After Gul hit the little Suzuki with his truck, sending it spinning and possibly killing the man who had been driving it, he told himself, I need to stop. He finally pressed the brake when he had gone a few kilometers away from the car. He got out and gulped the cool night air, nausea rising in his gullet. The other drivers would be here in a moment; he could hear their trucks coming up the road behind him. Amir and Farooq. Would they want to take him to the police? Would Hasan agree with them?
When the men arrived and got out of their trucks, Gul watched them warily. Hasan stayed in the darkness near the back, and for a moment Gul wanted to rush to him and offer to give up his salary for a year. But then Amir lit a cigarette and Farooq quickly did the same, offering another one to Gul, and he took it gratefully. They stood in the yellow of the headlights, their hands shaking as they put their mouths to the tips. Farooq, his voice wobbly in the stillness, said whoever was in that car was fine, probably; there was no fire, no smoke. And why had that bastard been going the wrong way anyway? Amir said it was the fault of the highway authority for not putting up clear signs. Then Farooq said he knew a man who had survived a motorbike accident without a single scratch on his body only to die of a gunshot wound the next week, and Amir said it was all qismat how these things happened.
Gul ignored their nervous chatter. He knew they didn’t want to be here where they could be implicated in the accident. They stayed because they knew Hasan wanted them to stay. Hasan had given them their jobs transporting dried fruits between cities. He gave them their earnings, which were more generous than what other truckers got. He gave them holidays and bonuses on Eid. He had a few rules—there were never to be more than three other drivers in the group, and every now and then they had to travel together on the highway. He told them he would take care of them as long as they did exactly what he said.
Gul shot a quick look toward Hasan. Why was he standing by himself? Why wasn’t he here, telling Gul what he was supposed to do? He remembered an afternoon from a year ago. Hasan had bought all of them tea. When he had left them, Farooq had leaned forward and said, “Child, there are things you don’t know about that man. It’s not all wholesome goods he takes about. Not just pistachios and almonds.” Amir had nodded. “He’s clever. He mixes up the goods when he’s on a special run. None of us know exactly what’s in our trucks. And it’s harder for the police to track him when there’s a group of us together.” Farooq’s face was so close to Gul he could smell stale tea on the older man’s breath. “Trust us, we’ve known him a lot longer than you have.”
But over the past year, Hasan’s kindness to Gul had mattered far more to him than the words of those men. Hasan was thoughtful. Sometimes he gave Gul four or five hundred rupees extra, out of sight of the others, saying that a young boy should have fun. A lot of times, he paid for Gul’s dinner, making sure he didn’t go to sleep less than full.
Standing on the side of the road now, Gul’s stomach twisted into knots. I’ve disappointed God, he thought. And I’ve disappointed Hasan. Then he saw Hasan walk toward his truck, and his thin body shivered. The other men stopped talking. Hasan moved his fingers slowly over the dent in the corner. He looked at Gul. “You didn’t get hurt anywhere, did you?”
Gul shook his head.
“Were you going fast?”
He couldn’t tell Hasan the terrible truth, that he knew nothing about the moments before the impact; he had been asleep in his seat, his hands on the steering wheel. His eyes had flown open only at the moment of collision to see the car ricochet off to the side, and the shape of a man strike the windshield. Would Hasan punish him by taking away the key and his protection, and leave him by the road?
Once, Hasan had found Gul playing cards with some men, a fifty-rupee note in front of him. Eyes wide with fury, Hasan had torn the note in half. Gul scrambled after him, saying he would never gamble again. He said Hasan was like a father to him, and he began to weep when Hasan spat on the ground and said he wasn’t anybody’s damned father. But Hasan also didn’t leave. When Gul stopped crying, Hasan said, “I never saw mine, and you hardly saw yours. Which makes us the same kind of person, do you see? Those men you were with, they’re done with their lives. Finished. But not you.”
Hasan glanced at Gul’s truck one last time and said, “It’s best if we move away from here. Best not to get involved. Nobody would care who was going the wrong way or the right way; we’re just truckers.” He said it like a leader of a group telling a plain fact, no bitterness in his voice. Gul felt his knees weaken; Hasan was not going to abandon him.
Gul started the engine of his truck, not looking into the rearview mirror, and drove off. Only when there was a merciful curve in the highway did he allow himself to relax a little and even feel a twinge of hunger.
For ten whole minutes he managed to keep his thoughts away from the dead man, but his brow continued to get covered with sweat even after he wiped it dry with his sleeve. “There is such a thing as destiny,” he said out loud. That man in the car, it had been his time to die. Gul’s truck was just the means. Had God ordained that the man was to die by slipping on a bar of soap and cracking his head on the floor, nobody would have blamed the soap. Men who killed with intent were a different kind of creature. Like Murtaza, who had strangled the man who had hurt his sister. Or Juman, who had shot his uncle seven times for stealing from their shop.
