Waiting among the dead

How the blind masseur Lala, 66, survives "a selfish world" where there is "a war of all against all" 

It took me two days to find Lala -- the blind masseur with his six bottles of perfumed, coloured oils, a radio with a brown leather cover on it, a plastic water cooler with a glass tied to a steel chain knotted around the faucet, and a thick cotton rug. He always used to be on the grassy patch, the green divider between Jail Road and Ferozpur Road. I asked another masseur nearby. His reply -- "He is on vacations but I am here if you need a massage" -- proved the impossibility of getting objective information from a competitor. 

I asked a nearby tea vendor. 

"Lala has moved to Miani Sahib." 

"What do you mean? You talk about Miani Sahib as if it was Allama Iqbal Town." 

"You are really naive. There are hundreds of people living in Miani Sahib." 

"Living among the dead?" 

"Jee, babu jee. Go and see for yourself. Look around the shrine." 

I reluctantly walked into the graveyard across the road. It was lush green. The plants, helped by the rains, had transformed human bodies into quite nutritious compost. There were two or three men sitting around the graves, smoking reefers. I asked them about Lala. One man pointed to a row of public toilets: "He has put his belongings in that locked cubicle." "He must be around here somewhere" was another vague indication. I looked around the shrine for a while and came back to the comfort of traffic fumes created by the living. 

At night, I tried again. The moment I walked some steps on the trail leading to the shrine, power went off. The waning moon was not very helpful in recognising human beings lurking in the shadows. I gave up. 

The next day I was able to spot him sitting on the marbled edge of a grave, a bucket of water next to his feet. The web of wrinkles on his face rearranged itself into a smiling pattern after he recognised my voice saying salam to him. 

"What happened to your massage business, Lala?" 

"The police do not allow people to sit there after midnight. There are fears of the hammer group, the stone group, the pick-pockets, and the head-bashers." 

"So you moved to the graveyard?" 

"Yes. I thought it is better to come here by yourself instead of being carried here." 

"What about your son?" 

"He is only good for his own wife and his two children. I don't want to bother him." 

"What about your wife, your house?" 

"She died some years ago. I gave the house to my son." 

"So now you are on your own?" 

"Yes. Allah takes care of me. I am already 65 or 66. There are not many years left. This is the final destination anyway." 

"What about your customers?" 

"Some even follow me here. I massage them on any flat surface. They give me or 140 or 150 rupees. It is enough to get me by. I am done with the world anyway." 

"Where do you sleep?" 

"It depends on the weather. Inside a shrine if it is hot. If it is cold, I curl up in that cubicle. I have kept it very clean in there." 

"Your son, your daughter-in-law, and your grand-children should have taken care of you." 

"Aray! It is a selfish world. It is a war of all against all. Nobody can help anybody. Look at the prices of things. Do you still expect generosity from the world?" He started getting worked up. 

I started thinking of retreating to the hopeful and young. 

Outside, I asked many shopkeepers about Lala. Some said it was his bitter tongue that had driven everybody, including his children, away. He had not been generous with his daughter-in-law. His macabre, cynical view of the world had brought him to the point where nobody bothered him. Others lamented the selfishness of his son. Some said he had become bitter after he realised his wife had not been faithful to him. Nobody mentioned any structural, social, economic injustice. No one expected any social security programme for the homeless would ever come and help. There were no answers why some living people are being driven to the graveyard. It seems to be a logical destination for the infirm, the destitute and the homeless.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated July 27, 2008

Source: https://jang.com.pk/thenews/jul2008-weekly/nos-27-07-2008/spr.htm