Of insecurity, kids, a school bus, and responsibility.

Perhaps it is an indictment of our times, that there is now barbed wire, raised walls, huge concrete slabs near the gates and a gunman on the roof. Fire drills have given way to bomb drills at the old campus.

After the terrorist attack on a university in Islamabad in October 2009, panic and fear gripped the hearts and minds of school administrations AND parent bodies alike. I can only speak for Karachi, since I live here, but I would imagine there being a similar scenario in all the major cities of Pakistan.

This was terrorism taken to an all-new level, a hitherto uncharted one. There was a mad scramble for an appropriate response, resulting in the mass fortification of virtually all the prominent schools and colleges in the city.

Speaking of the school Amu goes to, located in the heart of the busiest commercial district of Karachi, the transformation of the boundary wall of a century-old institution makes my heart sink everytime I see it. The iron-grill gate through which you could see the quaint bougainvillea-covered archway in the distance, and children milling about at home-time is a thing of the past. Now there’s a tall wooden impervious gate, with a heavily garrisoned sidegate through which anyone wishing to enter or leave the school must pass. The friendly chowkidar who knew everyone, has been replaced by several uniformed security guards, who check for school ID cards, and give our purses the once-over with a scanning device. The sidewalk outside the school has been roped off, so pedestrians are forced to walk on the road. Everyone is suspect. Even the alleged parents of the kids in the school!

But far be it from me to bore you with details of the security situation in the city, the larger bane of our existence. I am here today to talk about something called Bus Duty…..which is a tiny speck on a microcosmic level, as far as banes of existence go.


A bunch of parents from the school parent body put their heads together and came up with a plan to simplify their own lives, and consequently, the lives of a bigger bunch of parents. The result? An answer to all our commuting problems in this busy trafficky city around home-time, and the reduction of a considerable number of cars on the streets. The answer, dear friends, is a privately chartered bus system.

Now this is no ordinary bus system. It is not monitored by the school, but by the parents themselves. The idea is simple enough you’d say….but there’s a catch…

Every parent whose child is fortunate enough to get on the bus MUST VOLUNTEER FOR BUS DUTY!

The basic premise of bus duty is, and this stems from the first sentence of this post, that the bus our children ride in to and from school should never be unsupervised. Anything can happen in this unpredictable city to a bus full of kids, and though an unarmed, untrained-for-combat-parent might be an unsuitable match for armed kidnappers, or a crazed suicide bomber, or a street riot gone amok, at least they can save the kids from themselves. Or so we think.

I’ll skip the details of how the system works, and how the coordinators (yours truly being one) manage to make rosters, distribute them AND make sure the designated parent turns up for duty in the morning AND the afternoon, as well as pay up for the service on time. Fast-forward to one day every month where I myself have to be the parent on board…

Being a closet anthropologist, (an uncertified one at that), riding on a bus full of 12-13 yr olds provides great opportunities for observing the behavioural patterns of these overgrown midgets. After months of careful observation, I have come to the conclusion that the male of the species are way more entertaining than the females, who prefer riding in the back of the bus and seem to be content to plug their ears with I-Pods and/or nibble nonchalantly on raspberry ice lollies, their tongues crimson with food color.

An erstwhile president’s granddaughter climbs aboard, an anonymous rider amongst civilians, and makes her way to the back with her lolly.┬áThe boys occupy the middle and the front and their preferred choice of snack is potato chips. The quiet boys sit in the front, out of the way of the rowdier, more vocal boys. According to Amu, none of the boys are worthy of the attention of the girls, except perhaps Naqvi, who seems to have a thing for one of the girls in the back. I hear his side-kick Byram has a secret crush on Amu. I’m thrilled to know this, since I have a secret crush on Byram, as he always greets me when he sees me and offers me a chip. He is the cutest, most polite boy on the bus, yet has the craziest sense of humour. The other day, he had somehow managed to wriggle his arms out of his sleeves, tied the sleeves to the back, and was jumping out from behind seats to try and scare the wits out of everyone who boarded the bus, as the weird armless bogey-man. Go figure. Amu just rolls her eyes, whereas I can’t stop giggling.

