As I walked along with my grandfather towards Kaanti at the start of the blistering summer month of June in 1998, little did I know this would be my last trip to the place of my nostalgia.
Kaanti, an oasis of extensive and dense groves of date palm trees, was nestled in the midst of the rugged hills of Parom, Balochistan.
It took a grueling five hours trek from Diz village through the desolate sunburned hills to reach this picturesque patch of greenery in the wilderness.
“Kaanti is a speck of hope in desolation. There despair and optimism meet to co-exist,” my grandfather used to say.
A spring gushed out from the foot of a peninsular hill, flowed in a watercourse looping like a snake around the protruding face of the hill to drop and irrigate a vast orchard of about a thousand date palm trees in the field on the opposite side of the hill.
According to a local legend, this watercourse was carved with tools made from hunted Ibex horns. (Kaanti is the Balochi word for horn). The yearlong flow of the stream was enough to irrigate wheat, rice, date palm trees and other crops. The spring meant life in this harsh environment.
The other nearest village was the aforementioned Diz village, which is situated in the Parom valley. The people of the valley called the people of Kaanti as koohi (mountain people).
Every once in while, the koohis had to travel to Diz to either get their wheat grounded or shop for sugar and tea. Sometimes they would bring their sick and ill, transported on donkeys to get treatment by the only doctor at the Diz hospital. The doctor, in fact, was a ward boy assigned by the government at the time when it had been built decades ago. The real doctor supposed to be assigned there never came.
Otherwise, the villagers of Kaanti needed almost nothing from outside. They cultivated whatever they needed, even hashish for the only smoker, Ali Ahmed. Incidentally, this smoker was also the single person who had traveled far-flung areas accompanying groups of visiting Islamic preachers (Tablighis). The rest of the villagers as described by the Tablighis were lazy when it came to religious prayers.
My grandfather had inherited a share of land in this oasis. So, as a child, I used to accompany him to his haamen (date harvest season) visits. Our last visit was to examine something supernatural that had occurred in Kaanti. Although Kaanti was showing signs of a rather bad harvest since the beginning of the year, the date palm trees had withered and the fruits were parched and small and desperately in need of rain. However, ignoring the existent drought conditions, the villagers blamed all this misery on an overnight misfortune that had happened some days ago on the 28th of May.
The village head, Hammal, pointed his dry cracked fingers towards a big stone as dry as his hands and said to my grandfather, “The old spring gushed from this exact place. You see, it is all dry here.”
The villagers had dug up around the stone in an attempt to revive the spring. He claimed that that evening the spring had simply stopped flowing from its usual place and oddly by night a new crack had formed about a few meters below the older one, whence flowed a new spouting spring. The new spring, being at a ground level lower than the field, would now not irrigate it unless the water was pumped. So much so, this had, turned the weary villagers´ life literally into a struggle to move water uphill – and all their efforts had gone in vain. Instead the water wasted itself flowing through a once dry ravine into the seasonal dry river.
The catastrophe in Kaanti was a not to-be-missed opportunity for the dead-hand political gossipers. They had started blaming some nuclear tests conducted in the far-flung Chagai district for this devastation. It was one of the rare moments when even the old epistemic schoolteacher in the village was in same page with these gossipers despite the two places being hundreds of kilometres apart.
In contrast, the mullah, in his Friday sermon proclaimed the displacement of the spring as a warning sign from Almighty Allah, a divine instruction to mend our sinister way of life.
Nevertheless the date palm trees of Kaanti died away in the following years forcing the villagers to move out of the harsh hills. The koohis, now perhaps the first climate refugees, were allowed to settle about three kilometres away from the old village of Diz. The people of Diz designated an area to these refugees to build their huts.
They were offered no land to cultivate or to claim as their own. Most of them worked as labourers on others´ farms, the children shepherded others’ goats and depending on the size of the herd, got a few goats annually as their payment.
The once well-to-do village head Hammal himself was rapidly taken over by old age. Appearing to have lost both weight and height, and an apparent bent in his back, he continued his unrelenting work from dawn to dusk on a landlord´s farm to make the ends meet. After a time the once sordid visits and preaching of the Tablighis had educated the wretched koohis about the importance of the five prayers and five pillars of Islam. Many of them were changed and good practicing Muslims – some good enough to get a place at the local madrassah. A few unlucky ones had regressed into hard-time opium addicts. The good ones fasted and prayed, and even one blessed chap had earned a trip to Mecca from the houbara-bustard-hunting sheikhs.
After months of absentia from grandfather, I travelled back to Diz in August 2008 for a family visit. I was still a medical student in Quetta, but since there was no doctor, it was not peculiar to be asked and expected to treat the ill.
One day, as I was sitting in front of our house under the cool shade of a Mazari palm hut, a woman carrying a pale white child on her hips accompanied by a young boy came to me. The child was suffering from severe malnutrition with his ribs protruding under the skin from the open buttons of his shirt. His hair had thinned and lightened to greyish brown. The neck unable to support the weight of the head was wrapped with a bunch of hanging amulets reaching his distended stomach over his shirt. One needed no eagle eye to see this malnourished child´s life clinging merely by a thread.
