By Sadia Khatri
There wasnâ€™t a rickshaw in sight. Iâ€™d thought 11 pm would be a reasonable time to flag one, but only a few cars and several motorbikes â€“ liberated of their silencers â€“ poured out onto the street before me. A moment of panic: there were no taxis in Lahore. Maybe I could hitch a ride? It was a seven-minute drive to my destination, at most, and strangers had been surprising me lately with their trustworthiness.
Behind me, the theatre was now nearly empty. Walking back didnâ€™t seem impossible, but wasnâ€™t the wisest option either. A few guards, noticing my restlessness, expressed concern, â€œBeta, where do you want to go?â€
â€œWhere do I get a rickshaw?â€ I asked. I calculated that I could walk some, if not all, of the way back. Worst-case scenario: I knew one of my friends would still be up, and a car rescue mission could be summoned. Though it would probably take him the same amount of timeâ€¦
â€œRight, wait here!â€ the guard interrupted my planning. â€œDonâ€™t worry. If it doesnâ€™t show up, weâ€™ll go get you one.â€ Right then, almost as if on cue, a rickshaw appeared before us, screeching to a halt before my feet. Without haggling for a better fare or thinking much at all, I hopped in.
â€œPlease go straight.â€
Something else came to mind: I had promised my friend I would pick up cigarettes. The rickshaw wala grinned when I asked him to look out for a roadside stall. â€œWe will definitely buy cigarettes!â€ he said, enthusiastic about his mission. I double-checked to make sure we were on the right route â€“ basic safety protocol for traveling late at night â€“Â and reluctantly, allowed my motherâ€™s voice to permeate my thoughts. Going out without a plan, beta? Travelling alone at night? Still, this was Lahore, not Karachi. And I knew my way around by now.
The rickshaw coughed to a violent stop outside a row of half-shuttered roadside shops. In the quiet glow of two light bulbs, a makeshift stall was still open. I jumped out, while the driver triumphantly parked and darted off on foot to get more fuel.
A few men loitered around the footpath, their eyes slowly refocusing on the lone woman walking towards them â€“Â a necessary rite whatever the time of day. I wanted to say something, but had internalized another drill: the best course of action was to avoid them completely, ignoring the discomfort of eyes glued to you like clammy insects. I walked straight up to the seller.
Iâ€™d hardly settled when the door banged open again. I froze, finding a policemanâ€™s face staring squarely into mine. â€œYes?â€ I stammered. Guilt inexplicably made its way into my head. What else can a woman feel when caught travelling on her own against all caution?
â€œIs something wrong?â€ I asked again, unsure. But with one quick sweep of his eyes around, he shut the door and left, as abruptly as he had come. I sat, confused, the door bouncing faintly on its frame. â€œWhat was he looking for?â€ I asked the rickshaw wala later, once we were back en route, suspecting I had just passed an alcohol or drug check.
The night was buzzing with faint street-sounds, and the rickshaw wala took a while to reply. â€œSisterâ€¦ itâ€™s late, you know,â€ he answered, hesitatingly, â€œSometimes, boys and girls go roaming around together.â€