In a forgotten month of 1988, I met Shahid Tarar who now heads National Highway Authority. Then he was a sharp, young assistant commissioner at Lasbela. “Are you out of your mind?” he asked incredulously only some minutes into our first ever meeting.
At a loose end, arriving in Lasbela with my friend Syed Abu Akif, I had asked Shahid to arrange for me to be put on a lorry en route to Turbat. Now, there were buses and Shahid suggested I take one. I insisted on the lorry and he got serious doubts as to my mental health. But in the end he had his staff drive me out to the western edge of town where the dusty, unpaved trail snaked away into the hills and I was put on a lorry with a Pakhtun crew heading for Turbat.
The idea was to see how the truckers went.
A short way west of Lasbela the bends of the Jhao Pass were a nightmare. We crawled along in the lowest gear, the engine growling for all it was worth and the body swaying and creaking. On the far side of the pass, we paused at the shrine of Shirin and Farhad where the crew got a pot full of water from the spring to make tea.
The journey resumed; night fell but we jolted along through the darkness, our headlamps the only light in a pitch black void. At some point we stopped at a wayside inn. It was nothing more than a shack with dusty matting for us to sleep on.
On the morrow, strong truckers’ tea was served up with chapattis to see us on. I lost track of time and space with only the name of Hoshab remaining etched on my mind. The second night fell and, on the third day, after leaving Lasbela, we finally fetched up at Turbat with a goodly part of Mother Earth deposited on our persons.
In September 2001, I returned this same way with a PTV team to film my documentary on Alexander’s Indian Campaign. Our first stop out of Lasbela was Awaran, where we were guests with the tehsildar. His office and levies’ post was on a low hill just east of the main clump of buildings from where we could see long ways off in the flat setting. And what a landscape we looked over! Scrub forest spreading all the way to distant blue hills, streams with wide pebbly beds, scattered houses and a rough dirt streaking east-west on which we knew traffic from long ways off from the plumes of dust it raised.
Thereafter, Awaran came up sporadically in my random readings and map-gazing, but I never got a chance to return. And now there was my friend Aziz Jamali holding the office of deputy commissioner there. My chance had come.
On the first evening, Aziz took us to the old levies’ post where the PTV team and I had stayed back in 2001. Laid low by the devastating earthquake of September 2013, nothing remains of the rubble-and-clay masonry fortification thought to date back to the middle of the 18th century.
As project director for the Awaran rebuilding programme, Aziz had considered expert help to restore the fortress as it once was. But in the absence of architectural details and only a few images, it is clear this will be next to impossible.
As we waited for tea, Aziz used our vantage to point out the physical features visible for miles around. We could see the pebbly beds of the Mushkay Kor (the suffix signifies ‘river’ in Balochi) coming down from due north, Doraski from northwest and Kolwa Chil from the west. A short way southeast of town, they unite to form one of the larger tributaries of the handsome Nal or Hingol River.
From Aziz I understood Chil was possibly a mispronunciation of chehel – forty – and signified the large numbers of tributaries that feed the Kolwa stream.
But most interesting was the possible meaning of Awaran as Aziz saw it.
In Balochi, awar means a coming together; a union. In my imagination, I see a long ago time and a poetic Baloch who may well have stood at the very same spot as us and viewed the expansive landscape spread all around. I like to imagine it was an unusually wet season and away to the southeast, the meeting of the rivers was one tumultuous, roiling rendezvous for our poet to call this little settlement Awaran.
At 4:30 in the afternoon on September 24, 2013, the ground shook violently under Awaran. For three days the tremors returned time and again until no fewer than 16,000 houses were razed affecting some 24,000 families. Today, Aziz Jamali, besides being DC, heads a project worth six billion rupees to rebuild houses for every effected family. Having borrowed the earthquake-resistant plan from the north after 2005, the administration enforces the cinder block and steel bar design for which each affected family receives Rs 250,000 in three instalments.
Encouraging people to rebuild themselves, the government only maintains oversight to ensure that the first two instalments take the new construction to the prescribed level before releasing the final tranche from completion. The project benefits in three ways. One, with local trained masons at work, the money ploughs back into the district’s economy. Secondly, for the first time in history, people in this part of Balochistan are giving up the ancient and unstable rubble and clay construction for the more robust design. Lastly, and most significantly, Rs 30,000 of the building aid is earmarked for solar power equipment to light up the simple two-room homes in a district with next to no hope of getting on the national electricity grid in the foreseeable future.
Rather pleased with his progress, Aziz nevertheless felt unfulfilled since no journalists had visited his district after the initial rush immediately following the earthquake. No one had returned to see how the poor, ravaged district was faring. In his patent deadpan manner where one does not know if he is joking or otherwise, Aziz says that other than two provincial secretaries and a military commander from Khuzdar, even politicians had carefully kept themselves away. He added that he was willing to have journalists picked up from Karachi (as he had me), brought into Awaran for a look-see and then safely deposited back in the city.