Gul’s own mother had been a big believer in qismat. When Gul’s father had divorced her and moved to the city, Gul asked his mother to get him back, but she said, “I can’t stand in the way of what’s been ordained.” And when a letter came from his father with the news that he had married again, Gul watched, astonished, as his mother folded up the letter into a small square and tucked it inside her purse instead of tearing it up. A year later his father was run over by a bus, and, to Gul’s disgust, his mother actually cried and told him to read the Quran and say a prayer for his dead father to go to heaven. But Gul only pretended to do so, refusing to give this bit of afterlife help to his father.
When Gul was ten and they had to leave their small, one-room house because they didn’t have money for rent, his mother had shrugged and said, “It is God’s will.” When monsoon rains flooded their second home, she said it was as God wanted. When she was fired from one of her jobs as housemaid because the employer thought she had stolen money, Gul’s mother had said it was all destiny.
“But look,” she had said to him that night after he complained about having to eat plain dal and roti again, “we have a roof over our heads, and you go to school.”
“And?” Gul had asked, bitterness on his young tongue.
“And I have two arms and you have two arms. I have two legs and so do you.” She had gone on and on, and he had fallen asleep to the sound of countless blessings.
When she died, she left him with envelopes full of currency notes in a tied-up plastic bag and their unpainted, two-room house. He sold the house to the first willing buyer he found, added the money to the bag, and put it under the floor mat of his truck. He didn’t tell anyone about it or take any of it out. Not even to pay back Hasan who had lent him cash for the funeral, and Hasan had never asked Gul how much he’d made from the sale of the little house.
Suddenly Gul felt slightly better and pushed a cassette into the player. This would be his last overnight delivery job, he decided. He would use the cash to make a down payment for a rickshaw, or one of those old, black Corolla taxis. He had heard that taxi drivers could make five thousand rupees a day, and they got to sleep through the night, away from the moonlight. He thought it strange how it was shining over his truck at the same time as it was over his mother’s grave. He imagined it lighting up the broken glass of the car, the corpse of that man. Who would worry about him first? Did he have a brother or a wife who would tell the police that their beloved was missing? What if he had nobody? The unclaimed body would lie undisturbed for days and days, getting covered up with dust. An automatic burial.
Tiredness swept over Gul. He thought, This has happened to you because you are not a good person. The singer’s voice in the small cab of the truck began to make him feel ill, and he punched the stop button. He would have to go back to the place of the accident. Everything would go wrong if he didn’t; his bag of money would become a burden, he would lose his friendship with Hasan, perhaps even the use of his legs. Punishment could strike from unexpected places.
He glanced into the mirror. There were no vehicles on the road. Amir and Farooq must have sped ahead some time ago. Was Hasan still somewhere far behind? Gul drove his truck onto the gravel on the roadside and swung it around, his foot on the accelerator. He was going the wrong way now. Dread and adrenaline spurred him. He muttered, “Come on! Come on!” but the place where he had hit the car didn’t appear. What he ought to do, he realized with a rush, was ask God for help. God was going to give him help, Gul thought fiercely, because Gul had good intentions and his god rewarded good intentions. He needed to say a prayer free of worldly concerns, the way his mother had, free of disbelief in destiny, containing only gratitude, repentance—a selfless request. He began mumbling, “Help me, please, I’m sorry,” but lines from songs kept coming to his lips, “without you I am as if ash,” and “my love left me by the river,” and he cursed at his tainted plea and started all over again.
And then the wreckage of the car appeared. Gul turned off the engine, and in the silence he looked around. Everything was still. He walked toward the car, his shoes crunching over the dirt, his breath loud in his ear. The car’s bonnet had been crushed, and the front seats were covered with moonlit glass. And a man. Gul walked toward him, his stomach turning. Through the open door he saw that the man was a boy of around seventeen. There was blood on his face, dried and darkening. His eyes were closed. Gul put a cold, trembling hand on the boy’s chest and felt the beating of his heart. With a dry sob, Gul thanked God for giving him a sign that he was maybe forgiven. The boy opened his eyes.
Overwhelmed with remorse and affection, Gul said, “I’ll take you to a hospital, okay? My truck is right here.”
He put his hands under the boy’s arms and began to pull him out of the car. The boy screamed, but Gul didn’t stop until he had laid him on the ground. The boy groaned pitifully. Gul wished he had water to give him. He took an end of his kameez, wet it with his spit, and tried to rub some of the dried, red-brown blood from the boy’s face, but there were gashes there and Gul stopped, afraid to cause more pain. Then he noticed blood seeping through the fabric of the boy’s pants. Panicking, not knowing entirely what he was doing, he tore off a part of his kameez and began to wrap it around the boy’s leg, and when he screamed again, Gul started weeping and said he was sorry, and tied the cloth more gently.
