The taxi stops at the traffic signal and a pedlar runs up to the car with a pack of yellow dusters. “Chal bhag” [Go away] roars the driver at the wheel like a lioness, cursing him. She turns to look at me. “He wants 10 rupees for that?” Turning back, she spies a policeman standing at the traffic kiosk. “I have a love-hate relationship with the police, I’ll tell you how,” she says, switching gears as the signal turns green.
This is Basheeran, 67, who drives a Suzuki pickup as taxi for the past 30-35 years and is the only female taxi driver in Hyderabad city.
Basheeran got married in her early teens. “I did not even know how to hold a baby. I was pampered both at my parents’ and my husband’s home. He was a policeman and also owned a taxi, which he drove in his spare time. He loved me very much,” she recalls.
Despite her lack of interest, her husband insisted that she learn to drive, regardless of criticism from relatives. “He gave me driving lessons. Who knew that he would die and I will have to support our children.”
Her husband died of cardiac arrest after 13-14 years of marriage. At the time, they had six children — four sons and two daughters. “I was so naive that I could not find my way back home if I went to the market. After his shocking death, I didn’t know where to go and what to do,” she says.
After her husband’s death, her in-laws and relatives abandoned her. She neither went to her parents in Ranipur, nor to her relatives in Punjab. Instead, she decided to rent a house and live there with her kids. She started sewing clothes for a living and hired a driver to run the taxi, but things did not work as per her plan. The driver did not bring in much money, neither did sewing help her earn enough to feed, clothe and provide shelter to a family of seven.
One day, Basheeran put her sewing machine in the taxi and drove out. She doesn’t remember exactly when she started driving. “Perhaps some five years after my husband’s death, before Sindhi-Mohajir riots began. Back then, the price of five litres of petrol was 35 rupees only,” she recalls.
Basheeran first chose the route from Hyderabad to Kotri — the city’s longest route. “It was strange then for a woman to drive a taxi. Besides, I was young and beautiful, so people would give me strange looks. At first, I was frightened, but I had heard the song ‘Aye dil tujhe qasam hai, himmat na harna... [Oh heart, I besiege you not to lose hope]’ and I decided to fight my circumstances.”
Initially, Basheeran did not allow men to sit shotgun beside her. Either women would take the passenger seat with her or the seat would remain vacant. She would sew clothes while waiting for her turn at the stop. This is how she was able to raise her children and send them to school.
When the Sindhi-Mohajir ethnic riots in 1988 took place all over Hyderabad, her house in Latifabad was attacked and her taxi snatched at gun point. Basheeran had no choice but to move to another locality. This time she purchased her own home and two taxis (on installments, after paying some advance money that she’d saved bit by bit).
By this time, her two elder sons had learnt driving and were helping her make ends meet. Things were going quite well before her eldest son got married and moved to Punjab. Soon, two others also left after getting married. The fourth one got involved with hoodlums and started living on footpaths. The daughters too got married; one moved to Karachi and the other lives in Hyderabad.
Living on her own now in an empty nest, Basheeran took in a young girl whose family lived hand-to-mouth. “I adopted a neighbourhood girl whose mother had died. She was living in poor conditions with her father and brother. They did not even have a washroom to go to, and used the mosque’s washroom. She lived with me like a daughter [for 12 years] and I arranged her marriage. I did not consider marrying her to my youngest son because if he can’t support himself, how can he support a wife and children?”
Every morning, Basheeran wakes up at 4 o’clock; she says her prayer, reads the Holy Quran. At 8am, she leaves home for the taxi stop in Latifabad No 10. This is where I met her. While we stood there, she ordered tea in fluent Sindhi. “Most of my friends and acquaintances are Sindhi. One of my daughters is married to a Sindhi who works for a FM radio station. They are the only people left in the world who own me,” she says. “Baytay to kisi kaam ke nahe nikle, [My sons are of no use]” she whispers.
Her complaints are valid. Her sons not only left her as they came of age, but also took her taxis and kicked her out of the house, three years ago. “Since they have the support of a corrupt policeman, the police is not willing to look into my case. I’ve filed a case in court and am waiting for the decision,” Basheeran tells me.
Since then, she has nowhere to live. Often she goes to her daughter’s home and, at times, to acquaintances but she doesn’t feel comfortable either way. Sometimes she locks herself up in her Suzuki and sleeps there. “This cab is my home, and everything to me,” she says.
While we’re talking, a man appears wearing a black shalwar kameez, a bead necklace, a black cap and holding a thick plastic cane. He looks like a fakir. He hands her a small dish and starts complaining of load-shedding and pain in his arm.
“He is my youngest son, my malang son,” she introduces.
“And she is our unfortunate mother, afflicted by sons,” he adds.
His name is Mureed Abbas. Basheeran has rented a room for him but doesn’t live with him. He is irresponsible and mostly lives out of home with other junkies, she says. But she still brings her son food from the hotel in the small dish. Some three months ago, Mureed Abbas had visited his sister in Karachi where he broke his arm in a motorcycle accident.
His mother scolds him now for not seeing doctor about his arm and inquires if he needs money. He shakes his head in denial. She insists that he take money from her and advises him to go to a hospital before his arm becomes incurable. He promises to go and says, “I’ll ask my friends for money.”
“Dost paisay dete hain kya, pagal?” [Do friends give money, you fool], she says sarcastically and presses some bills in his hand.
Mureed Abbas disappears.
It is nearing 3pm in the afternoon as she awaits her turn to queue her taxi. If her turn comes after 4 o’clock, she won’t go. Instead, she’ll go home, say her prayers and recite the Holy Quran. She’s fond of watching the 9 o’clock bulletin as she likes to keep an eye on politics even though she has never cast a vote in her life.
3pm, and the man at the stand asks her to queue up her taxi for her third turn. Basheeran smoothly parks her car behind another one and begins cleaning its seats and windows. “Isn’t there any way you and your sons can patch up?” I ask. “They often come to see me. The second one who drives an air-conditioned coach came last night to apologise,” she replies. “Par tuti jo tanko ee konhe [Once the heart is broken, it can never be mended again],” she whispers in Sindhi.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, March 18th, 2018