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Taya Ji - a short story
by

Shahid Mahmud

(Taya Ji is a form of address for father's older brother)


Bara'an Waali Pulli, (or twelver bridge') was a minor bus stop on Sumandari-Rajana road, just over nine miles from the Sumandari city center, a mid-sized town in central Punjab. If a bus had room, the driver would stop and the conductor would let only those passengers in who were going to Sumandari or beyond, preferably Lyallpur, which is now called Faisalabad. The Pulli, or a small bridge, was nearer to our village than either Khidarwala, a major stop some five miles away, or, the railway station about the same distance though almost in the opposite direction. Khidarwala stood divided along banks of a tributary, which after passing through the roadside town, slowly arched towards our village, Chuck No.482.

Though chances of landing a seat in the bus were much brighter had one traveled first to Khidarwala, either on a Tonga or a bullock-cart, most in the village preferred the pulli, which wasn't less than 2 miles either. A seemingly endless walk to get to it was only barely improved upon by a bumpy ride on a bullock-cart over a trail, which, depending
upon the season and spot could either be dusty or muddy. Overuse by bullock-carts had left deep tracks within the trail, in some some places as deep as a foot. Where it was dusty, the soil was fine as powder; where it was wet, the trail was muddy, or covered with standing water from the last rain.

While pedestrians walked around the puddles and ponds, oxen pulling the bullock cart with jangling bells tuned to their lethargic steps, simply charged the still water, awakening swarms of the sleeping mosquitoes and painting the rims of the wheel with a fresh coat of mud. Occasionally, charging the mud caused oxen to slip and struggle at which the cart driver, instead of letting the beasts pull themselves out, lashed at them, alternately striking the haunches of the shaft and the ox.

Away from all the action surrounding the hoofs, there was the rustic presence of fields, farms and orchards producing everything central Punjab is known for. While moving on the trail, occasionally a fruit-laden orchard would draw near, then be abruptly replaced by the edge of a cotton field, or a mud-wall lining a barn. At other places, one or both sides of the trail were lined with trees, providing brief respite from the scorching sun during summer. In the harvesting season, the air was laden with faint smell of crops. Clusters of neat sheaves of the heavy-eared wheat punctuated the stubble in the foreground and in the distance.

The arrival at the bus stop at least ensured a kind of point of no return. For, even though not every bus you waved at stopped, it was clear that getting to Sumandari was much easier than walking or riding back to the village. I have walked or rode to the Pulli more often than I can remember. Whether it was summer or winter, spring or fall, planting season or harvesting days, occasions of happiness or sadness, the Pulli was always a fixture, into or out of the village.

Planted among the flora in the fine soil of Pulli is the memory of my first encounter with Taya Ji. We waved to an approaching bus, which to our surprise slowed down to a halt. Behind the steering wheel sat Taya Ji, waving and smiling at us. Soon we were in the Bus sitting in the best seat of the house - right across from Taya Ji, looking in towards
him.

I must have boarded a bus countless times from the Pulli but this one stands out of the blurred recollection of the rest. I can almost see and hear the engine begin to roar as the stationary objects outside slowly start to drift backwards, soon becoming a rapidly changing landscape dotted by haystacks and huts among other elements of the countryside.

Most significantly, for a child of my age at that time, Taya Ji was a breath of fresh air. He always had a distinct smile on his lips with full support of rest of his face. If you would see him, you wouldn't believe he made living driving a bus - a strenuous job even today. Every time I saw him, he had never left his smile behind.

His demeanor was in stark contrast to my youngest Mamoon, who was surrounded by the beautiful farmland leading to Pulli, yet sported a frown which rarely left him, even though he was far richer than Taya Ji, in fact a Numberdar of the village once. When he entered the haveli, as his sprawling village house was called, women who were just chatting would suddenly drop their conversations, kids would hide, and poor servants, already tired of hard work, move ever so more quickly to not appear lazy. I used to count the days to when we would return to our little house far away, in a small town called Kamoke, near Gujranwala. Taya Ji's family lived across the street from us though he was stationed in Lyallpur.

He, along with two of his brothers, fought the World War II on the side of British, eventually becoming prisoner of the Japanese armies in the Far East. After independence and upon migrating from East Punjab to Kamoke in District Gujranwala, he took up a job as a bus driver in Lyallpur, leaving his family behind.

As much as I remember, I rarely saw him in Kamoke. My aunt (his wife) and the children lived in the house across the narrow street from ours where families of other four brothers lived, sharing a small house, cleverly compartmented to appear big. His boys did not like school much but somehow , staying with father's trade, they had mastered the art of
memorizing particulars of each bus which passed through the town on the famous Grand Trunk Road. From a considerable distance they could tell you the bus-company, make of the engine and type of cabin - lorry or box, even numbers on the tag.

He faced a lot of adversity in his lifetime, losing a son to drugs, others to illiteracy and unemployment; failing to convince the British government that he once was a POW (deserving compensation awarded to others like him); living hand to mouth in later years of life as his sons could barely support him - or just simply didn't.

But in all this, he never once lost his composure, using his very attractive smile as a shield against losses and lapses. Lately, fortune seems to have started turning good for him. The British government finally relented to his repeated pleadings through my father and his siblings had gotten enough money together for him to finally have a house for himself. He even put a down payment on a house he liked.

But he died on October 20, 2003 due to a heart attack.

I don't know when, and if ever, I would board a bus again from the Pulli. Much around it must have changed in the last forty years. Muddy and mucky track to the Chuck might have been paved by now; and the farms and orchards surrounding it must have grown smaller in size as a new generation of siblings divided them up. But if I ever stopped by there and traced out the little Pulli, I am sure to hear a bus slowing down to a complete halt and see Taya Ji behind the steering wheel, calling us to come on board. This time, though, I wouldn't want the bus to move, hoping to change what was to come his way and what wasn't - before the wheels start to turn, an all too familiar fact of life of a a bus driver.




*****

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