He crouched over the boy, his eyes darting over his body. His hair had a sheen to it; perhaps he had a mother who had oiled it for him before got into the car. Some strands had become stuck into a cut on his forehead. His left foot was bare. Gul took off his own sandal and tucked the boy’s foot into it. Gingerly, Gul put light fingers on the boy’s neck; nothing seemed broken. He saw the quick, shallow rise and fall of the boy’s chest, and when he touched it, the boy hissed through his teeth. His ribs are hurt, Gul realized with horror. The boy began to close his eyes. Gul remembered from somewhere that to stop a dying person from dying it was necessary to keep them awake, so he said, “I’m going to get you something to eat.” He sprinted to the truck and brought out some bread. He eased the boy’s head onto his lap, broke off a part of the bread, and pushed it through the boy’s lips.
“You must eat,” he said.
Gul fed him piece after piece, and the boy chewed and swallowed until he turned his head away and sighed.
“What is your name?” Gul asked.
“Ahmed,” the boy answered, his voice a croak.
“That is a nice name. Where do you live, Ahmed?”
“I’m from Karachi too. I drive that big truck over there.”
“You hit my car.”
Gul’s face turned warm in the darkness. “Yes. I am terribly sorry.” He wanted to add that he was extremely sorry he had broken Ahmed’s body, but he was too ashamed. “I will get you to a doctor. I will pay all your medical bills.” He bit his lips and once again grabbed the boy’s arms, squatting behind his head. He thought he could carry him over his shoulder to his truck but Ahmed screamed, and, with a cry, Gul let him go. “I’m sorry,” he said. Ahmed began to shiver. Quickly, Gul pulled off his shirt and spread it over him. He took Ahmed’s cold hands and rubbed them between his own.
“Do you work?” Gul asked the first thing that came to his mind.
Slowly, Ahmed shook his head.
“My boss’s name is Hasan. He’s a very good man. He says he will make sure I have enough money by the time I’m twenty-five to have my own house. He even showed me where it will be. He says I won’t need to work for anyone; I’ll have my own business.”
Gul’s mother had believed the world was meant to be a place of discomfort, but Hasan disliked moroseness and dressed well. His clothes were made of linen. In winter he wrapped himself in a dark brown shawl of fine wool. He liked to say, “Only sad people like to believe in fate. They enjoy feeling helpless. But a smart man doesn’t just let things happen to him; he makes his own fate.” Gul had been trying hard to be that kind of man. Confident and unfazed about life. He didn’t want to be like Amir and Farooq. They made him feel uncomfortable with their old, holey sweaters and their talks. Sometimes, temporarily freed from their deliveries and the presence of Hasan, they sat on plastic chairs in small tea shops, giving Gul what they called an education. “Hasan doesn’t have a family,” Amir said. “Unnatural, if you ask me.”
Another time Farooq said, “Hasan once almost beat a man to death. Did he ever tell you?”
“I can’t remember.” Gul shrugged irritably.
The two men, older and broader than him with faces more lined and whiskered than his, threw their heads back and laughed and patted his narrow back.
Inwardly he had smirked at their unsuccessful lives. And now here he was, sitting in the dirt, shoeless and shirtless, unable to help this boy. His mother would have called this fate.
Ahmed groaned. His breathing had become slower. Gul was certain that if he moved him he would kill him. The bare skin on Gul’s back prickled in the breeze and his stomach rumbled. He felt lonely and worn out with his efforts at atonement. He wished Hasan would find them. He would know what to do.
“What school do you go to?” Gul asked Ahmed.
The boy didn’t say anything. His silence scared Gul.
“I left school at sixteen,” he spoke hurriedly. “My mother was so angry. She called me greedy, couldn’t understand why I needed money.”
She had told him that she’d left her place in the north with the river and the mountain for the smoky density of Karachi, learned how to clean houses, squat-walking and moving a large rag in arcs over floors, so that she could send him to school and give him a good future. “And you want to use my sacrifices to become an all-night trucker,” she said in disgust. “Nights are for sleeping, days are for working. Don’t mess with God’s laws. You don’t need to do this.”
“You know how much I earned the first time?” Gul said to Ahmed. “Eight thousand rupees. That was just for three trips. When I sent it to my mother she cried because it was too much.”
She had called him from the shop near her home. “What will I do with it?”
“Buy some new clothes. Be happy. Stop working.”
