Of all the majestic four-legged beasts, a camel’s gait is the most unseemly. The one before me put one foot ahead of the other with a bureaucratic malaise. It craned its long neck from side-to-side with a teenager’s angst at being told what to do. It was decidedly the end of a boring day for both the beast and I that brought us together last week.
After a day spent needlessly at home, the impulse to step out finally took a hold of me. Two leisurely cups of green tea later, a dangerous habit to grow accustomed to this early in life, I decided to go on a drive. The night conspired to recruit me a companion in my sister. She was walking in our driveway, as is her wont at night, engaged in one of those one-sided arguments that starts at point A, and after touring the world of thought, ends back again at point A. She was either enervated to the point of exhaustion or in the early stages of a fresh reverie, because she far too readily acquiesced to leaving her chattering mind behind to join me.
We turned on to the Mall Road to indulge our dessert craving with the fabled Chaman Ice Cream, for what was embarrassingly my first time. Late night radio, another guilty pleasure, was enough to induce silence on the part of us two passengers. My car radio is a little left leaning (or maybe it’s just made in Japan) because it refuses to tune into the more upscale music stations. Instead, my sister and I had to contend with a woman asking advice on how to appear more appealing to her husband. I had a few ideas but that’s for another day.
We parked in a semi-legal nook on the side of the road and walked over. We crossed a makeshift fresh juice stall being operated out of the back of a van by an old man with a lengthy white beard. Oddly it seemed to fit right in. Just a few steps later we were witness to an unsuccessful attempt at solicitation from a motorcyclist. A loud and animated khwaja sara made a point of turning away this customer, or perhaps our prying gaze, or that of a constable nearby invited the theatrics.
There were young boys selling sunglasses in the dead of the night, and old men offering tiny cute little birds of paradise. Both sunglasses and birds were selling for Rs40 a pair.
Standing in the line at Chaman Ice Cream reminded me of my school canteen during recess. A mad free-for-all. You had to wave and shout to catch the eye of the man behind the counter. He stood there with the assured confidence of a proverbial saaqi — all eyes were on him, his eyes on only a few. But our ice cream we did get, and it was good.
And on the way back towards the car my eyes met the camel’s for the first time. The camel let out a small neigh from behind pursed lips such that they quivered and bubbled. Harnessed to its back was a trolley cart, long enough to seat 30 people. Flashy neon lights and the blare of loud music from across the Wagah Border pulled us toward the cart instead. It was Rs20 for a ride from Regal Chowk to Charing Cross and back.
Seated with us was a family of 14. For their number, a very well-behaved set of kids I have to say. While we were making ourselves comfortable, a young boy tried to market a small sheet of shiny stickers to us; but he soon realised we weren’t his ideal customers and so moved along the cart.
Just before the camel was called to action, a young newlywed couple joined our ranks. The husband wore a suit, his cheeks were not quite chubby but they were full and round. The wife was quiet and shy in his presence; her shoes — sparkling and silvery — hid from view the intricate henna-work on her feet. The husband just assumed the cart was divided among men and women and so the couple sat on either side of my sister and I, but such needless propriety was not to come in the way of our scheming machinations. We insisted they sit together; young love needs some prodding or a gulp of faith at times.
A small boy to our left danced along to the music; passers-by in cars and rickshaws waved; the young sticker sales agent returned with a bored look on his face. The novelty of the ride was visibly lost on him. And right around the point we took a turn at the Free Mason’s Lodge, the husband very awkwardly put his hand around his new wife. Perhaps, for the first time.
And the camel continued on, slow as a snail, awkward, and knock-kneed, unaware that it pulled along the Mall a new story waiting to be written, longing to be lived.