Atta Muhammad was always a sight for sore eyes. If Santa Claus was a Pakthun man, he would look just like Atta Muhammad, big, somewhat round, friendly, with a bushy beard and twinkly eyes, and a face that I have to describe as jovial. There aren’t many times I use that word, but this is one of those moments.
He was (probably still is) a private guard, employed by around six houses on my street for the sake of security. I wonder how secure we really are, considering guards like Atta Muhammad are hired by private companies, underpaid, and seldom given any training. In fact, in many cases they are not even allowed to use the guns they carry, casually slung over their shoulders, or when sitting down, laid across their laps. Families like mine pay about Rs12,000 to the company and the guard gets barely Rs4,000. He sends more than half to his family who still lives in their small village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Atta Muhammad has a wife, and two teenage sons he will talk about if probed. His parents and uncles and aunts also live in the same village. He came to Karachi in 2001, sharing the same aspirations as the hundreds and thousands who migrate to the mad city of lights, hoping to get by and send some money home.
He works 12 hour shifts, every two weeks he is on night duty and I wonder what he does to stay awake once all noises settle down: the traffic, the children, stray dogs, families coming and going, reversing cars, whistling trees, conversations of other guards or chowkidars or servants who come out to sit down together on small patches of grass outside houses they help run. What does he do? I bet he strolls up and down the streets, and prays, and reads the Quran. Can he read novels? Does he prefer mystery to romance? Does he write letters to his wife and his boys? Does he write the letters on paper or just in his mind?
Whenever I see him, he smiles at me, raising his hand in the sweetest salam possible. When he sees me push open the gate to my house, he comes forward, pushing back the gun that slides forward along his arm, and tells me to let him do it. He sticks around to help me reverse my car, grinning, a mixture of amusement and reassurance as I slowly inch back, get too close to the edge and try again.
How are you, I always ask, and he always nods his head in stoic content: just fine.