Fierce volleys of bullets ricochet in the darkness, every gunshot a deafening thunderclap. His body freezes in shock with every accompanying pull of the trigger. There is no amount of training in the world that can prepare you to scoop up the dead in a war zone; this is something a Karachi ambulance driver has to learn on the job –and that too without a Kevlar jacket. Karim tries to shut out the death rattle around him, retain his composure trying to hoist the dead-weight of the corpse by clutching it while Farid, the paramedic, held its the feet from the thighs like a wheel barrow. They have to do it in lightning fast motion lest hot lead also bored through their flesh. They have gotten better at this with time; in clockwork motion they shove the body in haste and shut the sliding door of the backseat of Suzuki Bolan. Both of them swoop back into a crouching posture in the front compartment. These ambulance workers are the worker ants of the killing fields of Karachi. They clear the detritus, cleaning the bloody slate for a fresh new cycle of violence every day.
They make a thundering entrance at the Edhi Cold Storage to inter the newly minted dead. Abdul Karim casts a glance at the disfigured face of the corpse for the first time under the fluorescent lighting. Blood and congealed flesh clog crack made by the bullet in his cranium, leaving a swollen indigo protrusion on the left eye, a glistening gelatinous red bile oozes out of both of his nostrils. The dark shade of his skin almost certainly gives off that he belongs from the Mohajir community. He might just have been at the wrong place at the wrong time when the grim reaper appeared with a bullet with his name on it or maybe his death was a targeted killing. One could never be sure these days as Karachi self-immolated in a civil war carried by a few but suffered all the same by everyone.
Abdul Karim and other ambulance drivers are a hardened, gruff bunch. Having to interact with death, human suffering requires a superhuman threshold for violence and torment, it’s something one develops on the job. There are no corporate trainers to explain a patented management technique to look death straight in the eye. In times of civil strife every shift is a graveyard shift for an Edhi Ambulance Driver. Death is the only certainty of life; it is also certain that your last remains would be carried in an Edhi ambulance –especially if you are murdered on a pavement.
“Where did you find him?” asked Shahzad, the night shift in charge of the mortuary at Edhi Centre.
“At Kutti Pahari. I was ending my shift when my radio alert told me there was a dead body lying near the naala at the inter-board office.”
A crumpled cigarette quivered from Shahzad’s lower lip as he scrambled for a lighter in his shalwar kameez’s pocket for a lighter.
“I remember you were asking for a job for your son in the ambulance services. We are already short of good drivers, Edhi sahib was talking about hiring new drivers because people are dropping like flies these days. Just yesterday we found an unmarked ditch with 30 severed corpses near Hub Chowki. The stench was so strong some of the drivers passed out. It was like Qayammat.”
Grief came over Abdul Karim’s senile face. He quickly thought of a terse, convenient lie to end Shahzad’s question. “Oh no! Umer is in Saudi Arabia right now working in a wealthy sheikh’s oil tanker business. He is making good money there now. No point in calling him here to haul the dead when he can haul oil and make far more money.”
Shahzad’s face lit up with the opportunity this surprising disclosure presented. “He did the right thing, getting out of this shit hole. There is nothing here for young people anymore.”
He took a brief pause and inquired, “Can you ask Umer to find me a job in Saudia as well? I am a Bachelor in Food Chemistry from Karachi University and stowing away Karachi’s dead in ice boxes. I deserve better!”
Abdul Karim passed a courteous nod with an air of paternal superiority “I will ask him. But if you go away, who will help me find homes for the dead?”
By now he had perfected the fable of his absent son’s imaginary vocation in the rich Arab world. A lie so frequently rehearsed as though it was the truth. Umer could be in the mountains of Afghanistan for all he knew. The inconvenient truth about Umer’s disappearance was a wound that still festered within him. A wound that won’t suture. A wound that won’t heal. He last saw him being whisked away by the police in a search operation from their home in Bhains colony. His son was a ‘party worker’ for the unit office of Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) sector office in Korangi.
