Three provinces, one trip II

The journey continues… on to Quetta, where in the midst of urban chaos many stereotypes are dispelled

We kept debating the logistics of the road trip to Quetta on my first day in Dera Murad Jamali. Someone asked what my profession was. I said, I was trying to understand different social realities.

“Well. We don’t have any college or university students here. Most of the young people move to bigger cities if they are serious about their education. If you are interested in studying karo kari, that is a regular occurrence around here,” he said.

Not believing what I was hearing, I tried to confirm, “What is that?”

“People don’t like illicit love affairs. They kill the couple.”

I did not have the courage to probe this matter further.

My host was ringing up people in Quetta and making arrangements. I also rang up a former student who is a businessman now. A member of a Central Asian family settled in Quetta. The SUVs and the drivers were ready. Throughout the day, my hosts kept saying, “Let us go to Quetta. There is nothing to do or see in Dera Murad Jamali.”

Feeling excited about the early morning road trip, I went to sleep early and was up at 5am. The domestic helpers had the breakfast ready and by 6am, we were in our vehicles and moving to Quetta. The early morning road trip had everybody silent and sombre. I looked at the map on my mobile. The distance is 270 kilometres and the duration is 4 hours. The satellite view does not show any greenery after some kilometres out of Dera Murad Jamali.

The map and the territory in front of me are becoming one. We are at the edge of greenery as we enter the Kacchi Plain. The plain extends from the southern end of Dera Bugti to the upper parts of Makran and Gwadar. This is the arid area which has Mehrgarh. Nine thousand years ago, the area had agricultural settlements. A technologically sophisticated people who practiced proto-dentistry on living human beings existed here before the Indus Valley and Harappan civilisations.

Nobody shows any keenness when I mention Mehrgarh. The areas I can explore are linked with how safe my hosts feel. And they are driving at breakneck speed. There is even talk of how helpful technology is in delaying road bombs and ambushes. I can feel the presence of a self that is not part of the social contract. Everybody is becoming withdrawn and less talkative as we start seeing the limestone boulders which are part of the Toba Kakar Mountains. The mountains are without any vegetation and to go through them we have to cross the Bolan Pass which has been the favourite spot for bandits and waylayers since time immemorial.

The road moves along the train line that links Sukkur to Quetta. This is the area where Baloch insurgents used to attack the railway line and the trains. Now it is a heavily-patrolled area. Most of the weaponised arms of the state are present in the region. Checkpoints are everywhere. The dominant feeling is that the outlaw has not accepted the seduction of the state and now coercion is the only option for the state. A favourite topic of discussion is how mad the British were when they thought of constructing the railway line from Rohri to Chaman through the Bolan Pass in 1879 in the age of cholera and camel-travel. The locals still marvel at their mercenary, military, and missionary motives behind the construction.

Along the road and throughout the length of the pass, the travellers can see the dry bed of Bolan River. It has traces of vegetation along its bank and sometimes an oasis appears along the bank. The river can be flooded anytime and the vegetation appears to have some intermittent supply of water even in the dry season. Above the pass, there is a waterfall linked with the shrine of Bibi Nani. Most of the vehicles going through the Bolan Pass and on the road to Quetta have the yellow license plates issued by Sindh. I ask my companions about this phenomenon. They tell me that it gives the impression that the vehicle has not been smuggled from Iran or Afghanistan and has come through the port at Karachi.

What is even more surprising is that nobody mentions any desire for stopping for even a cup of chai. This does not feel like travelling. It feels like dodging and escaping. The terrain is inhospitable and the population is very thin. The only local population is the nomadic families coming back from Quetta and the occasional sheepherder with his sheep and goats grazing at the bushes in an otherwise barren landscape. Usually travellers can only enjoy what they have brought with them. Otherwise, they just try to cross this area as soon as possible.

I ask my companions about the conditions in winter. They say the mountains get covered in snow in winter and it can get very cold in the upper parts because the Bolan Pass and Quetta have the same elevation. It is not for the fainthearted, I think, to cross this terrain in winter in the middle of a snowfall.

