the mobile’s not working.”
“Did you not charge it?”
“Unnhu” I didn’t know what to say, but she was in no mood to let it pass “I did honey… but it’s not working, dunno”. Thank God she didn’t ask any more questions. I was already edgy and didn’t want to scold her for nothing.
On the previous night, my father had warned me to not leave home. I called some of my colleagues and they advised me to reach the school if I wanted my job. They told that every government servant not reaching his job that day would be considered participating in the march, labeled anti-government, and suspended or sacked.
I couldn’t afford to lose my government job. Despite being highly qualified, I had to pay two lacs as a bribe and exhaust all the contacts abba had made in the education institute. I am a single mother of a daughter who is my sole responsibility. I have to provide for her and myself. This job is my lifeline. I had to take the risk. “Besides, I think the march will start somewhere in the afternoon. I will already be back by then”, I had reassured abba. He knew I had no other option. He didn’t insist.
“But whatever happened to the transport! Damn it.” I cursed my fate. My little one was visibly frightened and reminded me of a wilting flower in the sheer sun. We were hiding in the side lane of the market. There was a huge water tank in the corner and I planned to hide behind it if the mob came. The sounds were clearer now. People were chanting different slogans. The sounds were deafening. My daughter was near tears. I felt suffocated as I could see people scattering in the street at some distance. They were the marchers of course but it was not unusual for thugs and other wicked people to join the mob and take a chance at plundering and preying others. Fearful stories came to my mind as I pictured us cornered in that dead end between the shops. It was filthy and damp, the suffocation was corrupting my mind and the sounds were deafening my senses.
I peeped around the corner and could see a lot of people gathering and slowly marching along the main road. They were some distance away, and I decided to leave the secluded place and go further into the locality. Though deserted, the streets had houses, and houses had people. I could not see them, but maybe there would be some eyes behind the windows watching over me. I prayed to Allah and kept on walking under the shade of trees and on the ramps of houses, trying to keep our direction parallel to the main road and towards our home. I let myself believe that each step was taking us near our home. For the first time, I reassured my daughter with hope too.
Chanting from the march was becoming dim again and I felt relieved that we won’t be crushed in the mob, yet the deafening silence engulfing my mind was equally suffocating. As we turned around a corner, with a loud Tuk Tuk Phut Phut , an auto rickshaw stopped by my side.