The network of sector offices worked as a parallel government, delivering its brand of dark justice by the armed cadres of the MQM party workers in Karachi. It doubled as a community development center or a den organized crime, depending on the agenda set to them for that particular day, week or month from the party headquarters in London. A party worker was also the Swiss army knife of party politics serving many and often conflicting roles such as a relief worker, extortionist, an assassin or even a cattle-hide raider during Eid Ul Azha. All depended on the brief provided to them by the sector in charge, someone akin to a rank of colonel in this urban guerilla army. No party worker served out of his own volition, everything had to be performed in regimented discipline towards the Mohajir cause. An informal government ruled with such a steady iron fist it would make the most seasoned Communist apparatchik green with envy.
Through the better part of the 80’s and 90’s, the MQM fought a virtual civil war against the state for the Mohajir cause. Umer, Abdul Karim’s first born, was also one of the countless sentries to take up arms instead of jobs. Besides, a job at the sector paid far more than a clerical job and then there was the prestige of working at one, since the sector was the first and last recourse in the communities it functioned for perceived or real travesties of justice. Umer did try to land a job once he had finished his intermediate degree; a year of an unemployment and an air of communal victimization was enough to make him swap dreams of a career path to a war path.
Abdul Karim would accost Umer time and again to leave this life of militancy. He had seen too much in his own line of work and knew that his eldest and only son was heading towards an early grave. Their bitter spats escalated into brawls in their tiny living space, the son and father hurling profanities against each other’s mothers and sisters in bouts of ungovernable rage, his three sisters and mother being the wailing, helpless audience to these fiery exchanges.
After every argument Umer would leave the house in a huff vowing never to return again. Every time he would be coaxed back to the house after desperate pleading by the women of the house. Of course Umer also did miss his spongy mattress bed, the doting love of all his sisters and the golden brown parathas his mother would make for him along with chai.
The Merreweather road, next to the Edhi headquarter glistened in the monsoon drizzle. The dark puddles reflected the Karachi lights in their grimy bleakness. Passing buses whizzed by knee-deep mire creating ripples as they sped past their stops. Abdul Karim saw a sturdy Pathaan youth standing next to his senile father. His thoughts wandered again to Umer as he waited for his home-bound bus. The pitter-patter of Umer’s tiny feet rang in his ears. The clumsy duck-like gait of Abdul Karim’s first born as he took his first steps, the immense joy this tiny cherub brought him. The hopes that Abdul Karim projected onto Umer: that one day his pride and joy would be his crutch in Karim’s eventual slide into oblivion. How a few grand children would renew his zest for life when his hopes started to get snuffed out with the passage of time? Would his dearly departed son ever be able to find his way back to his silently suffering father? Where the hell was he anyway? A simple call, the warmth of a hug, an acknowledgment of past mistakes would be enough to douse the raging fires between father and son. But instead there was a silence that singed his soul.
His ride home had come bristling wet in the summer rain in all its rainbow coloured beauty. He lifted his haunches while signaling the bus conductor to stop. He hopped nimbly on the concrete blocks serving as tiny bridge in the muddled rain water with the nimble beauty of a gazelle betraying the incapacity of his old age.
Celebrations were few and far between at the Edhi headquarters in the old city conurbation of Kharaadar. This was the epic center of the Edhi Foundation’s relief efforts because it was also the birth place of Karachi’s patron saint Abdul Sattar Edhi. Edhi safe haven functions as the clearing house of all the death, suffering and violence of the city. Even small celebrations served as a mockery of the grim livelihood of the assembled today.
But an exception had to be made since it was the birthday of Edhi Sahab. At 80, his zeal stood undiminished, still working like a creaking automaton, but an automaton nonetheless to put some semblance of an order to a city constantly unraveling in its violent downward spiral. A flowing beard, a diminutive stature and an introverted disposition couldn’t conceal the gravity of his presence. It took a flight of imagination to accept that this papa smurf doppelganger had the iron will of assembling the largest private fleet of ambulances in the world. A being of flesh and light among mere mortals.
Abdul Rahim had always looked up to him. His presence serving as an anchor, his vision giving a sense of direction of the flotilla of ambulances as they drifted in Karachi’s stormy seas. “Humanity has no religion” was inscribed on a plaque hanging on Edhi Sahab’s bare bones office. Ever since his precocious youth, Abdul Karim winced at the communal propaganda that blared from the busy pulpits of the city mosques. He never got why only his co-religionists were worthy of being helped in times of distress or deserve small acts of kindness. Others who hadn’t recited the Kalma Tauheed did not warrant compassion. It was Edhi’s message of universal compassion that led Abdul to his calling as an ambulance driver. Decades of soul shredding work as an ambulance driver hadn’t dimmed his resolve towards this benighted city. Same went for the General of Generosity: Abdul Sattar Edhi.
