Rocks and ambulances
“Couldn’t we have gone to a better mechanic, gotten a new and reliable battery, so this wouldn’t have happened?”
“I don’t know. This is not the first time this has happened, anyway.”
“What? How can you talk about it like this? Every time!”
He looked at him, his eyes had been previously glued to the movements of the people around him,
“If we thought in such detail, you know what would happen. And you also know I hate repeating things!”
Ali knew his friend was right, as always, and, as usual, he bit his tongue.
“Drive faster,” moaned two voices from the interior.
Hearing these voices always felt tough, especially because of the tinge of appeal in them. Somehow he always saw appeal in a light brown medicine bottle with the labels: 175 grams of resignation and a pinch of hope. How many grams was a pinch, he never found out.
Anyway, he rarely replied back to the voices.
“Ali, do you know the address of the second one?” Fiaz asked from the left.
Ali looked at him. If he had not done that every day, belittle each situation, squish the environment up with lazy indifference, throw it carelessly, he would have left on the very first day.
“Drive faster, please!” The same voices shouted from the back.
Once again, he didn’t reply.
He manoeuvred the vehicle in the left lane and sensing that the cars were slowing down, went in the right. Some people around him reduced their speed, out of fear or out of respect, he didn’t know. Some cars got in right behind him though and for some reason they never crossed him.
“The address! Ali, address!” Fiaz’s voice echoed again.
“Yes, yes. I have it. I know where to go.”
“How much ear wax is stuffed in you, yaar? Always have to ask you twice,” Fiaz said, and Ali tried hard to hold back his smile.
It was just last month. He had finally cleaned them using the corner of the table mat in his office, making sure no one was looking. He remembered feeling a pound or two lighter and could feel each word ring in his ears, much louder than before.
“Are we there yet?”
This time, Fiaz looked back at the source and replied,
He wished Fiaz would specify a time for arrival, but people didn’t argue with him and never asked the same question again. He wasn’t the best conversationalist but his voice had a commanding presence. Maybe it’s because he said so little that his words held power.
They arrived shortly at the destination and were soon off again. As they neared the next address, Ali was glad that his sense of direction helped him out so often. He wondered why.
The only memory he had of the development of his sense of direction was the one time he got lost while returning from school. It was towards the end of fifth grade in 1999. He remembered the day vividly.
His science teacher asked in the revision class,
“What is the difference between you and a rock?”
He did not raise his hand even though he knew the answer, which unfortunately, his teacher realised. So, she pointed at him – my God, teachers should not be allowed to do that. It felt like someone sucked on his feet like a straw and drunk up all the energy in him. His knees wobbled. It knocked him out. Somehow, he still managed to stand.
“Ali, how are you different from a rock?” she asked.
Her voice was so harsh that he heard the sound of rocks being rubbed on the old blackboard. But her expressions, they were the softest he had ever seen and he imagined them as the soft interior of a banana leaf. How she managed to hold both and so close to each other, he didn’t know, and right now, this wasn’t the question.
“The difference is in honesty. A rock is very honest.”
“Honest?” She asked, surprised.
“A rock will never pretend to be harder or softer than what it is.”
“And what about us?” she said, enjoying the strange conversation, and for a moment forgot the bemused and confused stares of the class.
“We love being like a rock even if we are like a banana leaf.”
The words just trailed out of his mouth.
The whole class laughed, but she blushed, knowing the weight and direction of the example. He had left the class as the bell rang but not without extracting a smile from his teacher. It was a very mild smile, but his memory always widened it. And he was pleasantly surprised that his memory had the power to enchant.
On his way back, he barely looked up from the ground. He stared at the rocks, specifically. In each, he saw people, people of various sizes, shapes and colours. There were broken rocks on the road and then there were the clean, polished ones in the gardens of people. When he would see something gleam, he would bend over to pick it up. He loved the feeling of a soft, cool rock in his palm. He ventured on and forgot to take his usual left turn before the main road, which went to the market near his house. When he finally looked up, there was nothing he could recognise. He felt a pinch of fear and a dose of pain, but it wasn’t the unfamiliarity that caused his distress, it was his tightly held fist. So he loosened his hand and rubbed his palm lightly, where his fingers had jammed, and then looked back up, this time with wonder.
Why had he never been at this side? He thought. Each street seemed to hold so many people, voices, sights, fragrances and smells. After that day, he made it his daily routine to explore each street on the way back, purposefully getting lost.
“Can you come back?” Fiaz nudged him.
“Sorry. I was thinking about…” His voice trailed off.
“Save it. Later.”
Ah, Fiaz. How much he loved and hated him at the same time.
“I think he’s gone,” said an unfamiliar voice at the back.
Ali’s heart raced and Fiaz put his hand on his shoulder. He looked back at the voice and the subject.
“No. And don’t say that, he can hear you.”
How he did that, how he could sense life from a distance and care for it and where he stored that emotion, Ali could never fathom.
When they reached their destination, they opened the back door, took the two passengers and after depositing them in a room where people awaited them, they started to leave, when the voice said,
“Thank you so much! How can we ever repay you?”
Fiaz nodded, and silently walked out.
When they were back on the road, Ali asked,
“Fiaz, can you imagine working anywhere else?”
He shook his head. Here was a real rock, Ali thought, and he put the ambulance siren back on.
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