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SOCIETY: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF RAM JAANE

How a cinematic cautionary tale became the blueprint for a criminal’s life in Quetta
Updated Oct 06, 2019 07:10pm

The 1995 Bollywood classic Ram Jaane follows the story of a boy who is abandoned at a very young age. He has no home, no family and no identity. As he grows up, he goes around asking people what his name is. No one knows. “Ram Jaane,” [God knows] a priest tells him. In the absence of any other options, the boy accepts Ram Jaane as his name.

With the streets as his home, he becomes a petty criminal. But as he grows up, having spent several years in and out of prison, he decides it is time to reform his life and tries to inspire street children to stay away from crime. But a product of his circumstances, he is unable to practice what he is preaching.

Ram Jaane was Ismail’s favourite film when he was growing up in the Killi Ismail neighbourhood in Quetta. This was the 1990s. He used to rent a VCR and watch the film on repeat. The video cassette with the film was one of his most prized possessions. A friend of his recalls that, as a gesture of friendship, Ismail let him borrow the cassette for a few days. But Ismail also gave him strict instructions to return it after watching the film. His friend complied.

Ismail loved the film so much that those close to him started calling him Ram Jaane.

The character played by Shah Rukh Khan and Ismail had much in common. Sure, unlike the film’s character, Ismail was born into a loving household — in fact, he was the most spoilt out of his 10 siblings. But like the cinematic antihero, Ismail too was born in the lap of crime.

Killi Ismail was infamous for being a place where drugs were sold, crime thrived and the dilapidated infrastructure only went from bad to worse. Ismail’s father, a newspaper hawker, wanted better for his son. He sent him to the Model Public School in Chaman Patak — a primarily middle-class area situated at a 10-minute drive from Killi Ismail.

But it was all for nothing. At Ismail’s new school, he was seen as a hooligan because he came from Killi Ismail. Boys would befriend him only so he would strong-arm others in fights on their behalf. Soon enough no one would call Ismail by his given name. He simply became Ram Jaane — the hooligan from Killi Ismail.

Raam Jaane would go on to live up to his name. And die with it.

A LAND STUCK IN TIME

Over two decades later, not much has changed in Killi Ismail. The neighbourhood, situated in the middle of Quetta, still remains poverty-stricken. Its surrounding upmarket areas have developed, but the residents of Killi Ismail have seen no advancements. The rich in those upmarket neighbourhoods still get their hashish and heroin supply from Killi Ismail.

Boys as young as seven and eight years sell drugs here. A shopkeeper says that young boys are even used to smuggle drugs inside the central jail. They stuff the drugs into tennis balls and try to throw them across the high walls of the building. If the ball successful goes across, they declare that ‘the airplane has landed.’ If it does not, they say the airplane crashed.

Like Ram Jaane, many in Killi Ismail seem to use Bollywood as a means of escapism. There are many hotels here that play classic Hindi songs. These hotels take their music collections so seriously that a committee convenes to decide which hotelier has the best collection of songs. The winner last time was Adah, whose hotel is also named after him.

One wonders why his collection has been awarded this year. The man who still plays music from cassettes and has clearly not updated his playlist in decades. Nonetheless, he brags that he owns cassettes that no one else in Quetta, or even Balochistan has.

Adah Hotel’s lobby also appears to be stuck in time. The walls are lined with pictures of the biggest Bollywood actresses and singers of the yesteryears. Among the stars featured prominently are Madhubala, Dilip Kumar and Mohammed Rafi. Some in the hotel play cards and Ludo while puffing cigarettes and hashish-filled joints. A saqikhana [a shop where illicit drugs are sold] is conveniently situated in front of the hotel. As the guests imbibe and have a good time, they seem to enjoy an old song by Mohammed Rafi being played from Adah’s award-winning collection.

A shopkeeper says that young boys are even used to smuggle drugs inside the central jail. They stuff the drugs into tennis balls and try to throw them across the high walls of the building. If the ball successful goes across, they declare that ‘the airplane has landed.’ If it does not, they say the airplane crashed.

One of the saqikhanas in the area is owned by notorious drug dealer Maharaj. Like Ram Jaane, Maharaj’s name is also clearly influenced by Bollywood. His house-cum-saqikhana is situated in a dark alley. The structure has two doors. One is open and has a chador covering it — this is his saqikhana. The other door, which is closed, leads to what used to be a hotel. Maharaj would openly sell drugs here. But due to frequent raids by law enforcement he is now forced to conduct his business more surreptitiously.

Some wrongly assume that Maharaj is Hindu because of his name. In reality, the Muslim man was born Sarwar Mushwani. He is a father of six and is considered very brave by those in his line of work. The police once caught Maharaj in relation to a stolen car. They allegedly tortured him for a confession, removing his nails to get him to crack. But he did not confess to the crime and became something of a local celebrity for his resistance.

That’s Killi Ismail for you. A place where children grow up seeing hardened criminals being considered heroes. And where Ismails grow up to become Ram Jaanes.

THE BICCHOO GROUP

Quetta’s Ram Jaane
Quetta’s Ram Jaane

Haji is considered something of an intellectual by drug addicts. He has much to say about the issues confronting the country, his province and his neighbourhood. But he is not much of a conversationalist. He likes to keep talking, leaving little room for others to speak. Maybe this is why he spends most of his time with people who are high and who do not talk back a whole lot.

Haji knew Ram Jaane. He remembers that, in the late 1990s, a cycle was stolen in front of a gaming zone in Jinnah Town. This was the first time Haji heard of Ram Jaane, he recalls.