The staff huddled around him in the modest confines of his office. A birthday song for the long life of their aging patriarch, more like an act of defiance in the face the daily horrors Karachi was offering in these days of civil strife.
The radio set in the ambulance crackled; there had been a shoot out again between MQM and ANP party workers. This new wave of violence in Karachi hinged on the massive exodus of Pasthuns from the north tilting the already fragile demographical mosaic of the city. MQM had found itself grappling with a new existential threat in this shifting ethnic landscape of the city. Sporadic violence sprouted like ulcers between militant winds of Awami National Party and Muttaida Qaumi Movement. Each trying to carve out niches for their ethnicities through the barrel of the almighty gun. As always it was left to Abdul Karim and his fellow ambulatory legions to clean up the blood, gore and grime of the city’s crimsoned roads, pavements and landmarks.
So many decades into his profession operating in Karachi’s bloody geography had instilled a conditioned calm and practiced courage to carry on business as usual. Abdul Karim and his paramedic cohort Sajid –an MBBS graduate from Sindh Medical College- sped post-haste to Paposh, another warren that was the fault line of the Pushtun/Mohajir war. The main Nazimabad artery that led to the borough was clogged at rush hour. The blaring of the ambulance siren changed all that, with a flick of the switch the sonic fury of the ambulance parted the reams of traffic like Moses parting the seas. Some opportunist motorists trailed the back of the ambulance like parasitic plankton feeding off from the generosity of their host. Making the most of the thoroughfare in their meandering pace.
As they approached the Paposh graveyard, where the bodies were first reported to be sighted, they approached a dark nook where a stiff corpse lay stiff and bathed in its own blood. Fortunately, there was no crossfire for both of them to run for cover, lest another ambulance be summoned to salvage Abdul Karim and Sajid’s remains. Abdul Karim took out the Kafan –the white muslin that would drape the dead as their final envelope. The darkness wasn’t helping, so Abdul Karim turned on the mobile torch light for some visibility.
He clenched the light emitting cellphone between his tobacco stained teeth. And then time stopped; the ground started to swallow his feet from below, a tidal wave of anxiety hit the old man, his consciousness drowning in its whiplash.
It just couldn’t be; he had done so many good deeds; cast so many silent prayers to Allah not to witness this. And not in this way! Fate in all its heaving irony had come full circle for him; today he would hold his son for the last time. Not as a wayward son now having made his amends with him but as a pock marked, mangled corpse claimed by death squads of this city. Abdul Karim stood in a stunned silence, tears, and tiny rivulets of pain streaking down his time-hollowed cheeks. His forearms trembled with grief, they pulsated with bottled up fury as he wanted to slap Umer for never heeding him and now he lay before him motionless and silent. This was not the natural order of life; sons lifted the funeral bier of their fathers, not vice versa.
Sajid having giving up of rankling Abdul Karim out of his catatonic state hoisted Umer’s bloodied torso, his dead weight overwhelming him. Abdul Karim subduing his despair lent a hand and placed Umer in the ambulance in the self-assured way he had done for so many other’s sons, fathers and uncles. This time fate had rewarded him to carry his own for his years of selfless service.
“Everything okay? I thought you were having a stroke?” asked a concerned Sajid.
A ruminating shell of an old man muttered a faint inaudible reply. ”No. I am fine. Just a fever I guess.”
“You looked like you were mourning your own dead” asked Sajid trying to probe further.
“NO! NO! The boy just reminded me of my son.” his voice quavered, lacking its characteristic placid tone.
A confused Sajid’s voice went abruptly to a fever pitch “God Forbid! Pray for your son’s long life and that he gives you lots of grandsons.”
A faint smile flashed across Abdul Karim’s grim face, moistening his weary eyes, as he envisioned futures that now could never be. He swiped the tears trickling down, these tiny rivulets of pains and said a barely audible “Ameen”