When I first heard about Shamma, I felt intrigued because people spoke about him with respect and not ridicule. That is a rarity when people talk about a transgender person in our society. Living his life according to his own rules until he died, this inspiring person changed the traditional perception of transgender people, particularly in the Jan Mohammed Road area, known for its community of transgenders in Quetta.
It was a cold December evening when I first made way down the narrow Jan Mohammad Road, chaotic with pedestrians, rickshaws and vehicles. On the left side, a signboard of ‘Hasan Colony and Lal Colony’ directed me toward a calm street that divides the two colonies. I walked down the dark street, looking for transgender Shamma’s house in Lal Colony and, as I stopped at a general store called Amir Parchoon store, light passing through a curtain that touched the doorsteps of a nearby house caught my eye. I asked the young shopkeeper Amir if he knew where Shamma’s house was and he pointed to the same house.
I pressed the doorbell a few times. A man, I later came to know as Haji Sahib, wearing a grey shalwar kameez and a white cap drew aside the curtain, without opening the grill door. “Yes, this is Shamma’s house, but there is no one at home today,” he replied to my query. “Shamma’s students Munawar and Goshi have not yet returned from Punjab. So, please back come after a week when they are here.”
Several weeks later, transgenders Munawar, Goshi and others have become familiar with me. As I reach Shamma’s house after Friday prayers, Haji Sahib greets me from the roof and then comes down to let me in.
Presently, eight transgenders, including Munawar, Goshi and Kajol, live in Shamma’s house, where they teach the Quran to over 30 students. Haji Sahib, who is also considered a family member, helps with household chores.
Apparently, Shamma wrote in his will that the house would always belong to the transgender community and not to his biological family. Shamma’s brother had tried to claim the property but it was retained by his transgender family.
Quetta’s transgender community still seeks inspiration from one of their own who died in 2002 … because he helped them live a life of dignity
Goshi, who is in his thirties, is dressed in a white shalwar qameez, head covered in a chaadar, as he has just returned from the nearby mosque along with Haji Sahib. Goshi doesn’t think much of journalists. “Go and write about Heera Mandi [the red light area in Lahore],” he says. “We are not the kind of transgenders you want to write about.”
Goshi’s anger about media people is not unjustified. He and his community members have been harassed time and again by media and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) about their income as sex workers.
I let Goshi vent before I ask him about Shamma. “He was a shelter for us,” Goshi says. “He lived selflessly, for not only his community but for everyone living on Jan Mohammad Road. Following in his footsteps, we pray in congregation at the mosque with other men, teach Quran to children and we want to be referred to as males, not females.”
Goshi describes how Shamma’s house once used to be a simple hut. “Shamma built this house over the years,” he says. “He would beat the drum or dance on weddings or childbirth festivities or cook and wash dishes in people’s houses. Earlier, Shamma taught many children to read the Quran in their homes but later he taught them collectively in his own house, where free accommodation was also provided to other transgenders. This is how Shamma earned money as well as respect from people.”
Shamma’s room is still decorated and painted as it was in his life. There is a bed, almirahs, and the wall is adorned with Shamma’s picture with his guru Baba Mukhtiar.
Munawar explains how the transgender family system works. “I was adopted by Shamma, and I adopted Goshi as my disciple. As for Shamma, his guru was Baba Mukhtiar,” he says. “On our national identity cards, our guru’s name is written in place of our father’s name.”
Shamma, who died of a heart attack in 2002, was born into a Baloch family in the Loralai district of Balochistan. Being a transgender, he was treated badly and subsequently thrown out by his family. He came to Quetta to live with dignity, and help his community live a dignified life too. In the words of one transgender, Shamma did not differentiate between people of different castes, creed, gender, or ethnicity.
“When I met Shamma, he was in his fifties and wore mostly white,” Goshi recalls. “He had blue eyes and a white dupatta framed his broad, glowing face as he always covered his head with it. He would always offer his prayers at the mosque. It was his last wish to perform umrah, which could not be fulfilled, even though he was saving money for it till his last day.”
According to one of Shamma’s neighbours, Shamma was connected in his own personal way with many families in the area, always being with them in their good and bad times. As a result of his selfless contributions in the area, he is still respected by its residents, particularly of Lal Colony.
Hakib, another transgender from Jan Mohammad Road, has grown up with memories of Shamma. The 30-year-old lives in a rented apartment with other transgenders.
We sit in his tidy, sparsely furnished room with a cupboard and a bed with two pillows and quilts. He brings two plastic cups and a cola drink on a tray for us. As he talks, his fingers are busy texting on his mobile phone.
“Shamma was a father-figure to us,” he says, sitting cross-legged on a red carpet in jeans. “We are about 40 transgenders who consider Shamma our role model and we want to follow in his footsteps. His spirit remains with us, because he has changed the way people treat us. They deal with us like normal people and not some freak creation of nature.”
Quetta has a handful of transgenders who are scattered around Jan Mohammad Road and in its adjacent areas. In summer however, their number increases. “They come from the interior and are actually boys who disguise themselves as transgenders and earn money as sex-workers,” says Hakib. “They bring a bad name to us.”
Over the decades, Quetta’s Pashtunabad has expanded across the eastern side of the city, in front of the mountains, and has a growing population. Off one of the crowded roads going up to Pashtunabad from the Gawalmandi square, is apparently a small cemetery for Quetta’s transgender community. This is where Shamma is buried.
Manzoor, Shamma’s neighbour recalls his funeral. “There were over 100 people from Lal Colony for Shamma’s funeral at the cemetery,” he says. “I was quite young but I went because Shamma had taught Quran to my elder brother and he often visited our home.”
Following directions given by the residents of Lal Colony, I asked around near Pashtunabad for the transgender cemetery known as khusra qabristan (transgender cemetery) but all I got were vague directions. I walked around until I become exhausted but I could not find Shamma’s last resting place.
I return to Lal Colony to tell Manzoor that I could not find Shamma’s grave. He smiles briefly and says that Shamma is still in the hearts of the people of Lal Colony. “If somebody is in your heart, you cannot find him anywhere else,” Manzoor says.
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_Notezai
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 7th, 2021