As we near Quetta, the land becomes flatter but there is another range of mountains on the horizon behind Quetta. Spezand is the last settlement before Quetta. The surrounding areas of Quetta are marked by a laidback chaos in traffic and the suburban disorder. The temperature in September is pleasant but my hosts are not comfortable. They just want to reach Quetta Cantonment as soon as possible. I ask my companions if the stereotype of Quetta being a city famous for its dry fruit is true. Someone at the back seat remarks that Akbari Mandi in Lahore is a bigger market for dry fruit. I feel deflated at the crumbling of another stereotype. I am reminded of a remark of a former teacher of mine: to think is to meet otherness.

From Spezand to Quetta Cantonment, the distance is only 26 kilometres but it takes one hour to reach there because of disorderly traffic and the general urban chaos. Inside the Cantonment, the urban disorder has been taken care of. The lanes and roads are clean. But still I am the only civilian wearing the global touristy dress: a shirt and jeans. I take mental notes: if I come here again I am going to bring the locally tailored shalwar kameez with me.

We find our guesthouse inside the cantonment and start making ourselves comfortable. It has taken us four and a half hours to reach here. And we have travelled at maximum manageable speed nonstop throughout. So far so good. The guesthouse is comfortable and the weather is very pleasant. There is no photochemical haze or smog in the area. A crispy, clean, autumn day in Quetta. Time to relax and recuperate for an afternoon and evening in Quetta.

In the afternoon, most of my companions are not in the mood to venture out of the cantonment area. So I ask my former student Sikanderyar (not his real name) if he can show me around. He comes in a battered old sedan and, for some unknown reason, the first place he wants to show me is Mariabad, the part of Quetta where the Hazara people live.

It does not take long to reach there despite the afternoon traffic. Sikanderyar tells me that it is wrong to assume that all Hazara are Shia. There is a Sunni minority as well and in Central Asia they are called Aimaq Hazara and in Quetta they are simply called Sunni Hazaras.

But Mariabad does not display this plurality. The feeling is of a community that is besieged by its identity and is trying to survive. Most of the shops derive their names from the events of Karbala and the Twelve Imams and Ahl-e-Bait. We go into a restaurant which has pictures of Benazir Bhutto and Bilawal Zardari Bhutto on every wall. The menu has Persian and desi dishes. We order two bowls of ash-e-reshteh soup. It arrives promptly as if it is the main dish and is always ready. The food is fresh. We order qahwah to wash down the thick soup and it comes with slices of lemon.

Afterwards, we walk around Mariabad. During the walk, Sikanderyar casually points out in one direction and says, “That is their graveyard.” I begin thinking that Hazaras are becoming known for their relationship with death? I feel the need to go back to the guesthouse and think about all the things. He is happy to drop me.

In the evening, I tell my hosts about my afternoon trip to Mariabad with Sikanderyar. They are keen to request him again for another trip. “We need local help and local cars and someone who speaks the local accent.” I call Sikanderyar again. This time the plan is to go to Kuchlak to a roadside restaurant famous for its Rosh and other Afghani dishes. The road to Kuchlak at night is crowded with trucks going and coming from Chaman. The distance is only 30 kilometres but it takes one hour to reach Kuchlak. The food is worth the hour-long drive. The restaurant has traditional seating on the floor and almost everybody is eating lamb meat and qahwah afterwards.

On the way back, Sikanderyar asks all of us: do you feel any danger travelling on this road tonight? We all say no. Then he points out that it is a major road coming from Kandahar and we are outside the city limits. We do not know what he is trying to get at. We do not want to think about anything too complex. Our bellies are happily full. He is trying to represent Balochistan and dispel stereotypes. He himself belongs to the Pashtun minority. The situation is too complex for any post-prandial pontification.

We tell him to put on some music. The music player in the Japanese car has Hindi songs on a USB and inside the car are two Punjabis and two Pashtuns travelling on the road traversing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have all been educated in the Western-style academic institutions. We have been raised as consumers of globalisation but our traditions are proving too resilient. We are all trying to represent Balochistan without having a dialogue with the Baloch people. Actually, we are only good at observing the world around us and watching history take its course. We have become the ultimate consumers. We will just drift into oblivion without making a difference.

This article was originally published in The News on Sunday on September 30, 2018