Vichch Pulase (Which Place)

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Habib Khan, Quetta: More than twenty years ago, I was returning from a short trip to Nairobi. I had to check out early in the morning, and my flight was late in the evening, so my host, Mr. Ngugi, very kindly gave me his pickup truck, along with the driver to visit the nearby national park.

The driver (I forgot his name) was a jolly fellow and said to me that only the lucky ones could locate a lion within the first day. Although my experience with luck hadn’t been encouraging, I took the challenge and tried until little before dusk to locate at least a tiger, if not a bubbar. But this time too, luck betrayed me. We could hardly get to the airport on time. I was the last person to enter the packed aircraft destined for Dubai and saw a burqa-clad lady with a child occupying the seat next to the only empty seat which would certainly be mine, I figured.

I sank into my seat, tired from the day’s drive on the bumpy tracks of the jungle, and thought that a burqa lady would certainly avoid talking to me–a stranger–and that would give me ample time to get some sleep and replenish my energy to cope with the wait at Dubai, and then take the connecting flight to Karachi, followed by a drive to Hub during the morning rush hours of Karachi. All that proved to be wishful thinking though, as within a minute of taking my seat, I heard a voice in a very familiar Pakistani accent, “Vichch Pulase are you going?”

Also a typical Pakistani train journey question, which would have irritated me even on a train, I feebly replied that I thought everyone was going to Dubai. She kept quiet for a while and then asked again, this time in Urdu, “Aur uske baad?” (And then where?).

I replied, “O de baad main vi Karachi hi ja rya en” ( then I’m too going to Karachi). She laughed loudly (probably at my broken Punjabi and accent) and said again in Urdu that she was going to Lahore. And then she didn’t stop talking until the plane landed in Dubai, telling me repeatedly that her sister was a big officer in Pakistan, and mostly complaining about the behavior of the locals in Kenya whom she was continuously referring to as “kalay” (black people), oblivious of the fact that the ‘gora’ (‘wheatish person’) sitting next to her was getting irritated not just by her continuous giggling but also by the child who needed special care.

As the plane landed, the lady started showing signs of restlessness; got up from her seat and waved to a few people seated at different places. Then, even before the plane could come to a halt, she removed some shopping bags from the overhead luggage compartment. She also took a sizeable suitcase (how did they allow that as hand carry?) and the child, leaving me little option but to lift the three shopping bags, which I later came to know were filled with Kenyan tea.

And, as we disembarked the aircraft in Dubai, with utmost horror, I noticed three young Indian boys with two bags each waiting for the lady. She thanked the Indians, and they left us with a total of nine shopping bags, two suitcases, and one child needing special care. Luckily, I had a small hand carry, so I could lift five of the tea parcels, each weighing 2kg, and she tied two bags to her suitcase, lifted the child and asked me to hand her the remaining two bags.

I felt like a comedy actor in a Norman Wisdom or a Jerry Lewis movie, moving slowly, burden-laden, towards the main terminal, letting the other passengers smile at us as they passed by.

By this time, my irritation towards her changed to sympathy, as she had a special child and was lifting so much extra weight, and yet there seemed little change in her cheerful mood.

A truly courageous lady, I thought.

Little did I know that the exceptional courage she would show in the lobby would raise my anxiety levels to the limit, unknown to me till that time in life.

She left the child, who needed special care, plus her ten pieces of luggage with me, and left to explore the Dubai airport and do some more shopping. I had to literally hold the child, or she would start crawling into the way of fast-moving passengers and occasional carts. For the first 20 minutes, it seemed OK, but when she didn’t return for another 20 minutes, I started to get anxious.

And when she didn’t return for a full one hour, my blood pressure started rising to levels I had never witnessed in life, and different scary thoughts started to enter my mind. What if some mishap had happened, or she might not come at all? Should I inform security? I hope she didn’t intend to abandon the child?. Even earlier, my eyes were having a blurred vision because of the fatigue, and now because of worry, and just as the blurriness was turning into darkness, I heard the familiar giggle–the relief that I experienced at that moment could not even be matched by my passing of engineering exams in the 70s.

“What happened?” I almost shouted. “Did you get sick or lose your way?” Again, the giggle. “No, no, everything was fine. I was just appreciating the glamour of the place,” she said, demonstrating the additional shopping she had done. Neither she nor the child showed any signs of happiness towards each other; rather, she collected all the new and old bags around her to wait another fourteen hours for her next flight.

The flight to Karachi was announced, so I excused myself, and this time she rose to bid me farewell, and added a compliment that Baloch people are really helpful. “You will surely find more Baloch people in the Lahore flight to share your load”, I said to myself and didn’t say loudly.

I slept through the two-hour flight to Karachi, this time sitting beside another burqa-clad but thankfully a quiet lady. I took my car from the long-term parking and finally reached home after a 90-minute drive.

A couple of days later, in my office at Cadbury’s, I received a guest from the Coca Cola company who presented me with a crate of family pack bottles.

“What for?” I asked, and he connected a number on his phone and handed it to me.

A lady on the other end introduced herself as the Director of Sales at Coca Cola and, in eloquent English. without any accent, thanked me for helping her sister during the journey.

“How was the tea?” I said. She probably got the joke, and laughed before hanging up.