It is a story of the goodness that sets humans apart from all other beings. It began some 80 years ago and came to fruition in 2009 and, yet, the accrual of benefit from the goodwill of a few good men continues for all comers.
Village Dhedano near Thari Mirwah in Khairpur district, Sindh, today sits amid the last residue of a sand desert slowly giving over to farmland. Once all this was desert even as the Nara Canal flowing 35 kilometres in the east slaked narrow strips of agriculture along its alignment. In Dhedano and other nearby villages, there were many who owned farmland on the Nara; others had familial connections or business interests.
Between Dhedano and Kathore on the banks of the Nara, there lay a wilderness of wind-rippled dunes of the Thar Desert weaving through which was a beaten path. Travellers between the two villages had the choice of going either by horse or by camel. Those who could not afford that luxury used Shanks’s mare. In every case, it was a hard journey lasting about 20 hours, a journey for which travellers carried their own provisions.
Nobody remembers the year, but it is believed it was about 80 years ago, perhaps a little longer, that Wahid Buksh Khaskheli of Kathore set up his desert serai midway between his village and Dhedano. An agriculturist with a holding of about 10 acres irrigated by the Nara, he was not a rich man. He had enough to feed his family of a wife and four sons and a little to spare.
But he was a man possessed of largesse of the soul.
The serai was nothing but a makeshift hut of kandi logs for pillars with wattle roofing to keep the sun at bay. In the shade rested a few earthen pitchers whose water was brought by the camel load from Kathore while Wahid Buksh was always at hand to provide food to passing travellers who cared to pause at his way station. A tank to collect rainwater provided for travellers’ animals.
This was an inn with a difference, however: here board and lodge were provided gratis.
As his time on earth neared the end, the good Wahid Buksh, now surnamed Seraie – Keeper of the Serai – portioned out his land amongst his four sons and told them that the good work begun by him must never cease. He passed on into his long night and his sons kept the word.
The serai continued to shelter travellers from blistering desert sun and winter cold as it provided them with food and water and a place to rest their weary bodies.
And so it continues to this day, as my friend Ashfaque Dasti told me several months ago.
Now Ashfaque comes from village Thari Mirwah and in the neighbouring village of Haji Abul Veesar there live the sons and nephews of the late Mohammad Yusuf Veesar who undertook a project as remarkable as the one begun by Wahid Buksh Seraie.
Sometime in the early 1990s, together with three of his brothers and five nephews, Yusuf, a school teacher, set out to improve the footpath stretching eastward across the dunes to Kathore. This remarkable man did not wait to appeal to the district administration or to local politicians for the job to be done; he saw the need and simply went ahead to do what was needed.
Some approved of the work Yusuf and his team were doing. Others castigated them for cutting the wild vegetation and using it on their roadway thereby depriving them of fuel wood. Surely there were those who must have thought them mad and looked upon their road-builders’ vigour as a passing caprice. But the lot kept at it, camping overnight in the desert, for full month. In this time, they made reasonable headway.
Thereafter, roadworks proceeded in fits and starts, as the men had jobs to attend to and, as a farming family, crops to look after. To his detractors, and there were a few, Yusuf only had one thing to say: “Remember, I may or may not be around but one day you will be proud of this road and happy that we did this work.”
Eighteen months from the day Yusuf and his kin had first set to work, the road from Dhedano to Savan gas field, where it ran into the gas company’s blacktop highroad, was good enough to take retro-fitted Korean War vintage military trucks. The kekra (crab), as those ageing machines are known, cut the day-long journey down to four hours with Wahid Buksh’s serai, the midway staging post, continuing to cater to travellers’ needs.
In late November, Ashfaque’s elder brother Azhar drove us not on a dirt trail in a kekra. We speeded along a level tarmac surface from Dhedano to Savan gas field and beyond in a sedan. We paused at Wahid Buksh’s serai, now a brick and cement shed. By the road, a green sign bore a blue legend, ‘House of late Siray Wahid Bux’, to point us to the establishment that cannot be missed. Here the good man’s great-grandson Rustom Khaskheli, who now mans the facility, met us to talk of his illustrious forebear.
In a country of hypocritical and sham religiosity where every good deed is measured in terms of the merit to be won in the eyes of the God and not for its own value as a service to fellow humans, it was refreshing not to hear invocations of the divine from Rustom. He spoke simply of the work his great-grandfather had begun and how with travel time on the tarmac road reduced to just an hour, the need for board and lodge had now become redundant. But passing travellers did pause to refresh themselves, he said.
As we talked, a motorcycle drew up and a middle-aged couple dismounted for a drink of water and a rest in the shade. Even before they set off again, another couple joined them. With visible pleasure, Rustom pointed out that the good work of Wahid Buksh was not in vain.
In village Haji Abul Veesar, I pointedly and repeatedly asked Inayatullah, a nephew of the late Mohammad Yusuf, if he remembered Yusuf saying anything memorable about his work when he was working on the road. Once again, the surprise lay in the absence of sham holiness: this was a public service undertaking for the good of all, was all Inayatullah remembered his uncle saying time and again.
After a very, very long time in Pakistan, it was here in the outback of Khairpur district that I met men untainted by sham holiness, men who looked upon acts of goodness as just that and not a means to gain access to paradise. This was the acme of service to fellow humans.
But what of the tarmac road, I asked. How did the dirt road built by Yusuf and his kin become a first-class highway?
In 2009, Manzoor Wassan was the minister for communications, said Inayatullah. He chanced to travel in the area and was told of the self-help road project that was benefitting innumerable travellers. The minister ordered for the road, the 32 kilometres built by Yusuf and an additional eight, to be black topped.
And so it is that the journey of a full day between Dhedano and Kathore today stands reduced to just an hour’s.
Yusuf’s happiness was boundless as he saw the road building equipment roll past his home to begin work just as he and relatives had done years earlier. He knew his sweat and toil had not been in vain. The road was completed well before Yusuf passed on from this life in 2010. Surely his last breath was not a painful groan but a satisfied sigh. I do not know the good man, but I know he would have been buried with a smile on his face.
The circle of goodness begun by Wahid Buksh eight decades or more ago has come to fullness through schoolteacher Yusuf with politician Manzoor Wassan completing the last arc of it. This was a project done on the principle of the Good Samaritan, says my friend Ashfaque.