The sun was high enough the day I saw him again, high enough that you could see your way through the fog. The car sped along the dusty roads of Lahore, trying to get me to school on time despite my habitual lateness.
I don’t remember what it felt like on my daily drive to school, it was mostly transitional: the world I saw through my car window only existed in an isolated limbo between the realms of home and school. Buildings, people and cars flew by, the motion too rapid for contact or association.
Every weekday, most months of the year, it was the same route. I had all the turns, potholes and enchanting little nooks between buildings memorised. I could recognise the tiniest section of those streets from a photograph and be able to pinpoint the exact location, even as the landscape changed – skyscrapers and gargantuan billboards emerged, roads became smoky and congested, and the buildings began to shamelessly step on each other’s toes.
Yet, in the eight years that I travelled on that route, most things seemed soothingly constant: the ineffable yet intensely palpable spirit of the city, the fact that the end of Sherpao Bridge that descended into Fortress Stadium was less steep than the end which emerged from Jail Road and, of course, the chickpea salad vendor with his various creative rants and jingles – the mood of which was almost invariably contingent upon the climate, political and otherwise.
He was replaced in the winter months by the surly, cross-armed roasted peanut man who I had always wanted to approach but never dared to, thinking that my indecisive inquiries regarding his peanuts would beget sarcasm, which would be harder to take in the stingingly chilly air of December. Back then, I believed that there would always be time for such things and that no wishes ever go unfulfilled.
Yes, I am quite sure that I remember every individual tree and square inch of road on the 30-45 minute commute to and from school. I saw many people, some rarely, some regularly and some only once, and very few made a lasting impression.
I cannot remember when I first saw him: the little boy in the yellow hat. He sold newspapers on the main road in Defense (a highly lucrative place for him to position himself) and he would be there, mostly sweating in the heat but occasionally shivering in the cold with an oversized yellow hat falling over his forehead and ears.
He was probably a few years younger than me. When I was in Class 4 or 5 and, for about a year, I saw him every day. Everything about him was as bright as his yellow hat and sometimes he would smile at me aloofly and I would smile back, equally disengaged. He made me somewhat uncomfortable in my temperature-controlled car. Seeing him almost always made the intensely familiar images around me appear extremely distant.
One day, towards the end of high school, I passively observed a gangly teenager with a blotchy face selling newspapers on the main road of Defense. He was there again the next day, and he was wearing a yellow hat. It was mangy looking, less bright and fit a little better than I remembered it.
And so, on that unseasonably clear day in December, I rolled down my window so that everything looked more three-dimensional than before. When he approached the window, thinking I wanted to buy a newspaper, I asked him if he had worked this road as a child. He simply shrugged, seemed mildly puzzled, and said: “I’m here every day.”
The traffic light turned green and I sank back into my seat, watching the slowly ascending car window unite a bifurcated world. He went back to work as we drove away.
I’m sure that our encounter was not nearly the most confusing thing in his life. He had been there every day, I had just stopped noticing.
Amar Alam is a writer, editor and educator based in Lahore, Pakistan.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty