Archive for August, 2004

true story: 002 – it was a monsoon Friday!

August 30, 2004

assalam-o-aleykum wa rehmatullahi wa barakatuh
الســـلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته


it was a monsoon Friday!


Do you know what monsoons are?These are torrential rains that come in July.In the Indo-Pak subcontinent, life depends very much on the timely arrival of these rains. In the mountains and the valleys and the vast plains of this sub-continent where more than a billion people strive to keep body and soul together, two seasons bring a great shortage of water. In winter, the rivers have very little flow, the mountains keep the snow, and the springs dry up. Occasional rainfall and then the spring rains keep life from being extinguished altogether. Immediately after spring, comes the dry season. The land, the wells, the springs, the rivers, the dams, and the lakes do not only lose water, they are so parched you would think they have not seen water for centuries. All over the land, people look to the skies, and pray for the rains to arrive in time.

The monsoons come from the Arabian Sea, crossing South India, then over the Bay of Bengal into Bangladesh and Assam. Traveling along the North touching the Himalayas, they saturate the thirsty land of the Ganges and the Jumna, and then they arrive in Pakistan, fifteen days after they have hit Eastern India. Every day until the rains come, the farmers, and the thirsty humans and animals wait anxiously. If there is delay, many will die of thirst, there will invariably be a famine, and many more will then die of hunger.

So, monsoons are welcome. When they come, the land is full of water, the rivers become mighty seas, floods are common, and there is such an excess of water you would not think there ever was a shortage. Dams have been built to keep the excess water, but these dams silt up, and new dams take a lot of money, and you have to take into account dislocation of populations whose land new dams affect. There is another downside as well. Across the land, the poor build mud houses near the streams or depressions, so as to be closer to water sources.

And when there are floods
….. the Dam water is released to protect the dam and surrounding humanity
….. sometimes whole villages downstream that have not had warning, get swept away
….. and there is no one to mourn their loss
….. but this is not what the story is about,

although this has happened in the past.

It was a monsoon Friday!

It had been raining the last four days and nights; the sky having cleared only in the early morning was again covered with threatening dark grey clouds. My friend and I walked to the mosque for our Friday prayers and felt a few drops fall on our faces, so we increased our pace – I no longer liked getting wet in rain. As we entered the mosque, I saw some women outside the mosque, near the place shoes are taken off. These were of varying ages, in the weather-beaten rags that only the poor know how to wrap around themselves so as to pass for clothes. My friend stopped and called to them: “sisters, come inside, it is about to rain, and if you want, you can say your prayers, too.”
If you knew this part of the world, you would have noticed two challenges to the status quo here. One, in the Muslim community of the Indo-Pak sub-continent generally you do not find women inside the mosque. Some groups do allow women to have a separate portion for prayers, but not most of the Afghan-Indo-Pak society. The second is that begging is not allowed inside the mosques, and these women were obviously there for begging. The other people in the mosque looked annoyed but said nothing because we were considered rather respectable members of this posh locality we lived in.The women were hesitant, but when thicker drops started falling, they saw wisdom in coming inside, and then shyly, one went for performing ablution (wudu – cleaning with water), and one by one they all did, and lined up behind the men for the Jum3a prayers. The khutba (sermon) and the prayers over, we started to come out of the mosque, when one of the older women said: “please sirs, listen and help us”. At this my friend stopped again, and asked in a soft voice: “yes sister, what is your problem”? One gentleman, very well known, very rich through selling government land, very active in the community here, spoke up to my friend in his authoritative voice: “You are wasting you time with them sir, they are professional beggars. Just leave them alone”.

The woman who had asked for help suddenly got angry and said: “Respected Sir, how dare you call me a beggar? I come from the mountains, and we work to provide food for ourselves, but this is the rainy season and there is no work, and my son has been ill with fever for the last three days, and we haven’t eaten for that time, and my house is leaking. You come with me, and I will show you”. She was shaking with rage, but her voice was still composed, and you could see that she had been hurt deeply. My friend said: “Yes, Respected Sir, let us go and see if she is telling the truth”. The gentleman sensed a waste of time, and sought a retreat. “I am sorry, here take this hundred rupee note”, but the woman would not take the money. She insisted that the man who had called her a professional beggar accompany her to see for himself that she was not one, and that her condition was indeed as she had described. She had been grossly insulted, and she wanted her pride restored.