I take attendance and tick off names one by one, making note of the kids who weren’t present and verifying their whereabouts. The boys helpfully give me information.

As the bus rolls out of middle school, the quiet boys are absorbed in solving their Rubiks cubes. Arham is especially good at it, and I watch, enthralled, as he asks Hasan to mess it up just so he can tackle it ferociously and solve it within minutes.

Adil and Asad are embroiled in a seat fight that escalates into a water fight. I’m scared some of it will get flung my way. The driver turns around and shouts something in Pushto-accented Urdu to the tune of something like ‘Shut up and sit down!!!’, while glaring accusingly at ME, the supposedly responsible Parent On Board. Little does he know how helpless and ineffectual my protests are against the single-minded revenge-propelled rowdiness of the trouble-makers. But I’m scared the driver might become an unstable one if he flies into a rage, and when Hasham and Nisar start egging Adil and Asad to get nastier, I decide to pull the Powerful Adult card. My timid protest turns into an authoritative yell and I tell the boys to sit down IMMEDIATELY or I would be writing emails to ALL their parents telling them exactly how badly-behaved their kids were and that they would get into serious trouble if I got them kicked off the bus. I half-expected them to humiliate me in the eyes of the girls by ignoring me completely and carrying on, so imagine my surprise when they lapsed into submission. They actually looked scared!

Feeling smug, I resume the reading of my book, though I can’t focus too well due to all that mental patting myself on the back, and had to stifle my smile. The problem is, how to maintain the facade of Powerful Adult, when the chastised boys still have the ability to make me burst into chuckles at their conversation? Hasham says to the mono-browed Asad, ‘Look at your EYEbrows, dude’, to which Asad’s lightning response is, ‘Look at your FACE, dude.’

Then they launch into some conversation that I don’t bother to follow, until I hear the f-word being used repeatedly by the thug of the group, Asad. I glance towards the boys from the corner of my eye and catch Hasham’s furtive look in my direction. He whispers loudly to Asad to shut the f— up, ‘Aunty’ can hear everything. To that, I look up and reply ‘Yes, she can, and she’s going to mention the bad language in her email too!’. I look around to see if the girls were listening and am relieved to see them still in their musical states of oblivion. It seems they really couldn’t care less!

Nisar, with a macabre sense of humour quips he is an orphan, so there is no point in writing to his parents. I tell him I’d be sure to mention what he said in my email to his parents.

I continue to read my book, catching snippets of more inappropriate conversation amongst the boys, and I wonder how much of this I could interfere with. I don’t want to be a tyrannical, over-vigilant parent. But it makes me think about peer groups, and education, and how little I can protect my daughter from hearing things I’m not sure I want her to hear….at least not just yet…..from people her own age. It’s easy to see the power struggles between the boys, and the need to dominate and impress. All of them have a strong need to be accepted, the more insecure they are the harder they try, and I recognize this as I quietly observe, and the child in me empathizes. But their humour is so basic and so diabolically childish, anybody would laugh.

I know most of the parents grumble about Bus Duty and what a chore it is, but we insist it is important for the safety of our kids. I can’t help wondering though, how much we think we can protect our children from.

I have a fair suspicion the real dangers lie inside, not outside……. ­čÖé

It can’t go on…but it does.

Around three and a half years ago, we moved out of a densely populated apartment building near a road that was rapidly becoming a major thoroughfare, into a building with far fewer apartments and in an area which (at the time we were house-hunting) seemed relatively far more peaceful. There was a park with a decent walking track close by, and more wonderfully, a cricket stadium bang in front that afforded not just a verdant view, but also a feeling of expansiveness in a city fast losing its open spaces.

the view from the balcony.