The woman pulled out of plastic bag different varieties of antibiotics and other medicines bought from the local medical store on the prescription of the doctor (ward boy). Holding the medicines in her hand, she said, “The child cannot eat anything and has an ever-existing fever. All these medicines have been of little use.” As I looked up at the child, I already knew it was the other way around – the child was malnourished.
He had received very less to eat and had lost his appetite as a consequence of malnutrition. The accompanying fever was due to the weakening immune system unable to fight infections. The mother claimed he was four years old but to a stranger´s eye he had looked nothing more than a one year old child´s shirt hanging on a skeleton. I knew he could not be saved without being fed, nurtured and managed in a hospital.
The child was the grandson of Hammal and his father Ali Ahmed had turned from the lone hashish smoker of the village to the de-facto leader of a group of opium addicts in the duration of the last ten years. The mother had spent all her money in buying those unnecessary antibiotics. The young boy Hussain accompanying her was the cousin of her husband. The only possibility to save the child was to send him to the city to be tube-fed with costly nutritional formulas until he was able to eat by himself. I did an estimate and informed them about the costs of the trip and stay in the Panjgur city. Since the health department does not provide food supplements and medicines to the patients, all the cost had had to be born by the patient’s family. It would have cost them about 7,000 rupees at that time. The mother was broke, but she said she had one last asset, a goat. I wanted her to sell the goat and use the money to treat the child.
She was difficult to come to an understanding. Initially, I thought she does not comprehend the imminence of the problem but then I judged from her pleading eyes as if she was expecting some sort of convalesce from a divine intervention. In my ensuing lengthy persuasion attempt which sounded more like desperate tirades on the gravity of the condition, the idea of being that miraculous intervention and giving her five thousand rupees from my savings struck my mind several times. My own son was three months old and I was a student father; the unbearable notion of not being able to help my own child in future needs confronted me like a foe I dared not to fight. I did not offer any financial help.
The mother, probably disappointed in me, agreed to sell the goat and said goodbye with a smile.
Soon after she left, I was to find myself in sort of emotions, guilt and remorse for not helping her, accompanied by uncertainty about the correctness of my conduct. The guilt was further amplified by the dubious image of that departing smile. I tried recollecting it many times in my mind´s eye just to decide if it was a taunting smirk or a helpless smile to hide the pain behind.
It’s not my job to be compassionate to every patient, I consoled myself. I guided her right. Job done.
That night as I tried to sleep, my thoughts started to betray me once again. Expensive things that I had possessed in my life began to pop up like pictures in my imagination and with every picture a berating thought would taunt me, “You wastrel idiot”.
Had I not spent money on this or that thing, I could have saved the child.
By the time I fell asleep the recollection of things which started with my expensive mobile phone had also included my cheap flip-flop shoes.
The next day, in a bid to stop those feelings of regret sprouting in my head, I indulged myself in helping with the manual work in my grandfather´s farm. At evening, we were invited to the annual dastaarbandi e hafiz e Quran in the Madrassah. It is an event were white turbans are crowned on the heads of students who have memorized the entire Quran. People from nearby villages would flock for such an occasion.
One can equate it to a high school commencement. I, even though, never for an instance had a likening for madrassahs, participating in this one was a try to elude those recurring pangs of remorse.
After the ceremony we were served a diluted mutton curry having more potatoes than mutton. As is routine, every Madrassa event must end with a donation appeal for the mosque, and so the charity collection box was walked through the guests and audience after we had eaten.
A whirling storm of mixed thoughts at the back of my head grew stronger as the collection box came nearer, and at one point taken by a power out of my control, I took out two thousand rupee notes from my pocket and with a deliberate flicking of my hand in front of my face so as to show that I was flying away a pestering mosquito, inserted the money in the box which by now was held right in front of my nose.
The real reason for the flicking, nonetheless I had not planned it, was for others to see my donation. The student carrying the box replied with a loud jazakallah meaning may Allah reward you with goodness.
I felt a bit content; the brewing storm of thoughts had suddenly receded. A louder jazakallah indicates a bigger donation, and on that evening I received the loudest jazakallah.
Three days later, the mosque loudspeakers announced a death.
By afternoon I was in the deceased´s family hut sitting among the other few mourners. Amidst them was Ali Ahmed who seemed to be more worried about the next opium shot rather than the death of the deceased. Hussain sat on his side almost pushing him to the corner of the hut. After condoling for the passing soul I silently gathered myself to leave the hut, Ali Ahmed and Hussain rose up from their places on the ground and, as is customary, walked me out of the hut. I, wanting to show a bit more concern and sincerity to the child´s family, asked Hussain, “Who (which doctor) had managed the child in Panjgur?”
“We could not take him to Panjgur,” he repented.
Like a liar in fear, Hussain looked stealthily at Ali Ahmed, and said, “That day, Ali Ahmed had donated the goat to the Madrassah for dastaarbandi before we had reached home.”
While Ali Ahmed stooped his head to pluck a few hair from his nostrils, I stood frozen, mentally and physically, creating a moment of perfect silence for him to break with a heave of a philosophical sigh. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji´un. We all belong to Allah and to Him we shall return,” he whispered.