My friend encouraged her. He loved such confrontations. All his life he had been working to restore to the downtrodden their right to live with dignity. The gentleman was upset, as the raindrops had become bigger, and they would eventually bring in a rainstorm, for monsoons are nothing but water pouring from the skies. To tell you the truth, I also wanted to get back to my cozy home. I have been through quite a few uncomfortable times, and I did not want to expose myself to the elements any more; but here was my friend, and I could not possibly leave his side now. So, we all squeezed together in his old diesel Mercedes, and drove to the locality of the women. When we arrived, it was a bigger mess than we thought. In the centre ran a hilly stream, which becomes violently uncrossable if it rains heavily upstream. We would have to cross quite a few hundred yards of muddy and slippery terrain on foot with rain now falling over us. The gentleman took a look, offered his deep apologies, and increased his offer to two hundred, and then five hundred rupees, but the woman still refused. She no longer wanted help; she just wanted to show the objector that he was wrong. You can rest assured that this was a substantial amount, as my salary at that time as a middle class professional was around three thousand rupees, and so the five hundred rupees would have been sufficient for that woman and her son for one to two months.

We grudgingly trudged on, with our shoes heavy with mud, fearing slips and falls, and I most of all fearing my wife who would demand to know why I had, at my age, gone to play in the mud. As we reached the “house”, we saw how true the woman’s words were. Her “house” consisted of one room, made of mud, with a thatched roof also covered with mud, which had dissolved now with rain, and the water was pouring in. Inside on a bed made of jute ropes (we call it charpoy), lay a young man about 18-22, and he did had fever. We had not stopped at our houses to take a thermometer, but he felt hot to touch.

We gave some money to the women who had accompanied us, and came back, and that weekend we convened a meeting to decide what we could do. We formed an organization called “idarae huqool ul ibaad” which means in English “society for the rights of mankind”, and put some money from our salary in. The next day at office we asked our colleagues to chip in with a regular contribution, and so we managed to collect three thousand rupees per month from our salaries this way. Thus we, who were physical engineers, started our experiments in social engineering.

We went to that locality to look at its problems and to discuss and analyze with the residents. The money came a little later. With that and a grant from Zakat (from a Pakistani living in Saudi Arabia), we built a school, and persuaded the government to get a teacher for it. We built snother school-cum-training center-cum community hall for them, and a mosque, and improved their well’s safety. Gave some of them employment, hope, education for their children and the adults. We devised a new technique for fast literacy. Made the residents think for themselves and work on a self-help basis. Opened a vocational training center for the girls. Hired a sewing master and his help. We also helped the residents build their own local dispute-settling mechanism, and dislodged the state repressive police from that locality.

Our activities were not without notice in this tiny elite town. The police lived by making the lower classes fight with each other, and collecting bribes from both sides. When the residents formed their own local dispute-solving system, the police and its stooges were deprived of a steady and substantial income. We estimated that the police were raking in rupees two thousand every day from that locality. When that money stopped leaking out, it was spent by the residents on their households and the environment, and the living standard or rather the quality of life improved.

Naturally this caused resentment, and not just at low levels. The police chief called us, and tried to convince us that we should concentrate on teaching the clientele good manners and how to pray. We politely declined to toe his line. Then came the summons from the Deputy Commissioner. We knew what it meant. He is the guy with the entire Federal administration for the district in his hands. He tried to reason with us: “Look, what are you doing?” We gave blank looks. So he explained: “You are from our class. If you educate this lowly class, from where will we get our servants? You are betraying your own class.” We just smiled. This would have meant a lot of trouble, but somehow our education, our background, and our prestigious jobs, gave the Federal Administration an idea that we must have some influential backing, so nothing happened to us. Then the local authority stepped in, because the shantytown was built on municipal land. Here the law was not on our side, but the ground realities were. These people were needed as low-paid workers. If they were thrown out, where will the laborers and the low-paid staff come from? So that gave us some breathing space. We had anticipated this and built our centre with baked bricks joined with very weak concrete to assure the local authorities that this was a temporary construction, and would be dismantled on their instruction.

Our methods gave our clients such confidence that our girls were in demand for official functions as well. When our girls went back “home” to their villages, occasionally we would get enthusiastic letters from our “graduates” that they were applying what they had learnt from us to educate their sisters in their villages. So we went to the office in the morning, came back in the evenings and occupied ourselves with community work, which lasted late into the night, as we had to fight on several fronts. Eventually, I fell ill, and had to be in and out of hospital for severe asthma, so I gradually gave up my active social work. Then my friend suffered a series of heart attacks.

We looked for younger people to take over, but there were no takers. The municipal authorities finally struck, bulldozed that shantytown, and threw the residents further away. We continued to provide help, but the community had been destroyed, and we were no longer up to the task of visiting there new environment regularly.