But she was stubborn. “It is not for me to turn away the gift of an earning.”
So Gul told Hasan he wanted to work longer, take all the night journeys the other truckers couldn’t do. He wanted to send his mother so much money that she would think God would find her ungrateful and greedy if she kept working. But still she cleaned houses. On a visit home he got into a fight with her when he told her he was going to buy them train tickets to visit the place where she had grown up. She said she would never use her son’s money for useless pleasures like that. And she got her way too. She’d died suddenly, he was told later. Her body had been found draped over an upturned bucket, the water from it soaking the front of her shirt and dupatta. When he saw her after she had been readied for burial, he thought she looked worried, as if she was afraid Gul had brought her even more food, food for which she had no space or refrigeration or need.
“Is your mother alive?” Gul asked Ahmed.
The boy licked his lips. “I live with my uncle.”
“Is he a good uncle?”
The hunger in Gul’s stomach became forceful and desperate. He reached over and grabbed the remaining bread from the ground, tearing off a large piece with his teeth. Ahmed began to shiver again.
“I have something to give you,” Gul said with his mouth full. “It will be so useful for you. Wait right here.” He stood up, his legs cramping, and hobbled to the truck. Inside, he lifted the floor mat and picked up the plastic bag of money. He walked back as fast as he could.
“Here. See what I’ve got for you.” He spoke loudly and shook Ahmed’s shoulder.
The boy’s eyes opened once again, slowly and heavily. Gul shook the bag and the money inside it rustled. “See how nice it sounds? It’s money. And it’s all for you. You’re going to use it after we’re done with the hospital.” But Ahmed was already drifting back into sleep.
The sound of a vehicle approaching became louder by degrees, and in another minute the shape of Hasan’s truck became clear, coming closer. With a mixture of dread and relief, Gul watched it stop and the door open. When he saw Hasan’s face, his doubt went away and he leapt to his feet.
“This is Ahmed. He’s hurt badly,” he said, his words tumbling out.
“I told you to drive on.” Hasan spoke through gritted teeth. His eyes were wide, and his shawl hung off one shoulder. He rubbed his hands through his hair and paced the ground, peering into the darkness around them. “This is a dangerous situation for us.”
“We’ll just drop Ahmed at a hospital and leave. We won’t even go inside. Promise.”
“The police are probably on their way. We’ll go in my truck.”
Thinking that Hasan had relented, Gul bent toward Ahmed to lift him.
Hasan said, “I’m not taking that boy with me.”
In anguish, Gul said, “I can’t leave him. You should go; this was my fault.”
“That is not how it works. We are all mixed up in this now. They find you, they find me, we go to jail.” Hasan spoke loudly and slowly as if to a child. Then he took a deep breath. “You are exhausted. You have never had a father to fix your mistakes. Let me take care of this.” He reached inside his kameez and very slowly drew out a gun. “Fathers can do a lot to protect their own,” he said, his tone soft, reasonable. “You have to trust me.”
Once, Hasan had said that he wanted to meet Gul’s mother, so, proudly and self-consciously, Gul had brought him home. Hasan had insisted that Gul’s mother sit on the charpai and that he was perfectly comfortable on the plastic chair. He called her Ma and spent time explaining how the sacks of dried fruits were arranged in the trucks. “There are hundreds of sacks, Ma. That’s our job, taking all that food to warehouses and factories so they can turn them into wonderful things to eat. I am never ashamed to tell people that I am a humble truck driver.”
Before leaving Hasan said, “Ma, I promise I’ll watch over Gul.”
Now Hasan was saying, “You go wait inside my truck. This won’t take long.”
“Ahmed won’t do anything!” Gul licked his lips and found sweat and tears on his tongue. “I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me.”
Hasan shook his head sadly. “Maybe I was wrong, Gul; maybe you don’t want to be my son. Haven’t I taken care of you?”
Gul felt sick with misery. He did want to belong to him; there was nobody else. But below him lay the boy. If he died it would be because of Gul; he would become a murderer. There would be no more heaven, no more meeting his mother.
Hasan pointed the gun at Ahmed. “You’re trying to protect the wrong thing, Gul. This boy isn’t a part of our plan.”
With his free hand he tried to push Gul away. Then he squeezed the trigger.
Gul heard the shot, but he had moved before the sound, his body covering Ahmed’s. If Hasan shouted in surprise, or if Ahmed groaned, he didn’t hear it. In the moments before the bullet tore into him, a memory played in his mind: Once, Gul had shyly asked Hasan if he wanted to say the morning prayer with him, and Hasan laughed and said he had a different way of beating his devils. Then he told Gul to hurry and finish his prayer on time, before stretching out on the ground, chewing on a stalk of grass.