He says it’s all right for him to be pleased with the work he was doing, but external judgement was what he needed. What was not wanted was the report occasionally in the press based on hearsay claiming no work was being done and that Awaran was another New Balakot. But in November, Aziz could show 3000 houses in various stages of completion with many villages flaunting a ‘model house’.
In a word, human habitation in the district, all but erased from the face of the earth, is only now returning to normality. Having seen flood-affected hordes blocking national highways in Punjab, I could only marvel at the stony stoicism of the Baloch: I met no whiners; none complained. I imagine, as the dust of their collapsing houses settled, these remarkably hardy people would have simply dusted their clothes and got on with life.
For years, I have harboured a secret and totally mad desire to meet with Dr Allah Nazar, the well-known Baloch rebel leader. Since the man is a native of Mushkay Valley just north of Awaran, I asked Aziz if it could be arranged. He was aghast. But he would have nothing of it. Even if Allah Nazar had not fled Pakistan, as reported, I was not to make my wish known.
Had this meeting occurred, I said, I would have written it up as fiction as if I was making up how the good doctor would have responded to my questions. Some days after the publication of this interview, Aziz suggested, my corpse trussed up in a jute bag would be found floating on a canal!
But Aziz did make arrangements for me to be driven part of the way up Mushkay Valley to Gwarjuk. Some months earlier, Aziz had visited this village and was intrigued by the hilltop garret. Sitting on the crest of a hill approachable from only one side, the fortification is big enough to hold about a dozen fully equipped soldiers. However, the interior can only be reached, so said Aziz, clambering up the side with the help of a rope.
And so off we went north along the banks of the dry Mushkay Kor.
I was hoping for scenery somewhat as magnificent as Mula of Khuzdar with a flowing river and a wide, fertile valley. But Mushkay is as rugged as only Balochistan can be: jagged hills, scrub forest, soil whose colour varies from creamy white to almost black, occasional date palms and tall grass along the dry river. The only place picturesque with water in the stream and multi-coloured hills around sat just under a military camp. Given the situation and the paranoia that the military understandably suffers from, I decided against pausing to take some pictures.
Gwarjuk was a large splash of green. Our host Ghulam Mustafa provided us a guide for the hilltop fortress. Outside the village, leaving the vehicle in a thick date grove, we walked a short way to the bottom of the hill with the garret. Below the hill to its southwest were several ruined walls and foundations that our young guide said was the remains of old Gwarjuk. The garret, meant to protect this village, was purportedly built during the reign of Naseer Khan, the able king of Kalat, in the middle of the 18th century.
I climbed up the hill with the guide and did indeed find a length of rope dangling from the ruined building. The way in was not over the wall, but through a narrow opening in the floor, now filled in with debris and hornets’ nests leaving no place for one to climb into the garret. Standing a little away, I could look inside to espy a lamp alcove and some remains of stuccowork on one wall.
Since this part of Balochistan rarely features in history, I have been unable to figure out why a village as insignificant as Gwarjuk needed protection. And against whom.
The high point of the day was lunch at Mustafa’s home. No self-respecting Baloch will serve you anything but roast lamb. So we had lamb cooked two different ways. And damn the vegetarian. At some point during the meal Mustafa noticed that I was eating only salad, so he plonked a length of roast rump on my plate. I put it right back into the dish. He probably thought I did not like that cut, so he pushed a shoulder in front of me. I pushed it back saying I did not eat meat.
“How can anyone not eat meat?” Mustafa asked incredulously as he forced a haunch onto my plate. A little struggle ensued as I tried to get rid of it and Mustafa pressed it on me even as he chewed on his mouthful of gristle and sinew.
“I don’t eat meat because I am a Pundit! My name is Rajmohan Sharma!” I said with as much force as I could without being rude. To press the point home, I told the gathering that I came from a long line of religious leaders.
Thank goodness for the people of Balochistan who are the most secular in this bigoted land of ours, Ghulam Mustafa was profusely contrite. In fact, a Bareach Pashtun friend of his visiting from Quetta also became very apologetic. In Punjab or Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where we are the holiest of the holy, my host would first of all have not believed I was Hindu and then very likely demanded to see my identity card to ascertain the fact. That would have been the end of me.
Mustafa insisted on having a vegetarian meal prepared. But it was already a rather late lunch and I assured him I was perfectly happy eating the nice salad. After a while of silence, Mustafa spoke up again: “Pundit ji, have a little bit of meat. There’s no way anyone from your family can ever know.”
“Do you eat swine?” I asked in return.
“No!” came the aghast response.
“Why?” I asked.
“Don’t you know it’s haram for Muslims?”
“Well, what you are trying to force on me is haram for me.” I said. That finally put the matter to rest.
However, despite all my reassurances to the contrary Ghulam Mustafa was thoroughly dejected that I, an honoured guest, was leaving improperly fed. He promised me that the next time I visit, there won’t be meat to be seen for miles around. As we were leaving, I told him I was taking his challenge: I had to see how a Baloch would prepare a vegetarian feast.