The United Nations representatives came to us, wanting to learn from us the secret of our success in transforming the attitudes and lives of these people. We told them of our methods, of our determination from the beginning that any help must be in the locality, and that the residents should not have to come to a bureaucratic setup in posh offices. This is what we believe intimidates them. But that is all we could do. Our health did not permit active participation in any schemes the UN would evolve.

The stream quietly flows down the same route, roaring during the monsoons again. All that is left as a reminder of our efforts is the mosque, the multi-purpose building, and the improved well – all by the side of the hilly stream. Perhaps the school is also there, but it was quite far upstream, and I haven’t visited it, so I cannot say for sure. The residents, unfortunately, are no longer there. And scattered throughout Pakistan, in the tiny villages are young and adult women we educated, and trained, and some of them are carrying the torch.

My friend too, is no more. He died nearly four years ago. His heart had suffered far too much damage. May Allah (SubHana Wa Ta`ala) open a window from Jannah into his grave, and grant him shade under HIS throne on the Day of Judgment, and give him the highest rewards in the Hereafter.

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a true positive story


true story: 001 – Rakhshinda and Tabinda

August 29, 2004

assalam-o-aleykum wa rehmatullahi wa barakatuh
الســـلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته

Rakhshinda and Tabinda

This is a true story, but the names, periods when events took place, and some other details have been changed/staggered a little.

I do not know if I will ever be able to write out Rakhshi’s and Tabi’s lives from the day they were born to their final days on this earth. I do not even know if I should give a more detailed account of the last four years of their lives – perhaps maybe some other time. Today I will just tell you that on their last day here on this pleasant planet Earth, they probably did not say anything, they just looked at each other in sorrow, pity, resignation, and a longing for what they did not have. Then they in all probability hugged each other tightly for a long time before going to separate rooms in their two-roomed “flat”.

And what was it that they did not have?

Rakhshinda was now 18, Tabinda 17. Life had been difficult but bearable for these teenagers in the early years of their existence. For many years now, to them a good day in life was when they could eat just one full meal in a day. The last time that happened was at Eid-ud-duha, when those who made sacrifice on that day gave them meat.

Their father, never in good health, had a job of sorts, which he lost when the company he worked for went under, and he never found another steady job. He now went out looking for work as a daily wages laborer, sitting on the footpath by the road every morning, with other hopefuls. But by afternoon, he would still be sitting there, together with many others who had not been selected for day labor and who now included men in good health and able bodies. When they had not found work, what hope was there for him? So he came home, day after day, without any thing in his hand to give his daughters to eat.

In the afternoon these un-hired laborers went around the residential sectors, seeking food from housewives. Usually they managed to find it, but that had now become scarce, what with the inflation and the freeze on salaries and wages. The housewives now had to think first of their own families.

He heard of some restaurants, where some God-fearing people paid for a few meals as charity, and where nearby the laborers who hadn’t found work or other poor people gathered, and sat patiently, in order of their arrival at the restaurant. When the waiter shouted, “three”, or “six”, or “ten”, that number of these people stepped forward, and were given the minimum meals the “philanthropists” had paid for. They would go back in a corner, and eat there. The condition was that they eat at the restaurant and not take it home. This was done presumably to stop people from hoarding meals. This distribution took place strictly in turn, those arriving first to be so served, stepping out first. This was in total contrast to other walks of life, where disorder reigned. Obviously the restaurantiers had enforced this order, for a disorderly rush for food might drive off their more affluent clients. Some laborers still remained unfed, and went home hoping for work or a free meal the next day. He joined these hopefuls, and was able to feed himself at times, but what about his daughters! How were they to be fed? He couldn’t take the food with him. Occasionally he managed to hide his share of the food in his ragged clothes, and on those rare occasions the three shared a meal meant barely for one. One day the sight of his daughters’ famished bodies and hungry looks made him courageous enough to talk to the waiter, who sought permission from the manager, and he was graciously allowed to take the food with him, but it was still food for one. So the three went semi-fed at best all the time.

Four years ago Rakhshi and Tabi had lost their mother, after her prolonged illness. She had worked as a housemaid, and as long as she also worked, they had full meals, sometimes bought and cooked at home, sometimes what the Begums gave away when there were feasts in the houses, and the girls got occasional change of clothes, hand-me-downs from the Begums. But her illness and funeral had put the family under a heavy debt burden. The girls had tried their hand at being maids, first with the clients of their mother, who had insisted they pay off their mother’s debts by working free. Work from dawn to late night, and to the satisfaction of the Begums, wasn’t possible without being energetic, and that wasn’t possible without enough food in your stomach, so while the girls got some food, it wasn’t enough and these girls soon lost whatever jobs they were given. As now the economy was on a steep downhill slope, jobs had shrunk. On top of this the labor market had swollen with healthy young aspirants to maids’ work, and the sisters could not compete with them. So Rakhshi and Tabi and their father lived in perpetual hunger, day after day. Occasional daily labor’s work, performed poorly because of poor functioning of an ill-fed body, food for one that their father could sometimes get from the restaurant, or rarely a plate to share from their slightly better off neighbors, was all they lived on.

