Sunday, November 7, 2010


 This article was printed in The Friday Times on the 5th of November 2010. The Friday Times is only available on line to subscribers.  The following is a copy of the printed article:

Wandering through the perilous fields
Rabia Ahmed wonders why she is on a parched crime-ridden farm

A view of the Dera
Pistol and dol
Dung cakes
Charpoys under a banyan tree
Dying River Ravi
he dera (farm) isn’t too far from our home in Lahore, but after battling vicious traffic, we turn onto a seriously bad stretch of road, and this is why it takes almost three hours to get there.

Broken and rutted, this road winds through villages where dogs, donkeys, buffaloes, humans, tractors and ‘peter engine’ vehicles alike make driving difficult and slow. Piles of filth line the sides of these roads, beyond which green fields stretch into the misty distance. It could all be so beautiful. It isbeautiful, if only the filth could be taken away.

Small children, shoeless, and often stark naked play in all that filth. I spot a little girl along the way; no more than two years of age, she strode purposefully beside the busy road, her mouth open wide in a comically strident bawl. I think of the safety measures for protecting children in other countries, the yellow school buses with flags that flip out in the USA, that halt all traffic as children board or disembark; the ‘lollipop ladies’ in Britain who see children carefully across the road, and bite my lip. As our car bumps and crawls along, I twist in my seat and follow the tiny speck of humanity until it jumps over an open drain and into a house with a ragged hessian curtain tacked across the front door.

We pass mounds of dung cakes slapped in layers over each other to form tall mounds like termite hills. When dried, these cakes will be used for fuel. We pass through villages where women, their heads covered with colourful dupattas , walk briskly and confidently down the road, impossibly large bundles of firewood balanced effortlessly on their heads.

Small children turn in the dust to stare unblinkingly at us, or laugh and run dangerously alongside the car, pert pot bellies jutting, dirty hair matted and brownish blonde due to protein deficiency, stiffly framing small faces alight with mischief.

At the side of the road in an ageless scene, blindfolded cattle pace endlessly around a shallow well with measured steps, wooden yoke across their shoulders. The yoke is attached to a shaft which descends into the well, where a millstone grinds corn or wheat to a usable size.

Nearby sit men in risqué dhotis/ loin cloths on charpoyspulled under ancient banyan trees. They share hookahs/hubble-bubbles with each other, and also share the shade with huge black buffaloes with menacing horns on their wide foreheads. The massive animals stare out of circular brown eyes like marbles, and look down their noses at us, in an excellent imitation of supercilious Lahore begums. They’re not spoilt though, and appear supremely contented, champing their cud in a patch of mud and what else. What’s more, I’m told their appearance belies a placid nature. Crows perch happily on their broad rumps, jumping idly over lazily swishing tails.

My husband stops to have a smoke, his shirt bulging over a pistol strapped around his waist. This is a lawless area. Much like those crows that perch on the buffaloes, the desperately poor people in this area scavenge an existence from anyone who has something to offer.

We pass many school buildings, but only some appear to be in use. We pass several small shrines, strung with colourful buntings and tinsel, all of which appear to be much frequented. Pokey little shops sell a bewildering assortment of knick-knacks out of plastic jars with red lids. The eye-catching plastic is all that places the scene firmly in Pakistan today, that and the single naked bulb dangling off a flyblown wire, desperately and flickeringly trying to light the shop. Without these, this and much else around us could be a scene from when Alexander invaded the region.

The fact that the land around here suffers from an acute shortage of water is oddly at variance with its situation well within the Punjab, the land of five rivers. What makes it odder is that not far away it is possible to see the silver glint of the river Ravi as it wends its quixotic way through these very fields.

We had a choice of where to locate the farm, the side of the Ravi that floods quite often, and the side that is more infested with dacoits. Eventually we got both factors and some more, by which I mean that when the river is not flooding the surrounding land, it is almost dry, and farmers have to contend with what closely resembles a drought, while the bandits are there no matter what the time of year. It is because of these bandits that our dera is built to look inwards into a courtyard, and has few exits and no windows on the outside, in order to make it secure.

We drove between some fields of closely planted sugar cane, and along a stretch of extra sandy road, where the car needed to be shifted to four-wheel drive mode to prevent us getting stuck. After a sharp bend in the road the dera appeared suddenly ahead of us, a sprawling brick building painted white, topped by the ubiquitous blue water tank and enclosed by a wall.

It never ceases to amaze me why my husband, living comfortably with a job in the NHS/National Health Service in England, chose to leave it and retire to spend his time farming this hot, flooded, parched, crime-ridden land in this poverty-stricken part of the world. To make a choice to trade the cobbled streets and serene bucolic peace of the English countryside for dung cakes and flies and mosquitoes is beyond understanding.

