At the age of 22 I still haven’t passed my driving test yes I know, I have enough family members badgering me! Living in London I’m so used to being able to jump on the bus or the underground. So I hardly spend time in cars unless my mums feeling generous enough to give her ‘favourite’ daughter a lift! However in Pakistan I found it was the total opposite. We solely relied on the car as a mode of transport to get us around whether it was to the nearest shopping district or another city with rocky hills and mountains, we had to use the car.
My khala has a license but chooses not to drive. The roads there are crazy even the best of drivers from outside the country would find them hard to manoeuvre on. So the family had their own personal driver Uncle Saleem. In the first couple of outings in the car I found it incredibly awkward. I wasn’t used to having a stranger with us in such close proximity. I watch enough Pakistani dramas to understand Urdu quite well but I’ve never been confident enough to start speaking it. At times though I would have to speak to Uncle Saleem or the others would try and test my Urdu out a bit. During these moments I’d notice his moustache would twitch upwards after hearing some of my Urdu. I admit my Urdu is terrible. I can’t be blamed though, throughout my whole life my parents and family have spoken Punjabi and mainly English, even though both can speak Urdu too. Speaking Punjabi was a link to my heritage and I feel we must acknowledge and celebrate the different dialects and traditions within Pakistan.
It was only towards the end of my trip when I had become familiar with him that I discovered he was originally from Chakwal although now living in Islamabad, he grew up speaking Punjabi *face palm*. All those times I was tomato red and struggling with my Urdu, when I could have just spoken to him fluently in Punjabi. I discovered Uncle Saleem was only 32 and was married with 2 children. Recently he had been taking a lot of time off as his wife was very ill with hepatitis and they had to make regular visits to the hospital.
There was a time when my khala and I were in the car on our way to the shops when my Chachu (Dad’s brother) rang from Italy. It was a long and deep conversation about how in only a few years the whole dynamics of our family had changed. As the conversation became deeper my aunty gestured that she was leaving to pick something up from a shop, leaving me in the car. The conversation became more emotional and personal that I hadn’t even realised that uncle Saleem had slipped out of the car too. It was only after I put the phone down and looked around realised I was alone and panicked a little. I had only been in Islamabad for a couple of days and being left alone in the car in a busy shopping district, scared me a tiny bit. It was getting really warm in the car so I stepped out of the car for some air. I scanned the area for my aunt but she was still in a shop somewhere because I couldn’t see her anywhere. That’s when I spotted Uncle Saleem a couple of metres away from the car; he was standing there scanning the area. Throughout my stay whenever we were to go out, he would always be nearby within earshot but most often hidden. He was our bodyguard without even me having realised.
Half way during my stay my cousins remembered to inform me that he was military trained but had been posted as a driver. Of course it made sense then, he was always disciplined and I discovered that he was educated and understood/spoke English. With recent events that have taken place in Pakistan it made sense as to why they would hire a military personal that they could trust.
As the weeks passed by I become more at ease with Uncle Saleem. He had driven us through some pretty bad storms and some risky corners around hills in Muzaffarabad and Murree. I gave up trying to speak in Urdu and he became more comfortable with speaking to me. He opened up and it gave me a chance to see another side to him, as with many of my other uncles he was sarcastic in his responses to some of my comments. On occasion he would help translate the Urdu cricket commentary whilst we were listening to the Pakistan matches going on.
In the build up to my cousins wedding my khala and I had gone to collect our mehndi outfits. Uncle Saleem was driving us when all of a sudden he pulled up on the side of the road and dropped his head onto the steering wheel. We became really worried as he wasn’t responding to us. I wasn’t used to seeing him so out of it, he told us that he needed some air and was feeling dizzy. He left the car and was sick outside. After a couple of minutes he returned and my khala told him to sit in the back and she would drive. He refused and was adamant he was fine and drove us back home. Even though he was clearly sick he still wanted to fulfil his duties and get us back home safely. Arriving home my khala and uncle offered to take him to the hospital but he declined the offer and told us all he was going to be fine. Later I discovered that he was actually trained to drive tanks when required to in difficult times of war etc. This explained his amazing driving skills in all sorts of circumstances.
On our final night the bride’s father had given some money as a thank you to Uncle Saleem for helping throughout the wedding festivities and he had refused to accept it. That was the type of person he was. I once overheard my Khala telling her husband that she had given him some clothes as gifts for his wife and family but he had refused to accept them. It reminded me of another story my Khala had told me once whilst we were stuck in traffic.
Along the main roads there was a regular who would sell newspapers on the side of the roads. He would only take the right amount of change, if you were to give extra he would return it and if you insisted he keep it, he would simply just drop it back into your car. This made my heart swell. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty in many parts of the country but it was amazing to see that there were many individuals who possessed a strong determination and dignity. They were adamant on working, making their own living and not having to rely on others.
The time finally arrived for us to leave Islamabad and head home and it was for the final time that Uncle Saleem was to drive us. I had already started blubbing at home saying goodbye to my little cousins. As it was 3-4 am the kids were to stay at home and to get some sleep. So it was just my Khala and Uncle that were to accompany us to the airport. I knew I would also have to say something to Uncle Saleem. Mum had rung earlier in the day to tell me not to forget to give something to the people who had helped us during the trip. I had decided not to listen to my mum on this occasion, surely the man who addressed me as beta (daughter) with so much respect, would feel insulted by my gesture however well intended.
On the drive to the airport we passed by the beautiful views of Islamabad that I had become accustomed to for the past month and a bit. Failing miserably trying not to cry, I was drinking up all the beautiful views of Islamabad from the green hills and parks, to the large shopping centres we had spent afternoons in. During the drive I had thought to myself as to how I would say goodbye to Uncle Saleem. I mean how would you put all that emotion into the right words? For all of my planning when I turned to say goodbye, I was lost for words and all I managed was a simple ‘thank you’ in between the tears. I think he understood though, he also appeared to have tears in his eyes. But it was the first time I had seen him smile and laugh with his mouth fully open. He had a couple of teeth missing which explained his usual tight lipped smiles! He did the sideway greeting thing that desi uncles usually do and told me to take care of myself. A couple of months after i had left I was speaking to my cousins and they told me that Uncle Saleem was asking about me. It turns out he thought I was ‘sulji’ which they told me translates as ‘well mannered’ Although I hadn’t been able to say goodbye to him properly he in some way had understood me as an individual and not just the ‘British brat’ which I felt was important to have been remembered in the right way.