Hamid thought the Central Bus Station was the best place in the world. For him diesel fumes smelled better than evening jasmine. As for revving engines, they sounded sweeter than music. His heart thrilled to the hustle and bustle of street hawkers, the comings and goings of passengers. He saw people from every corner of Pakistan: tribesmen from the North with craggy faces and woollen berets, children of all ages, wedding parties, ladies in black burkas or demure hijab. And the buses! Gorgeously painted in rainbow colours- tasselled, tinselled, and gaudy as decorated camels from Sind. Once they left the Bus Station they picked up speed, thundering towards Sialkot, Islamabad, Karachi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad, Abbotabad and other towns. Faces crowded at windows, hands waved goodbye and extra passengers perched perilously on luggage racks.
After school there was no time to kick a ball and fool around like the other boys. Instead, Hamid raced to the Bus Station to spend time with his father and his father’s friends. Abba, his dad, owned a mobile cart fitted with a machine for pressing sugarcane juice. The cart was a work of art, decorated with red and yellow flowers, green hills and blue clouds. On the front were two lights painted like eyes that always looked like they held a secret. On top of the cart there was a hand juicer, a row of washed glasses and a pile of greeny-yellow sugarcane that resembled fat sticks of bamboo.
The man who sold salted peanuts and roasted chickpeas would call, “Hey Hamid, give us a hand. Hurry up! That bus for Wagah leaves in five minutes!” And Hamid grabbed the tray of snacks and cantered like a little pony to pass it under the windows of the departing bus. Paper cones of nuts and money were exchanged. Another of his father’s pals would yell, “I need more milk for my tea stall. Here’s ten rupees- get me a couple of cartons, and hurry.”
Every day was like this. Hamid was everyone’s favourite because he could be trusted with money and relied on to be polite, smile at customers and make sales.
While the buses waited for passengers to board and settle down, salesmen and hawkers also clambered up with their goods. There were men selling medicines that claimed to cure anything, anything at all.
“Boils pimples, headaches, blindness, earache, stomach upsets, lovesickness, chickenpox, backache…whatever your illness, my wonder oil will put you right!”
Others sold bracelets and rings and amulets, with verses from the Koran tucked inside them. Lottery tickets were peddled and so were bananas and mangoes.
Hamid’s favourite salesman was Bulbul Miah the conjurer who did the most amazing tricks.
One Monday afternoon in June when Hamid arrived at the Bus Station everyone seemed to be in a bad temper. Perhaps it was the blazing sun, perhaps it was the sky which was raining down sheets of brass.
“You took your time,” grumbled Abba, wiping his face. “Now help me by taking around this tray of sugarcane juice. He handed a wire carrier with six small glasses of cloudy green juice. “Remember, two rupees a glass. Don’t let anyone short change you.”
Hamid wound his way through the crowds of passengers and their relatives who had come to see them off. He caught a glimpse of Bulbul Miah hopping onto the bus that said “Timarpur”. Carefully balancing his wire tray of glasses with his left hand, Hamid climbed up the steps and greeted the driver and conductor with “Salaam Aleikum”.
In the central aisle Bulbul Miah was producing one coloured handkerchief after another. His audience didn’t pay much attention. Passengers continued to arrange their bags, their children and their animals.
Hamid forgot about selling his juice. He stood open-mouthed as Bulbul swallowed egg after egg. Then, tiny yellow chickens seemed to multiply from a hat.
“Wah wah, sir!” Hamid applauded, forgetting the tray and slopping sugarcane juice over the burka-clad lady in seat 61.
“Hut, badmash, scoundrel!” she shouted, frantically dabbing the damp sticky patch with a silk scarf.
“I’ll Bibiji you!” she cried.
In the confusion, Hamid didn’t realize that Bulbul had already hopped off the Timarpur bus. A baby chick was left behind cheeping on a rack and the bus was on its way to its destination!
“Stop, Uncle, stop!” but the bus was very old and it groaned and creaked like an old person in pain so the driver couldn’t hear Hamid. The bus lurched and swayed under its load of men, women, children, goats, chickens and baskets of vegetables and fruit. Hamid looked helplessly to his left and right. The interior was festooned with tinsel, shiny bunting and mirrors. The ceiling was painted like the night sky, with stars and a full moon and there were vases of plastic flowers stuck to the sides. The flowers nodded busily as the bus gathered speed. He managed to grab the chick and pocketed it for safety.
Nobody paid attention to the ten-year old boy with a wire tray of sugarcane juice. One bold man stretched out and helped himself to a drink.
Quick as a flash Hamid held out his hand, “ Two rupees, if you please.” Reluctantly the man slapped the coins in his waiting palm. Suddenly the bus jolted as it went over a pothole. Hamid stumbled, dropping the tray. The glasses fell on the floor with a crash, splashing juice.
“Who is this boy?” grumbled one old man whose beard reached his waistband. “Driver, driver, get this fellow off the bus. He’s ruined my jacket.”
The driver glanced over his shoulder. “Hamdallah! You still here? Get off at the next stop and go home.”
Hamid was well and truly rattled; not just by his unwanted adventure, but also by the movement of the bus. All he wanted was to go back to Abba.
At the first stop, the driver let him off. “Have you enough money?” Hamid checked his pockets. “Six rupees.”
“That won’t get you far. Here, take this and pay me back when I return tomorrow.”
Hamid alighted, still carrying the wire tray- now full of empty, juice-smeared glasses. He was on a National Highway and close to a village, about fifteen miles from home. He was hot, sticky and hungry. He fingered the twenty rupee note. He reckoned he’d just have to wait till a bus appeared, going the other way. He wished Bulbul Miah was with him and stroked the chick with a gentle thumb.
The road threw up clouds of dust. All kinds of traffic whizzed past. Carts, camels, buffaloes, four wheel drives, Mercedes Benzes, bikes, motorbikes. Carefully crossing the road, Hamid found the bus stop and settled down in the shade of a tree.
The air cooled a little towards evening when a bus bound for his town slowed down to let off passengers. Hamid climbed up the steps and the driver recognised him.
“Hamid! Whatever are you doing here? Here come and sit next to me. No, no, I don’t want any money- its only 15 miles to get home. Now tell me what happened?” The driver offered him a bag of peanuts to munch.
Hamid told him the whole story.
The bus driver laughed merrily. “Isn’t it lucky that we all know you and your father? Never mind, no harm done, we’ll soon be at the bus adda again. Now don’t tell me- what will you be when you grow up?”
In a flash out popped Hamid’s answer: “Become a bus driver of course!”