Three provinces, one trip

One day, I thought, I have been around the planet once but not seen my own country. The original around-the-world thing happened without any planning and took me years to close the circle: from Lahore to Sydney (via Bangkok), Wollongong, Canberra and from Sydney to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Then from Rio to Zurich, Dubai and Lahore. Six years and ten months in all. Then my professional trips to Dhaka, Berlin, Vienna, Oslo and Bergen, and leisure trips to Barcelona, Vienna, and Copenhagen all became nagging.

I had never been to Balochistan. It was also a moral dilemma. The stereotypical images: the Bugti-Musharraf conflict, the accidents of birth and place that suture ethnic identities on to bodies and speech, and declare them friends or enemies, the exploiters and the exploited.

I had also experienced embarrassing moments in the office of the Daily Star in Dhaka. My only defence was I was one year old when Bangladesh separated. Then one journalist had come to my rescue and accused my interrogator of acting like Pakistan towards the tribal people of Chittagong Hill Tracts. I had felt relief. I did not want any angry encounters despite the fact that I had enjoyed Sui Gas all my life in Lahore. I am not alone in that. I am part of a group of people who are perceived to be exploiters by minority provinces. The shame, if validated, should be a collective thing not individual.

So I called up some friends, Pathans and Punjabis, living in Balochistan and expressed my interest to visit them. They agreed.

I book a berth to Rohri in a train going to Karachi. The little room has six berths, three on each side. I have to deal with five strangers who are seasoned travellers. They have their meals and water bottles with them and their pillows and blankets also seem well-travelled. The best way to break the silence is to comment on the political situation in the country — and suddenly everybody gets animated. The chai comes. The homemade parathas are shared. The traveller who works at Sundar Industrial Estate after being laid off by Pakistan Steel Mills becomes the most vociferous defender of naya Pakistan.

Six men (women are not allocated berths where men are) are put together by Pakistan Railway, and they have to spend their night together. We all want to be safe. We create a self. Inside the cabin is the self. Outside the cabin is the enemy, the thief who to steal our belongings. We assign duties to each other: the last person to go to sleep must lock the cabin from inside.

I set up an alarm for 4am, for that is when the train is expected to arrive at Rohri. 5pm to 4am. Eleven hours of an air-conditioned, metallic lullaby.

The train is on time. Rohri Junction at 4am has boiled eggs and chai and halwa for sale but my host, who is posted in Dera Murad Jamali, Balochistan, has sent his driver and a four-wheel drive vehicle.

I must accept the plans of my host. From Rohri to Sukkur, Shikarpur, and Jacobabad and beyond, we move before the sun is up. The driver tells me that the area between Sukkur and Jacobabad is famous for its rice.

I must accept the plans of my host. From Rohri to Sukkur, Shikarpur, and Jacobabad and beyond, we move before the sun is up. The driver tells me that the area between Sukkur and Jacobabad is famous for its rice.

Dera Allah Yar is the first settlement after we cross the invisible line between Sindh and Balochistan. The first impressions of Balochistan are of vastness and the landscape seems ready to pour forth green bushes wherever there is some water, a mixture of oases and deserts. The area near the Sindh border is green and becomes dryer as you move inland. The roads are smooth and straight. Tankers, trailers, heavy trucks rule the roads of Balochistan.

Every now and then, you see a family in a pickup truck coming from the Quetta side with all their household items with them. The driver tells me the families are coming back from the mountains because now the weather is improving. So many people live in makeshift houses around Quetta during summer because the temperature goes up to 52° centigrade. The lack of water, electricity, and other amenities in summer makes people move up to the hilly and more clement areas. It is an annual feature. Entire families migrate and live in rented houses or set up tents in the hills around Quetta to escape the heat. This climate-induced migration begins in the middle of May and ends in early September.

Our destination, Dera Murad Jamali, is about two hours from Rohri Junction, and we arrive in a sleepy city. There is a small restaurant open at 6am. A worker is making parathas and hanging them on a twig leaning over the hotplate. The oil from a hanging paratha drips onto other parathas-in-progress. I assume that the paratha hanging is there for advertisement purposes but within minutes it is taken off its perch and served to a customer with omelette and chai. The small branch acts as a billboard and a device for drip-drying parathas, and is beyond the reach of stray animals.

The walls of the restaurant are painted light green. The customers speak Sindhi, Brohi, Seraiki, and Balochi and all of them wear shalwar kameez. I resist my urge to photograph the restaurant because it will make me look like an inconsiderate or voyeuristic outsider. That is when the driver asks me if I have brought a shalwar kameez with me. I ask why. That is the norm here, he says. Yes, but I will still be an outsider because of my language. Identity is a trap for everybody.

We move to the guesthouse arranged by my host and I am given a day to rest.

The road trip to Quetta from Dera Murad Jamali begins early morning the day after. The logic in all the early morning travels is that the bandits and way layers are asleep at that hour. But, someone argues back, the law-enforcement personnel are also asleep at that hour. Conundrums are plentiful in all negotiations where the self and the other are not clearly defined.

Published on September 23, 2018