I spoke at Forman Christian College in Lahore yesterday. On the uber ride back, the driver – I’ll call him Waseem – told me how he came to start driving his little car.
Waseem is young (he says I look too young to be 50. “You look like you’re in your 30s,” he says, and we tease him because Svend thinks he just wants ratings). For an uber driver, he is immaculately dressed and groomed, clean shaven, with a clean car. He drives from 9am to 3am. Once he’s done, he goes to a small rented room in a “development” near the Punjab Assembly on the Mall Road. The room has just enough space for him to sleep. His family does not live in Lahore. He is from Sargodha. He seems to miss his life there. There are orange orchards, and the city is small and sparsely populated. Pollution is low and the open fields make for a cold winter. Lahore is so congested and polluted that the cold barely makes a dent, he says. The cost of living for his family is low. There are no transportation costs. His daughter crosses the house over to her school, and they drop her lunch off behind the house. He doesn’t have the money to keep them in Lahore. That would break him.
People are healthier in Sargodha, he says. His grandmother was 105 and she wandered all over the village, active and healthy till her death. Lahore kills us too soon, he says, as we pass LACAS and the political mansion on Zahoor Elahi Road.
Glancing at me, as we cross through Mini Market into Main Boulevard, he says, “The ones who left the country have made it.”
Not necessarily, I hasten to correct him. I want to say, But I don’t have tenure and I don’t have a house. But when he means making it, he’s not talking about that kind of stability. He just wants to live with his family and be able to pay his expenses. He’s worked with a garment company for two years, then a publishing company for three years, and now a construction company. Every new job means a learning curve, and eventually he loses the job and has to get back on the market for dozens of interviews, and a slim chance of landing a decent job.
He’s an accountant, working at a construction company now. The company failed to get the government funds it needed, so production is dead. Dozens were laid off. Employees were paid for some time by the sale of scrap metal. Eventually salaries stopped, and Waseem hasn’t been paid in months.
So he started driving uber, because he has to eat.
Every day he drives until he has to stop and sleep in his tiny room for a few hours. Then he starts driving again. There’s no time for relaxation or recreation, I think to myself, no sitting at coffee shops, no shopping, no picnics, no sitting with a book. “My entertainment is when I go back to Sargodha to see my family every two weeks or so.” His face shines with sincerity, and a total lack of need for my compassion. He is immersed too deep in the struggle for him to care much what I think. He is just thinking aloud as we plough through traffic.
“I will work from job to job, from day to the next day, and then my life will be over.”
صبح ہوتی ہے شام ہوتی ہے
عمر یونہی تمام ہوتی ہے
Morning breaks, evening descends,
and in this manner, life concludes
I am filled with desperation for his tiny life, as he flutters in a jar, beating his valiant wings, struggling to lift his children up with education and a livelihood. I will go to Dubai, he says. It’s not so far as America, I eagerly agree. Yes, a three-hour flight, and I can come back to see my parents, he says, as if in a daydream.
“Allah grant that you get a zabardast job, in a miraculous way, and your life improves,” I say. I am not being condescending, and he doesn’t mind me saying that, because it’s only facts. Ameen, he says. “Or the Middle East.” Yes, he nods. “But it is so hot there.” Oh yes, he agrees.
He is calm, collected, dignified, working without end, speaking with equanimity of the new government. “Imran has sincere intention,” he says, “and maybe something will change.” He just wants to be able to make it by working hard, but it is too hard to do even that. He is pedalling hard but getting nowhere. People shouldn’t have to fight so hard just to eat and live, I say. Basic needs should be covered, he says simply; he doesn’t need to read Marx to know this.
I am furious for him as I try to access my first world leftist discourse, and it is hard to reach it, in the depths of this endless tunnel, as we cross over into Lahore Cantonment past the military check for driver IDs. and I want badly to see him happy, filled with joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment, rather than in a dream, slogging away without end in sight.