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Footprints: WHAT WAS THEN…

January 14, 2018


OCTOGENARIAN Gurdhan Das in his shawls shop in Islamabad.—Photo by writer
OCTOGENARIAN Gurdhan Das in his shawls shop in Islamabad.—Photo by writer

AS December rains descended on Islamabad and the chilly breeze came rolling down from the Himalayas, a friend came up with the idea of gifting a stole to one of her friends.

We stepped into a shop in Islamabad’s Super Market. The first thing that caught my attention amidst the thousands of colourful shawls, embroidered garments and handicraft items, was an old man in his late 80s, wrapped in a soft, warm shawl and sitting behind the counter. He was peering through sparkling round glasses tucked over the bridge of his nose, and an electric heater inches from his face provided him with warmth.

Accepting him as a senior family member of the shop-owners, there to offer blessings to his children and supervising them at the shop instead of being lonely at home, I tried to help my friend in the selection of a shawl. But as the bargaining process started, I realised that the salesmen — who were speaking fluent Urdu with us — were communicating with the old man and amongst themselves, in an unfamiliar but sweet language. It was not Punjabi, nor Seraiki, Sindhi, Pashto, Balti, or Kashmiri. Even so, some words seemed familiar.

“What language are you speaking?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“It’s Thari, they are from Thar,” responded my friend before any of the men could offer an answer.

I turned to the old man, prompted by my long-lasting love for Thar. The man, 89-year-old Gurdhan Das, applied lotion to his fingertips to soften the dried and hard skin that perhaps itched in the freezing cold.

“Why did you come here to Islamabad, so far away from Thar?” I asked. “Why did you not go to Karachi, which was closer and such a big business centre?”

The man looked at me, a smile touched his face, and he sighed.

“Those days were just like these, freezing cold,” he began. “We were trapped between two enemy armies in December 1971. Food supplies were blocked and we were left with no option but to leave our village,” Das explained, describing how their village Kathio in Umerkot district on the border remained under siege following the war between Pakistan and India that led to the former East Pakistan becoming an independent country.

“On one side there was the Pakistan Army and on the other were the Indians. We were not allowed to move around and we hardly had any food supplies. Fed up with the restrictions, we fled to Karachi and I set up a business of exclusive Thari embroidery there, as I already knew this art. Three decades later, I moved to Islamabad, looking for better business prospects with the many foreigners based in this city,” he said.

After Das, a number of his tribesmen moved to Islamabad. Now, these Thari Hindus dominate the shawls business in the capital city, running about two dozen shops in Super and Jinnah Super markets.

Das has five sons, 10 grandsons and nine great-grandchildren. Three of his sons and two grandsons help him at the shop in Islamabad, while two sons are still running traditional shops in Zainab Market in Karachi.

But now, Das said, business is down and he comes to the shop only to avoid sickness at home. Interest in embroidered clothes has decreased and the number of foreign customers who once thronged traditional crafts shops in Islamabad has also reduced drastically.

“There are fewer foreigners,” Das explained. “The Americans don’t emerge from their embassy, while other Westerners also come in fewer numbers; so business is not of the scale at which it was two decades ago,” he continued, after a Chinese couple entered and left after looking at Kashmiri shawls. “But I can’t sit at home. I get sick if I stay home, so I come here to the shop and walk around if there is no cold wind.”

Das said he had found almost everything in Islamabad — except a temple at which to worship.

“There is no Hindu temple in the capital, so we have to go to Rawalpindi on Diwali and Holi,” he sighed. “I worship at home but even so, there ought to be a temple here since there are so many Hindus.”

He believes that his advanced years will now perhaps never allow him to go back to his ancestral land and visit the temples there. “I went there around three years ago to offer Namaskar at the shrine of Chande Pir, where all your desires get fulfilled,” he mused. “But now I don’t think I will go there again. That’s a land of purity but unfortunately there is nothing pure now on any land. Things are adulterated. People are adulterated. Everything is mixed and false,” he said, adding that he badly missed the old times. “Back then, there was no proper food but people were pure. Now you have enough food but the quality of the people is poor.”

He applied lotion on his fingertips once again. Then he dragged the heater on the counter closer to his face, and stared off into space.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2018