The only jarring element in an otherwise tolerable landscape was the presence of the Mazaar on the other side of the stadium, the final resting place of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and the scene of much frenetic activity. Considering that it is a landmark of our city-by-the-sea, a foreign visitor might be surprised that it isn’t…well…prettier. Let’s just face it, shall we? A squarish building atop a small hill, covered in geometrically placed blue and white tiles, topped by a pistachio green dome and a fibreglass-awning covered flight of steps leading up to it, isn’t what you’d call aesthetically pleasing. Especially when compared to the more magnificent Mughal-era monuments gracing old Lahore. Would a discreet face-lift hurt anyone?

the Mazaar, post suicide bombing, still intact.

The first night we spent after moving in unfortunately coincided with the Urs of Abdullah Shah, and we found ourselves unable to sleep till around four a.m due to the raucuousness of devotional songs blaring out over the loudspeakers and the beating of clamorous dhols all night long, and we couldn’t help wondering what we had let ourselves in for. The area didn’t seem all that peaceful after all.

the yellow-clad drum beaters.

But the next day was much quieter, and we gradually got used to the Thursday and Friday night crowds and noise and the visitors from far-off rural areas camping out on the sidewalks around the park with their portable stoves and babies, giving us a glimpse of the masses who came to pray fervently at the shrine in their hordes, within the precincts of posh Karachi.

Every day I work in my kitchen (the balcony of which overlooks the Mazaar) to the lively sounds emanating from there. Until we install sound-proof windows, we might as well live with this background music in our lives, occasionally drowning it out with some of our own playlists of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones, Dire Straits or Chris Rea.

Over the course of the last few years, when homegrown terrorism has swallowed up people and regurgitated suicide bombers, we have as a nation witnessed innumerable terrorist attacks, whether it was girls schools being blown up, religious processions, military or police infrastructure, political rallies, and most astoundingly (in an Islamic Republic) mosques and shrines. The Data Darbar incident was shocking and appalling, but ultimately not very surprising if we stop to think about the growing intolerance within the ranks of the more fundamentalist amongst us (and I do mean the T-word).

However, these were events unfolding in the newspapers and the tv screen, remote events, happening in some other part of the country, some other part of the city. So when the first blast reverberated with a frightening loudness on that fateful 7th October Thursday evening, I jumped out of my skin thinking maybe the building roof just caved in. We stumbled out of various rooms, Huz, Amu and I, bewildered, and more than a little scared. We headed for the balcony door, dragged it open and looked out for clues to what might have transpired outside. Nothing was immediately visible, except a bit of smoke near the Mazaar and the loudspeaker noise seemed to be replaced by muffled sounds of wailing and fear. Within a couple of minutes, as we stared at the area in front of the shrine, there was a strange flash of light followed by a tremendous second explosion, that shook us to the core and made Fuzzy dash for cover under the bed. That was when we realised this was definitely not a transformer explosion or an unusually loud truck tyre bursting.

Miraculously, the doors and windows survived the bombs. No such luck, unfortunately, for the swarm of people gathered at the Mazaar to pray to the saint who preached love and peace and tolerance fourteen hundred years ago in Raja Dahir’s Sind.

Ironically, though merely yards away from the scene of the crime, we relied on television and the news networks to show us what was happening just outside. At the same time, concerned messages were pouring in on our cell phones (and our Facebook walls) and friends and family tried frantically to get through to see if we were okay and safe. We often use the Mazaar-route to come home, and I had been planning a grocery trip in the evening that would have required me to drive by that road. Later we learned that at least eight people had lost their lives and many others had been injured.

Soon enough, the immediate shock wore itself out, the dead and injured were carted away, the entire area was cordoned off, traffic was diverted, and all fell eerily silent around the Mazaar. No drums, and no more devotional music tonight. It had never been this quiet in all the years that we have lived here and it felt surreal to be standing in my ┬ákitchen, chopping onions to cook something for dinner, when just a few turns of the clock earlier there had been decapitated bodies and limbs strewn over the streets…so very close to home.

the view from my kitchen.

But that, my friend, is how life moves on in our violent city, where the next day the maid turns up to inform us that two children from the eight people that were killed in the suicide attack, were in fact, her next door neighbours in Neelum Colony, a ghetto of Seraiki-speakers, a large number of whom can count on a free meal that is a regular feature of the nearby shrine.