The family was more than a year behind in paying rent of their modest, very modest, accommodation, and the landlord’s patience had gone beyond wearing thin; he had now threatened to evict them. Their electricity and gas had long been cut off for non-payment. The landlord did not know of this. Had he known, he would have thrown a fit, for he would have to pay the arrears and fines and the reconnection charges when he would finally throw them out. They had no money to pay these bills. They never had a phone in their house; even if they had it, whom would they phone? Perhaps they had never ever used a phone. They had not even traveled on a bus for ages, for the bus fare could be put to better use by buying a few morsels of food. Their only means of transportation were their legs.

And their clothes! Oh, these had become rags, and by now they were unable to hide their bodies fully in them, so going out to seek the ever-elusive maid’s work was now out for them. Who would take a second glance at those shriveled bodies? But that wasn’t the point. The neighbors would talk, and their fiancés would hear of it, and although they were dying of hunger, they still had a sense of modesty left.

They had been engaged to be married when they were still children, and now had come a demand from their fiancés for marriage. Their father had told them of the demand, but he didn’t need to tell them that this was an additional burden he couldn’t carry. His slumped, famished body said it all. They knew it would cost at least fifteen thousand Rupees each for the poorest of marriages. That was a total of thirty thousand rupees. Where would he find that kind of money when he couldn’t feed or clothe them with the barest minimum?

They knew nothing of the macroeconomics or grand designs of this world. Sanctions had been in place on Pakistan, which had served faithfully its master at every stage. It had obediently sent in its soldiers whenever asked, without compensation. It had waited patiently for a few crumbs to be thrown its way. But its governments had made one big mistake. It is a Muslim country, and the governments sometimes had to cater to national interests, so when a non-Muslim hostile neighbor went overtly nuclear, the government and people of Pakistan sacrificed everything they had to obtain some from of deterrence. They had seen that being the “most-allied ally” did not save them from coming under arms embargo when India invaded Pakistan in 1965. For the Jihad in Afghanistan against the Evil Empire (Soviet Union), the US turned a blind eye to Pakistani efforts, and the people of Pakistan thought they had a friend for whom they had sacrificed the peace and tranquility of their nation. The Soviet Union and its client states targeted Pakistan for being host to the Mujahideen from the world. There were eleven bombings within the space of half an hour in Islamabad one evening. One took place in my market, and my pharmacist died in this.

The President of Pakistan, was murdered with his top generals in a mysterious way while on his C-130 plane. He had been told something was brewing, and he took the precaution of inviting the US ambassador into his place, but the sacrifice of an ambassador is perhaps acceptable to the US, for not much has been heard of that fateful killing. As soon as the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, the US turned its full fury onto its erstwhile ally, Pakistan. Loans to Pakistan suddenly dried up. And when India exploded five nuclear devices, and threatened Pakistan, no reassurance was forthcoming from the US for its slave. All that the President of the US promised was to talk it over with the Congress. So Pakistan had no choice but to demonstrate that any aggression could and would be met. Pakistan was suddenly put under severe sanctions.

When the government of Pervaiz Musharraf took over, this was the state of affairs – a heavy debt burden with 18-22% interest rate, so the government was concentrating on keeping the creditors happy. When the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank ordered a macro economical health prescription, it was followed to the letter. To gain this health, the Government of Pakistan when asked by Bush whether they were with him or not, had no need for second thoughts, and thus the Taleban were sold out. The government had no sense of propriety and international norms when it arrested the ex-ambassador of Afghanistan, Mullah Daeef, and handed him over to its master, the US, to be sent to Guantamao, where we suspected and now know that torture has been perfected.

The IMF/WB representative, Shaukat Aziz, was installed to oversee the creditors’ interest, which has coincided with the interests of the USA throughout the history of these Breton Woods financial controllers of third world governments, as envisioned by their creators. Fortunately for the Governments (and that means the elite of Pakistan), Shaukat Aziz was a continuation of the age-old tradition of US-trained, US-installed Finance Ministers, who made sure that the economics was in line with the ever so clever masters in Washington, DC. Many a Pakistani intellectual had pleaded with the US to incorporate Pakistan as a State of the US of A, since we were doing the bidding of the US government; but why, when the US can get its work done cheap, why take on the responsibility.

