Srinagar: Sitting in the shade of a cracked wall, Waseem Khan keeps an eye on the Banta soda as he looks at the passersby. The heatwave in Jammu is too much for him to bear. But he shall wait for two more passengers before he can take off to Srinagar in his taxi.
“Srinagar! Srinagar!” he shouted, roaming around his Mahindra Xylo. After nearly an hour under the scorching sun, his seven-seater is good to go with four non-local laborers headed for Pampore, in Pulwama, and two others to Srinagar.
The Xylo’s gates have rusted, half of the mirrors don’t move, and side mirrors are broken. Barely a look at his taxi would suggest that the vehicle is nearing its end, Khan said. Some calls and a lot of bargaining later, Khan starts the long, strenuous journey ahead of him.
The non-local laborers are one of the most vulnerable to the militant attacks, which have risen in the recent months in the Kashmir Valley. The target killings, however, doesn’t deter the group in Khan’s taxi. The 25-year-old Mahesh, ducked in the last seat of the vehicle, who is headed to a brick kiln, said that they would otherwise die of hunger anyway.
Neither is Khan very thoughtful of the choice of his passengers. “We are not doing anything wrong,” he said. “Why should anyone target us?”
As he geared towards the Nagrota passing, Khan finally decided to pick his ever-buzzing phone. “The road is jammed till hell,” his friend, Aqib, who drives a truck on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, said in Kashmiri. “Can you pick me up in Udhampur?”
The friendship of Khan and Aqib, both 31, goes nearly a decade back, after they first met on the highway. And bonded over the endless jams, recurring landslides, and conversations on their best — and worst — rides and passengers.
But today’s call was an SOS from Aqib. His mother-in-law had to be admitted to a hospital at soonest and that’d require his presence, he told Khan on the call.
Khan raced through loaded trucks, a flock of vehicles carrying partying tourists, and, sometimes, sheeps and buffalos. Then the landslides while Aqib’s eyes were stuck on the clock. “On this road, the clock runs faster,” he told Khan, with a grin. “Don’t you think?”
It doesn’t. Khan and Aqib drove in turns to reach Qazigund, the Gateway of Kashmir, a drive of 180 kilometers from Jammu, in about 10 hours, at 11:30 pm.
Only when they sensed the home nearby, the tide overturned. The laborers were to be dropped 2 kilometers from Pampore. That was the promised word. And “a driver’s promise is set in stone,” Khan noted, repeatedly, during the ride.
The laborers’ contractor told Khan the exact location: they had to be dropped to a brick kiln in Chattergam, a 12-kilometer detour via two villages. That was not possible, both Khan and Aqib said firmly.
It was 12 am. “The time and situation doesn’t allow us,” Khan tried to explain.
A day earlier, on 2 June, a non-local bank manager was shot dead in Kulgam, while on the same evening, two non-local laborers were attacked in central Kashmir’s Chadoora. One of them succumbed.
Parked on the highway, Khan tried to reason with the contractor in repeated calls about the security of the laborers but all in vain. Nobody would budge. And another hour passed.
Then came a solution: drop the laborers in a privately-owned room in the Pantha Chowk, at the entry point of Srinagar, and the drivers can go ahead with their business.
Cutting through the darkness, the taxi reached a shady complex, nestled behind the circle. “Ye’t cha kah?” Aqib and Khan shouted on top of their lungs. They knocked door after door. Only one answered.
A laborer, wearing an undershirt, opened the door to the one-room lodge. The scenes were absurd. Nearly 20 persons were lying on the floor, a few on the sheets, tucked in closely in the compact room. The person on the door denied taking in any more people.
“This is inhumane,” Aqib lamented. And the taxi moved again.
“Drop them on the circle,” the contractor said on the call. “I’ll pick them in the morning.”
“Have you lost your mind? B**tard!” Aqib replied. He added in frustration: “Halaat chayi paai?”
“Drop them to Lal Chowk then.”
Aqib and Khan didn’t agree. The laborers had a sum of 21 rupees on them. “What are they going to eat? … Where will they sleep?” the drivers told the contractor.
Amid this, a tyre in front flattened.
“You have totally lost it,” Aqib said on the call and sprinkled a couple of abuses. “We are Kashmiris and we are not those people [who would leave a passenger midway].”
The drivers murmured in private, snapped the contractor’s calls, and drove the laborers slowly to a mutual friend’s houseboat, a kilometer from the Tourist Reception Center (TRC). The government forces’ personnel, standing guard at the bunkers, whistled continuously.
The drivers gave the houseboat owner a minimal charge, a few hundred rupees to laborers for dinner from the pocket, and bid a goodbye. “No money is greater than the word,” Khan told the laborers. “We are from downtown … nothing is bigger than our word.”
Two more passengers to go. At 2 am, they stopped at the TRC to replace the tyre. While Khan and Aqib brought down the spare tyre, the passengers sipped tea, now shivering in Srinagar’s weather.
At 2:30 in the night, they drove through the city’s erring silence and barking dogs to reach downtown. An elderly non-local couple waited in the middle of the street. As the last laborer got down from the taxi, the couple’s eyes lightened. A young girl watched the man shyly from behind them. The scheduled engagement is not far away now.
Smiles. Hugs. And gratitude. They blessed the drivers with prayers. The long day had come to an end. Now, they hoped to finally reach their homes. To awaiting families.
Then the tyre flattened, again. “Sometimes, isn’t too much to take in,” Khan told Aqib, breaking into a laugh.
They both looked at each other and had the answers in a smiling glance. Khan parked on the roadside, took out three blankets that he shared with Aqib and me. “This is the life of a driver,” Khan told me as he reclined his seat to lie down. “After dropping everyone home, we couldn’t reach ours.”