Monday, November 08, 2004


A.H. Cemendtaur

I looked at the clock. It was a little after eleven that Saturday night. I was at a party at a friend's place. We had been eating, drinking, and making merry since early in the evening. I decided to take leave. It was a beautiful Bay Area summer night, with its vintage chilly feel, and I loved coming out of the stuffy indoors. My car was parked on the street, some distance away from my friend's home. I started towards the car and, a few yards down the dimly lit sidewalk, noticed a man coming towards me. He wore baggy clothes and was walking his bicycle. His garb, combined with his disheveled long hair, identified him as a homeless person looking for a warm place to spend the night. As he walked past me, he said something; I replied with a genial hello.

When I reached the car and was about to open the door I sensed someone behind me. I turned to look back. It was the same homeless person.

"What did you call me?" he asked, with some fury.

What did I call him? I didn't call him anything. I just said hello. But I didn't want to reply to this obviously enraged dullard; didn't want to argue with him; didn't want to assure him that I didn't utter a word besides "hello"; that I didn't mean any harm to him; that I wasn't the reason he was homeless; that I hadn't taken away his job (if he ever had one); that I didn't make him insane and cause him to lose the things he grew up with, if he was indeed deranged. No, none of that. I could tell he wanted to pick a fight with me. I could see 'trouble' spray-painted in the air all around me, and I wanted to get the hell out of there.

I opened the car door, slipped in, and closed the door behind me. It was my first victory. I had successfully fortified myself. But fortification had its own perils--I was now constrained. He had come up behind me and was now standing where I was standing seconds earlier. Sitting low in the car with a glass window between me and a stooping, threatening man I was very vulnerable, may be even more than when I was out there in the open, standing on my own two feet—-out of the car I could run away from him. I thought about locking the door, but then decided on saving time. I was driving my wife's car, and the slight unfamiliarity with the machine was not working in my favor. My right hand fumbled to fit the key in the ignition while I kept looking at my tormentor, gauging his next move. The engine cranked up---another victory. My harasser also sensed the importance of my latest triumph. I was ready to escape and he didn't want to let go of me. He made his move, I made mine---for a split second I turned my head, looked at the gear stick, put the gear in drive, looked back at him and gunned the engine. I was quick, I didn't give him enough time to open the car door. All he could do was to throw his bicycle at my car while I managed to diagonally come out of the parking spot avoiding hitting the car parked in front of me. The handle of his bicycle hit the left rear of the car with a loud thump. But that was it. I was out--the final victory of the night. My heart was pumping really fast---all primordial responses raving my body; no fight that night, it was all about fleeing.

The next morning I surveyed the damage. As I looked at the dent the bicycle handle had impacted and the scratches rubbing metal had produced on the car, many what-ifs surfaced. What if I had talked to him? But then should I have talked to him before sitting in the car, or should I have rolled down the window after getting behind the wheel? Had he noticed a trace of fear on my face, and had that encouraged him to come after me? What if I had not been able to escape and he had attacked me? Was I ready to put up a fight? What if I had grabbed the Crook Lock and fought him? Had his encounter with me emboldened him and had he attacked someone else later that night? Did he later assault a lone woman coming out of the party I had attended?

Living in a civilized society I have let my guard down. I wasn't that way in Karachi. You can't afford to be that way in Karachi. You have to be alert. And this is how all of us were centuries ago: alert all the time, wary, distrustful of each other, doubtful of others' moves, animals. We could not expect benevolence from strangers. They all were there to harm us, to take advantage of us. And further back in history we were cannibals--food for each other; the weak were the meals for the strong. But all that changed with time. Progressively we learned to benefit from each other, we became respectful of our fellow human beings. We realized we could work with people and get something grand out of this cooperation; we made laws to protect the weak.

Still, at times our animal instincts surface. We take advantage of the weak. And it is terrible to feel weak--it sucks. I have felt for the weak caught in exploitive situations. And threatening situations there have been and are quite a few: being a Jew in the Nazi Germany, being a Muslim in Modi's Gujarat, being a Hindu/Christian/Qadyani/Shia in Pakistan, being a Caucasian farmer in present day Zimbabwe, being a South Asian in Idi Amin's Uganda, being wife and children of an Englishman during the war of 1857. I wonder if under the threat of rape, all the women feel a similar exploitation--weak and vulnerable in a world of beastly men.

Sunday was a slower day. Later in the evening I went to grocery shopping. As I parked the car I saw an old woman putting her shopping in her car trunk. A woman even older than her was sitting inside--must have been the mother. Older folks invoke a strange charity in me. I thought about asking the woman loading her grocery if she needed help, but I couldn't make up my mind about how to do it. I just kept looking in that direction. Then I noted that the woman in the car had taken notice of me. She was studying me with caution. Why was I looking at her daughter, she must have thought. Did she wonder if I was going to snatch her daughter's purse and run?

"Ma'am, I can take that cart. I need one." I said when the woman was done putting the groceries in the car. I wanted to save her the trip to the cart corral. She smiled and pushed the cart in my direction.

"It is crooked. It has a tendency to go sideways." She gave me a helpful hint.

"I'll take care of it." I told her and felt sorry for the brief moment of anxiety I caused the older woman sitting in the car.

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