Shaukat Aziz announced that now there were 12 billion dollars in the Pak kitty. He did not announce that these 12 billion dollars are kept in a New York bank, because the people of Pakistan may ask what is their money doing in New York, when they are going hungry. They do not know that theirs is small change in the world of Finance, as the Saudis have trillions of dollars in the US. They do not know that it is insurance for good behavior of third world governments that the money belonging to its people is kept in the West. This way the third world can never ask for true independence. This way their only recourse is to rise in rebellion in countries one after another, to be crushed cruelly, being labeled with any of the obnoxious names the US media, intelligentsia and population is ever so inventive about – and the beauty of this arrangement being that for their own suppression their own money can be used to buy armaments from the West, enriching further the investors in the arms industries of the West.

It was with considerable hesitation that this fact was made public that the State Bank of Pakistan has purchased six billion of these dollars from the market. The implication was not spelled out though, that the government will now print that much worth of extra rupee notes, thereby causing more inflation and increase in number of people going below the poverty line. One really good bit, though, is that the 40 billion dollar short term, high interest, loan has been replaced with 34 billion dollar longer-term loans on lower interest rates – good, that is, unless some hidden clause emerges to qualify this.

The sovereign debt rating for Pakistan was revised by Standards and Poor, the top ratings firm for so-called sovereign states, and the rating went from C minus to B plus. It is now A. Of the Third World countries, Pakistan Treasury notes were now most in demand. The IMF and the World Bank chiefs praised Pervaiz Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz. What is more, the President of the US of A, yes, I should be proud to repeat that no less a personality than the President of that great nation, now phoned Pervaiz Musharraf regularly for the good job the astute General was doing for Pakistan.

If that is not good news, I do not know what is.

That was the good news on the macro-level. On the micro-level, the level that lesser mortals like me can think of and understand, the family of Rakhshinda and Tabinda needed 50-60 dollars a month to survive on. The marriages of the two sisters could have been arranged with 600 dollars.

The same day of the good news announced by Shaukat Aziz, Rakhshi and Tabi hanged themselves from the ceiling fan in their flat.

When the police arrived, the rags on their bodies were still insufficient to hide their nakedness, their poor neighbors not having extra sheets to cover the bodies. So the policemen, in a rare show of empathy, brought sheets from their houses to cover them.

Good for the policemen, who normally are known for raping girls as a means of controlling the populace, so the class that could speak would keep silent in fear of losing its honor to the hungry policemen.

What happened after that? All I know is that the father of Rakhshi and Tabi just sat there, unable to move, unable to cry, or should he cry even, he wasn’t sure. At least his daughters would not go hungry now. At least their bodies were now covered. At least he did not now have to worry about their marriage expenses.

The funeral was arranged with donations from some worthy individuals; may God reward them all. I do not know if the girls cried before taking that final, irrevocable, step. I have no report on whether marks of weeping were found on their cheeks, shrunken from hunger. I can guess though that when dying, the girls were not aware that the misery they had endured had contributed to the swelling of the Government of Pakistan account in the New York Bank by 12 billion dollars.

Shaukat Aziz is now the Prime Minister of Pakistan, having been brought in to make sure the economy is tied to the new world order. We can expect a further swelling of the kitty, followed by purchases from the US of helicopter gunships to hunt down our own people, the people of this neo-colony contributing their share to the recovery of the US economy, and we can also expect more suicides of people like Rakhshi and Tabi. Perhaps I should tell you that the percentage of those living below the poverty line in Pakistan has officially gone up from 20% to 33-34%. In reality, it is closer to 40%. By what I remember, at the last count the number of suicides due to hunger in Pakistan was between 400-500 a year, something I never even imagined would happen in an Islamic country. In India, massive Suicides took place last year, perhaps of the order of 4,000 – 5,000 among the farmers of Karnataka alone.

We cannot change the course of events, and we cannot do what Rakhshi and Tabi did, but I do wish I hadn’t read the newspaper that day. Perhaps I have no right to bring this side of life in this part of the world to you, so please forgive me for sharing my sorrow. All I can say in my defense is that this has been weighing heavy on my heart. And there is no one I have been able to talk to about this. I also have no clue what to do, except maybe discontinue my newspaper, and instead order comics featuring Archie and Veronica and Betty, because in the new world order, entertainment is what is cheap, and humanity too, but bread will be expensive.

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rakhshinda & tabinda