Background interviews suggest that it was around this time that Ram Jaane founded the Bicchoo Group. The group was never very big, comprising only of Ram Jaane and a few of his broke friends. But they gained notoriety fast. Starting off from bicycles, they soon moved on to stealing motorcycles and eventually became infamous for stealing cars.

“Even if he was not involved in the theft of a car, he would know who has taken it and where it is now,” says one of Ismail’s childhood friends. “Once when a friend’s car was stolen we contacted Ram Jaane. Within an hour, he located the car and told us who had stolen it.”

Like Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Quetta’s Ram Jaane also frequently found himself behind bars. He was constantly in and out of the Saddar Police Station. Whenever he was arrested his demeanour would apparently change. “He would cry like a child in jail,” a policeman recalls. “He would even hurl abuses at his parents, pleading with them to get him out.”

Ram Jaane would also help negotiate with other criminals for his friends.

But not everyone considered Ram Jaane a friend. He was also making quite a few enemies. People believed he was also involved in cases of kidnapping for ransom. Details of the crimes he was alleged to be involved in vary. But one thing is for sure: over time, Ram Jaane had become a big-time criminal. A neighbour recalls that whenever something untoward would happen in Quetta, Ram Jaane’s house would be raided by law enforcement.

Like Shah Rukh Khan’s character, Quetta’s Ram Jaane also frequently found himself behind bars. He was constantly in and out of the Saddar Police Station. Whenever he was arrested his demeanour would apparently change. “He would cry like a child in jail,” a policeman recalls. “He would even hurl abuses at his parents, pleading with them to get him out.”

Things changed when former chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch took office. Crackdowns became the norm and Ram Jaane found it difficult to conduct his business. He decided it was time to move on.

He moved to Karachi, bought a flat and a few local buses that would go between Karachi and Hub. Ram Jaane’s family was happy that he was quitting criminal activities and starting over in the city of lights.

But this ray of hope soon dimmed. Ram Jaane was unable to let go of his past ways and settle down in Karachi. When someone told him that law enforcers in Quetta were once again turning a blind eye towards criminals, Ram Jaane closed his business in Karachi and moved back home.

A PRICELESS FRIENDSHIP

Hafeez Baloch was one of Ram Jaane’s closest friends. The mobile phone thief and Ram Jaane would meet frequently. In truly filmy fashion, Ram Jaane and Hafeez decided to turn their dosti [friendship] into a rishtedaari [familial connection]. Hafeez’s sister got married to Ram Jaane’s brother.

But the happiness did not last long. One day, while Hafeez and another thief were trying to steal a motorcycle on Sariab Road, a Frontier Corps soldier fired at Hafeez — killing him on the spot. The man with him was also injured, but survived.

That was back in 2014.

Hafeez’s death left Ram Jaane completely shattered. Growing up, Ram Jaane understood the boys around him only befriended him for personal gains. And he had always felt like he had little in common with others his age. As per one account, Ram Jaane had also been abused as a child and, naturally, carried that burden with him throughout his life. Hafeez was a rare genuine friend.

After Hafeez died, Ram Jaane felt very alone. He would go to his grave at Kasi graveyard every day. One day, after reciting some prayers at the graveyard, he told one of his close associates that he wanted to be buried next to Hafeez. This was a curious request — none of Ram Jaane’s family members were buried at this graveyard.

The death of his friend had clearly changed Ram Jaane. He had seen firsthand how, in his line of work, life could end in a flash.

WHEN DEATH CAME KNOCKING

A few months after Hafeez’s death, someone knocked on Ram Jaane’s door and asked him to accompany him somewhere. Something about the scenario struck Ram Jaane’s brother as odd. He says he advised him not to go. But Ram Jaane considered this man a friend. “I have to help him out,” he told his brother. “I cannot say no to my friends.”

Those were the last words Ram Jaane said to his brother. He got in his car with the man. Soon two other men got in the vehicle and stuck a gun at Ram Jaane. He did not return alive. He was only in his early thirties.

The graveyard where Hafeez and Ram Jaane are burried | Photo by the author
The graveyard where Hafeez and Ram Jaane are burried | Photo by the author

Some 30 kilometres from Quetta, in Kuchlak town, stand massive red mountains. The scale of these can overwhelm anyone. When hiking up on them, one fears that a single misstep could result in the unforgiving mountains swallowing a man whole.

The Quetta-Pishin road goes along these mountains. I sit on a mountain, fighting to keep my eyes open despite the heavy winds. I look at the cars on the road. It was along this route that Ram Jaane was brought and shot dead before his body was thrown in the same mountains. The exact motive behind the murder has never been made clear. Some say that Ram Jaane was killed because of an old personal rivalry. Others say that the once notorious car thief was killed for 150,000 rupees, one pistol and his car.

The next morning when I go to the Kasi graveyard it is calm. It is a cloudy day and children are flying kites in the graveyard. Ram Jaane is buried here next to his friend Hafeez. Fulfilling Ram Jaane’s last wish was not easy. His friend Haji points out that there is very little space next to Hafeez’s grave, but somehow they made it work.

Ram Jaane’s loved ones struggle to come to terms with the fact that he died at such a young age. One wonders if, on some level, they saw it coming. After all, his favourite film was a cautionary tale about a petty criminal who died young, repenting for his crimes.


The writer is a member of staff

Header photo by the writer

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 6th, 2019