And yet, sometimes I understand however dimly, such as now while I write this peacefully in a veranda that runs outside the bedrooms in our dera . A mug of steaming doodh pati chaisits at my elbow and I can hear the voices of people working around the farm, who have jobs by the Grace of God.

The tubewell is running in the yard just over the wall, and the sound of water is a soothing backdrop to the clack of my computer keys. A small courtyard next to the veranda is radiant with many different kinds of flowers, and even, to my amusement, with cauliflower, planted bang in the centre of the yard. Men make endearingly funny housewives, and this is all-man-land, and I do my best not to interfere with it.

Yesterday, our munshi’s/ secretary’s mother Jeejan (Aziza) paid us a visit shortly after we arrived. She and the cattle herder’s wife appeared just as I had fallen asleep, tired out by being jolted in the car for almost two hours.

People, particularly in the villages of Pakistan, have no concept of privacy, simply because they have none themselves. So these two women walked right into my bedroom and woke me up quite happily, then proceeded to tell me all about themselves. Jeejan is the mother of four grown children, of which two are daughters. One of the daughters has recently been turfed out of her home by her father-in-law, mercifully along with her husband and children. Her husband used to run a small grocery shop, and to my bewildered astonishment, I learnt that he now runs a ‘game shop’, where the village men and boys collect to play snooker and such. No stretch of imagination allows me to picture such a place in this village, not to mention the huge career change. Perhaps the move from being a doctor with the NHS to a farmer in this village is the closest comparison I can find.

The other lady, Zubaida, only in her early forties, is the mother of eleven, I kid you not, her youngest being a lusty seven year old. In addition, she has adopted her sister’s three year old son, her sister having passed away. Our society, foolish as it is, has a large-hearted side which is good to see.

I asked Zubaida tentatively if she intended to have any more kids, but she said with no surprise or glimmer of amusement at the question, that it was now impossible, because – and she made the sign of scissors with her fingers. I understood this to mean that one of the dream team had been operated upon to prevent the appearance of further offspring. I wondered why they had waited till they had produced a full cricket team to undergo the procedure, and asked as much. Here let me add that an advantage of conversation with persons with no concept of privacy is that you can, after becoming the recipient of the most intimate details of life, ask some equally personal questions in return, which is not what you would normally do.

Zubaida explained that they had been trying to produce more boys, but the production line kept getting clogged with girls, so they kept trying. Extremely thoughtless of the girls to hold up the issue in this way.

Jeejan then chimed in to lament that our munshi’s wife, her daughter-in-law, was pregnant with a baby girl, rather than a boy. I took a deep breath, but failed to expel it this time without reminding her that had our Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), to cite a popular example, not had a mother who was undoubtedly female, he could hardly have existed himself. Nor, for that matter could any of the rest of us, without the existence of females.

Jeejan seemed much struck by this point of view, yet sighed and said that while I was right of course, the problem was that girls often had such bad kismet/ fate , that bringing them up was not an easy matter . I told her rather tartly that many men had bad kismets too, and mentioned a distant uncle who had stepped out of bed only to break his leg, which was followed the same day by thieves breaking into his home and stealing his (very shrewish) wife’s jewellery, and all his Playboy magazines, not that I mentioned that last detail, although this seems to have caused him the most pain. She seemed unconvinced, however, and left after several more gusty sighs which did not bode well either for her son’s wife, or the unborn child. It appears that qismat is as qismat makes it, at least to some extent.

We return home tomorrow. I have to say, that I will miss this place, dusty as it is, where people, wander in and out of the house at will, and the toads are so phlegmatic they grunt ‘if you must’ before they move at your prodding. Where the dera is, there are no cars except our own. There is also a horse that we can ride, or try to ride, because it has hydrophobia and a fixed aim in life: to return to its trough of mash. There is a dog called Sassi (because she was presented to us by a man called Punnu), who has the reverse of hydrophobia. This means that she jumps into every available puddle of water, and then wipes her paws on the nearest white shalwar, preferably my husband’s. There are the cauliflowers to look forward to, when they ripen from amidst the bougainvillea and roses, and the tubewell to dip into if temperatures get too warm. There are the cicadas that lull you to sleep at night, and the buffaloes that low nasally outside your window. Above all, there is, I guess, the pleasure of wandering in your own fields, amidst your own people, in your own country, which is, I suppose, why we’re here, although at times....many times, I still fail to understand the choice. Especially, when I see the pistol strapped around my husband’s waist.

Rabia Ahmed lives in Lahore


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