Between a school and a glacier

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Being subjected to the terrors of the Karachi midday sun while running daily school errands amid crushing traffic is bad enough without being subjected to the mental gymnastics of daily financial considerations.

But for those with children, this extreme sport is a daily occurrence. And when parenthood and the weather collide with a struggling economy, an unholy trinity is formed and calculations become a necessity.

For those of you who don’t have children, imagine yourself standing outside the school gate with one, two, three or as many little ones as you have waiting for your car. The beads of sweat that formed earlier as you walked through the door are now full-fledged globules rolling down your spine. It is, as the French would say, qiyammat. Except it happens five days a week.

And things can get even more complicated. Those who have children in different schools or with children at least four years apart, it’s a different kind of hell – that of different times at home. I, like so many others, collect my youngest from school at 12:45 p.m. but I don’t leave. Because the time for the second child’s house is too close for us to leave, and far enough to be more tortured.

This is where a decision must be made. Do I drive home and back or just hang around for another 30-40 minutes in the car with the engine running and the AC on. With petrol at nearly Rs 240 a litre, it’s not as easy a call as one might think. For most people this will depend on the distance between home and school. In my case, I wait.

It’s here. I sit down and wait. My second leaves languidly at 1:15 p.m. We go through parents (mostly mothers), older siblings, grandparents, domestic staff and all the while I have a maniacal smile plastered on my face desperately trying to look nice to people who say hello to me.

We can now wait for the car to come to us or walk to it. The heat makes it hard to decide. Sometimes the driver will decide for us as we squint confusedly, our brains melting at 100 degrees centigrade. If I drive myself, there is no decision to be made and we plod along.

Lots of traffic, lots of honking, lots of students with obnoxious bags bumping into you. Did I mention it’s very hot at this point? We get into the car, sticky and tired and wonder why the air conditioner cools so slowly.

I only wish, dear reader, that the challenge was only physical. This is not the case. It is also financial. And that’s where it starts.

You see, one more child needs to be picked up, from a different school, at a different time. Until May, I would just come home, drop off my youngest to change, eat and do what they wanted with their lives while I rushed to pick up my oldest. She gets off at 2:15 p.m. but arrives at the door at 2:20 p.m.

Arrived in August, and the rise in fuel prices made me rethink our routine, as going back and forth costs an arm and a leg. Sorry for the cliche.

(Shit, Miftah Ismail. No, wait… shit, IMF. No, wait… shit, previous PTI government. No, wait… shit, Putin. but that won’t change much of today’s harsh economic realities .)

We’ll wait, I decided, now that the new school year has begun. It’s financially prudent. Options are waiting in the car or hanging around nearby.

The first day I decided to go to a convenience store in a mall across the road, get some snacks, Gatorade, chips, etc. At checkout, I realized that I had spent 2,600 rupees. I quickly returned the packet of almonds for 750 rupees. It was still too much of a bill to do five days a week.

Mental calculation: 1,900 rupees in 22 school days per month is equivalent to… 41,800 rupees! Uh, that’s not good.

On the second day, I decided not to troubleshoot. Ice cream, maybe. So we went to Baskin Robbins, where kid number one got two scoops of chocolate ice cream, kid number three got one scoop, well, I was excited when I saw that there had a sugar free variety and decided to treat myself to a scoop too. We spent around 1200 rupees.

Mental calculation: 1,200 rupees in 22 school days per month is equivalent to… 26,400 rupees! Still too much.

On the third day, I thought it would be enough to wait in the car. I kept falling asleep while kids two and three argued, cried, grunted, said to each other “I’m never going to talk to you again” and then fell silent out of sheer fatigue. Of course, that meant keeping the car and the air conditioning on for nearly an hour. That day I was told that I was destroying the car, I was destroying the car, how can I let it run for so long and so on.

Google rejects about 1.2 liters per hour, but not with an air conditioner. So let’s call it an even 2 liters per hour. Or Rs 460 in 22 days… that’s Rs 10,120 per month to stay seated. And another cost is the apparent long-term one for the car. ProfitResident automotive expert Daniyal Ahmad says, “Keeping the car on for long periods of time with the air conditioner on increases long-term fuel consumption, including maintaining your engine and battery.

On the fourth day, I took the children home, then returned to pick up child number 1 from school. Leaving aside the torment of driving through traffic, dropping the kids and then rushing through traffic to the crowded school zone, all while the sun burns your head and your very being is a thing. But as I said before, there is a financial cost.

Mental math: about 14 miles to and from school, my 2006 Civic gives me 7 miles per liter at best these days, less if traffic is worse. So that’s about…who am I kidding, I’ll have a friend calculate that for me. He says it will be around Rs 500 just for fuel, minimum. So 500 in 22 days… Rs 11,000 per month. Sigh. And the cost to my soul is priceless.

Outside the school gate, I met a parent who’s also a friend, and she said “God, those gas prices are insane” and then “wouldn’t it be better if you hang around around instead of going home?’

It would be, wouldn’t it? But inflation is 25% and my budget is shrinking faster than Pakistan’s FOREX reserves, thanks to rising fees, electricity bills and grocery costs. But what would she know? She carries a handbag that is worth more than my monthly budget. I can’t say that, of course. Neither to her, nor to anyone. Not in such schools.

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