By Kazim Alam
It seemed just another forgettable midweek evening in Karachi when I left The News office for home around 7 p.m.
Tired, hungry and thinking about dinner at the end of an hour-long bus ride, I was in an irascible mood.
The sidewalks of the busy I. I. Chundrigar Road, the so-called Wall Street of Pakistan, were dark. Street bulbs had been stolen yet again and half-torn flags of an ethnic party adorned the electricity poles.
Fresh graffiti had appeared on both sides of the road against the publisher of my newspaper. Apparently, workers of the ruling party believed he was a CIA agent, and wanted to share their suspicion with the general public via wall-chalking.
The bus came as soon as I reached the bus stop. Not only that, I got a seat as well. That was unusual, and lucky.
To me, “good luck” meant getting a seat in a crowded bus without having to wait too long.
A famous Indian film song was playing on the bus speakers. It’s illegal to play music, that too Indian, in a public bus in Karachi.
But like most man-made laws in Pakistan, bus drivers often disregard the ban, and bribe the traffic police in case they get pulled over.
The bus was smellier than usual that evening because of the oily floor – the driver had recently wiped the bus floor with diesel. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a visualization of the song.
I could still sense passengers getting off the bus at every stop.
I opened my eyes as the bus approached Punjab Chorangi – a main square that separates the slums from the posh areas of the city. The bus was now moving at an irritatingly slow pace.
Sitting next to me was an old, bearded man in a white “shalwar-kameez,” a traditional Pakistani dress.
While chanting Quranic verses in a low voice, he turned toward me and said a curse at the driver.
He said the western world progressed because it had “standards,” and that we were doomed forever. “Just see,” he said, “nobody seems concerned about the driver’s attitude.” I agreed with him.
At that time, I sensed some unease among the passengers. There were shudders, murmurs and whispers. I saw a man in the front portion of the bus asking the driver to turn up the volume.
The man, hardly 25 years old, was wearing a maroon shirt and a pair of jeans. After talking to the driver, he turned back, lifted the latch of the small door separating women’s compartment from the men’s, and came in to stand two seats ahead of mine.
He was lanky and had a moustache that didn’t look good on his face. He took a calm look at the passengers, and lifted the shirt from his waist – I saw a small black gun stuck under his belt.
Some passengers freaked out. Someone from the rear portion of the bus asked the passengers, without any hint of threat in his voice, to take out their cell phones and hold them in their hands for “collection.”
Hundreds of cell phones are snatched in Karachi every day. I was also aware of a number of recent phone-snatching incidents where a mere sign of resistance had led to violent deaths.
I wondered: what if someone resisted the demand and he fired? Could I be killed in crossfire? Could I die, I asked myself: “Today? Just now? Like this? Without fulfilling my dream of getting a foreign education?”
The bus stopped at the next traffic signal. All the passengers sat straight. By then, I knew that there were at least three robbers on the bus.
One had blocked the front gate and kept guard over the driver, the second one stood silently right in front of me (he hadn’t even pulled the weapon out of his belt) while the third one, I had a feeling, was collecting phones from the passengers.
With minimum movement, I took my phone out of my pocket. It was the first cell phone I had ever bought or used.
It had cost me around 20 percent of my first salary – a cheap Motorola set with basic functions only. Someone came from behind and grabbed it hastily from my hand.
His hand touched mine. My heart stopped beating for a few seconds.
The elderly man sitting next to me was still chanting Quranic verses with his head down and eyes half closed.
Finally noticing something wrong, he became alert and asked me aloud why I had given him my phone. I didn’t want to say a word or make any physical movement lest I offended the armed robbers.
He repeated his question, this time more loudly. “They’ve a gun,” I whispered.
“Oh, I see. They’ve a gun,” he said, maintaining his high volume and sounding like a 14-year-old asinine kid who had just solved an algebra problem.
They didn’t press him to produce his phone either out of respect for the elderly (many robbers pretend to have an “honor code” in Pakistan) or they didn’t expect him to have one.
The driver stopped the bus between two bus stops after one of the robbers directed him to pull up.
They got off the bus from the backdoor to get into a car that had apparently been following our bus.
I got off the bus at the next stop.
Walking toward my apartment from the bus stop, I reviewed the whole episode. I couldn’t stop thinking that the one robber who stood close to me was of my age apparently.
While he had the stomach to keep a weapon under his belt and snatch people’s cell phones on a main road of Karachi, all that I could think of during the robbery was getting out of the situation alive.
I realized that I was timid, weak, cowardly and selfish. I didn’t resist and gave in.
I recalled a line from my favorite novel, “The Kite Runner”: “Someone who doesn’t stand for himself will not stand for anyone else either.”
I knew I had not stood for myself that evening.
A few weeks later, newspapers reported that two mobile phone snatchers received “mob justice” in Karachi.
They were overpowered by an angry crowd, reports said, and then burned alive.
An enraged mob had set ablaze two human beings — alive — because they had tried to deprive someone like me of his cell phone – something that would probably have cost one-fifth of their one month’s salary.