Footprints: Left to the elements

Published July 10, 2015
Stone crushers, belonging to the Heera Lal community in Jamshoro, break mounds of stones with hammers to create truckloads of gravel.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Stone crushers, belonging to the Heera Lal community in Jamshoro, break mounds of stones with hammers to create truckloads of gravel.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

In the depths of a vast, uneven stretch of coarse land, opposite Petaro Cadet College, is a settlement that speaks fluently of destitution and survival.

The Heera Lal community of poor stone crushers stands surrounded by metaphors of resilience. Beginning with their open abodes of carefully balanced stones, beneath cone-shaped thatched roofs to their stone labour, life is a hard habit.

Undoubtedly, this is beauty brutalised — from sunrise to dusk, women and children as young as four years of age, take to mounds of stones with hammers to create truckloads of gravel. Time for those without watches and phones rolls with the sun.

An endless spread of grey gravel is not without frequent bursts of inflorescence — flame oranges, reds, sunflower yellows assault these severe environs as tall, thin, veiled women in bright, fluttering long skirts and saris course through it with armfuls of colourful bangles that glisten in the harsh summer sun.

“Just touch our hands. Even my little daughter’s hands will feel like the surface of these jagged rocks. We don’t have electricity so we light oil lamps for an hour or two after work to cook and eat. Our children have never seen the inside of a school,” says a dark Meghi amid giggles. She would rather pose with her bangles for my camera than talk about travails.

“Take my photos; all these problems will not go away. By the way, our most painful issue is that we cannot build lavatories for women,” is Resham’s remark as she shows off her nose pin.

“Do you think I can appear on television with your photos? Life will become perfect,” she says as she strikes a charming pose.

Some 2,000 homes house a community of nearly 5,000 people — there are Kohlis, Bheels, Khoso, Marri Baloch, Chaang Baloch, Mallah and Pathan occupants; the oldest migrant is a Pathan from Peshawar who came here in 1990.

Heera Lal is their leader — an escaped bonded labourer from Pir Bodlo near Mirpurkhas — today he has a motorcycle, a watch and status.

“You must find life here unimaginable but for former harislike me, it is much better than the one we left behind. We have respect and freedom. No one is cruel to us and there is complete harmony here,” Lal explains with pride.

“On their own turf, the Marri tribe would not allow us to pass by their homes as we are the lowest of castes but here, they are living with us,” Lal smirks.

Understandably, food in their bellies and an unsteady roof over their head is no mean feat for them but there are perils without remedy. “This place is infested with white snakes, which are up to seven feet long and the children often get bitten in the dark. It is so dangerous but we don’t have any medical facility all the way to Jamshoro,” laments an 80-year-old woman from Thar.

Then Lal continues to explain their collective strategy of survival. “So far we have relied on rural antidotes to cure bites and ailments. We can’t follow Hindu last rites because they require a lot of wood and then a long trek to Sukkur to immerse the ashes. Hence, we just bury here,” he points to an indiscernible mud graveyard close to the mill.

For daily needs, water is brought in pitchers from Petaro and stocked up for a fortnight and groceries come from Jamshoro.

“Hindu homes have small niches with figurines for worship rituals and the Muslims have built a small mosque here,” says a robust Baloch.

Lal admits that the rule of wages earned against their output, which is the weight of the consignment, hits hard. “We nearly lost many people in the heatwave. If we can fill two to three trucks per day, we earn up to Rs5,400 per week. It sounds good but most of it goes in purchasing amenities such as wood, water, food and transport.”

As one watches dainty little girls and young boys sweat and smash under a merciless sun, in strong winds that scald their land, it is strange to learn that one man’s fallen idol can be another’s messiah.

“[Local politician] Malik Asad Sikandar has saved us and he is our saviour. We can do anything for him,” proclaim Lal and his companions.

The game of land encroachment and the price tag on its pawns is hardly a story one wants to break to hearts filled with hope and belief in humanity. But solar panels are the least their liberator could bring to them.

As work abates with the sun, and the smells of wood fire and onions mingle, hammers are put aside in the faint melody of bangles. Cheerful farewells convey that no matter what fate serves up, they were well equipped for Life.

Twitter: @ReemaAbbasi

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2015

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