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Haunted by the homeland

Published Aug 13, 2012 09:31pm

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An ethnic Hazara Shia man is comforted by his relative after he arrived at the local hospital in Quetta to find a family member shot dead, September 20, 2011. — Photo by Reuters

This is the story of two boys who were forced to leave Pakistan long after the partition. The first one was so young that he didn’t know why he was leaving, the second old enough to know exactly why he had to leave, but still couldn’t stop asking: why?

Earlier this year I met a 14-year-old unaccompanied Hazara boy on a Karachi-Bangkok flight. A group of happy Pakistani businessmen were trying their Chinese language skills on him. The boy looked bewildered, he turned to me and said, in Urdu: what language are they speaking? I gingerly told the group to back off, that the kid was a Pakistani. The businessmen seemed well travelled but were quite shocked that a Chinese looking kid could speak fluent Urdu. They left us alone and started to trade the do’s and don’t of haggling in Bangkok brothels.

“Going on vacation?” I asked the boy. “All by yourself?”

“I am in class nine.” He didn’t want to be treated like a kid.

“So why aren’t you in school?”

I asked.

He told me a story, a familiar story, but I had never heard it from a kid’s point of view. “Abbu has been acting very strange lately,” he lowered his voice. He has a big store on Sariab Road in Quetta. He used to go there every day. Now, most days he just stays home. First he stopped me from going to school. Then he stopped me from going to play on the street. Then he told me that I was going to go to Bangkok.

The boy had little comprehension of the scale of the trouble his community faced. His father is one of the many businessmen in Quetta who have to make a daily choice: go out to work and risk getting killed or stay home and hope to survive another day. The kid believed his dad was just acting a bit weird.

“Have you been to Bangkok before? Do you have any family there?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I have never been anywhere before. All my sisters are in Quetta. I am the only brother. I am going to stay with Uncle Mirza.” Then with the boastful optimism of a teenager he asked me.

“Do you know Uncle Mirza? Everyone in Bangkok knows him.” It turned out that Uncle Mirza was a family friend but the boy had actually never met him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t know any Uncle Mirza. I also couldn’t imagine what kind of life the kid would have in Bangkok.

Later in the year, a leader of the Hazara community in Quetta, Abdul Qayum Changezi, weary of attending too many funerals, told me: I have an idea. I am going to propose to the government to buy everything we have; our shops, our business, our houses, even our pots and pans.

Everything. At the market prices. And then with that money put us all onto ships and send us to any country that might be willing to take us.

That kid was the lonely boy on a ship. Uncle Mirza was the only country willing to take him.

Another boy approached me in Bombay after a book reading last year. He was curious to know about a Sindhi couplet that I had quoted. He was in his late twenties, a clean cut Bombay professional. “I am from Shikarpur,” he told me quite abruptly. I hoped that he was a visitor, or somehow had ended up there for work. Again the story was familiar. He had migrated with his parents when he was sixteen. “In the early nineties when there were lots of kidnappings in interior Sindh,” he said. Like a true Pakistani, I wanted to remind him that Muslims were also kidnapped. But he wasn’t interested in discussing persecution of minorities in Pakistan. He said he wanted to have a word in private.

We moved away from the crowd. “We came here because my parents were worried about my sisters, what would happen when they grew up.” I asked him about his life in Bombay. It was good. He was the director of a long running soap on Sony TV, had two kids and a wife. “It might seem a bit strange but I thought you might help me. For the last one year I dream of Shikarpur every night,” he told me. “I mean the dreams are different, but whatever happens, happens in the streets of Shikarpur. It’s very vivid. And the strange thing is that I don’t really think much about Shikarpur. I grew up there but that’s all in the past. I want these dreams to stop.”

I didn’t really have an answer. I mumbled something about homesickness being a universal disease. “I am not really homesick,” the boy from Shikarpur insisted. “In fact I never want to go back. I am just wondering if there is anyway I could get rid of these dreams. I can’t talk to anyone about them.”

I suggested that maybe he should write about his experiences. “There is no story,” he insisted. “We still have relatives there, why create problems for them? And why would anyone want to read about my dreams anyways? As it is I feel embarrassed talking about this. I decided to talk to you because you are from Sindh and you quoted that couplet that I liked.”

I tried to change the subject. We talked about the rise and decline of Indian soap operas. He told me that all his brothers and sister were married, well settled and have moved away from home. “Where is home?” I asked. He named a small town in the Indian state of Gujarat.

“My parents are still there,” he said. “All by themselves.” Then he reverted to the subject of his dreams. “When I wake up from these dreams, I often think about my parents. Because you see when we left I was only sixteen. I made a whole life here. They were already in their sixties when they left. And they had never lived outside of Shikarpur. They never talk about it. But I worry about them. I wonder if I can’t get rid of these dreams, what must they be going through?”

I wonder when that Hazara kid grows up in some strange land, will he be haunted by the dreams of Sariab Road?

— The writer is author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and A Case of Exploding Mangoes.