By Sanober Sohail
So much of negativity was stitched to the lives of slum dwellers and gypsies. I was fed with immensely horrifying comments and stories related to nomads while I was growing up. Those mere gossips were enough to scare any child to death. Despite of all this scary stuff, the curiosity kept growing in my mind to know about this “dangerous” specie. It took me years to come to this point to actually visit the slums and observe its dwellers closely. This only happened a few months ago when I was waiting for my bus at a local bus stand, I was approached by two young gypsy girls, they were asking for some food. I took this opportunity and asked a few questions, although the conversation I had with them was meaningless but was an ice breaker; after all these years of ignorance and unawareness, that was the day when I decided to visit the slums and observe the people closely to make a brand new and my own opinion about them.
In my adolescent days, whenever I left my city for another, the bus used to pass through a jungle of colorful dots. If you look closely and focus, you can notice irregular shanty mud-structures sprawled across the plane covered with thatches and make-shift roofs.
This childhood image always brought a flood of question to mind: How nomads spend their lives? Why their life is so different from us? Why people around used to scare me using derogatory remarks about them, that I would be kidnapped or taken away by one of these nomads, using such shivery remarks they stopped me going out to play in long summer afternoons when you have nothing left with you but quietness. What is wrong with them, why they are still the deprived of all? Even from their basic rights as a citizen in twenty-first century? This chronic inquisitiveness occupied my attention for a long time and finally pushed me down to find out more about them.
Though I had been tempted to observe their habitats closely. They usually are settled in most grisly places in outskirts, lined by open drainages and shadowed by towering piles of garbage, filth and human and animal waste. Their children with clumsy bags on their backs scattered like flies, across this plateau of clumsiness digging and scavenging like preening vultures; some eatables, used-clothes or a worn-out shoe. Their heads are always cast-down, glued into their knees. It is a very rare moment that one may see their faces, and dare to look them straight into eyes. One can easily be mesmerized by those eyes; full of hope and despair. Their soul reflects backs on the stranger and he is struck. It is a lightning-strike. Superstitions and malicious gossips always chased gypsies like wild dogs following their carts full of their belongings.
And I was not their first victim!
This is pure magic for any outsider and it kept me spell-bounded for a while. It was an instantaneous transition but I felt its tranquility through change in my tone, and shivers in movements. Their smiles liberated me from my composure and slowly we started chatting with each other.
On my way to slums, I had to cross few posh quarters of Lahore; beautiful and well-built concrete houses provided with all facilities of life, streets looked after by armed security guards in the gated communities.
The moment I reached there, I was shocked to see the huge disparity. A living hung up in extreme primitive conditions. One thousand dreams tangled in despair and hope. I could feel it even without walking to their huts.
The first thing I noticed was garbage, filth and all sorts of human and animal waste; —–a lively garbage dump. It was really dirty and filthy! The air is pungent and heavy with gusts of foul smell, emitting from drains, urine, decayed animals, further deteriorated by perished fruits and rotten vegetables. Breathing itself was a task, the place was simply impossible to stand. Sooner, my system started adapting itself to its surroundings.
Before coming here, I did not believe that life can survive at such a place, where the waste and sewerage of a whole city is dumped and collected. Still they dare to live, eat, drink and nurture their dreams there, without any speck of unhappiness and despair.
In this particular settlement, only one tap cherishes the needs of a whole battalion of homeless people. It is their ultimate source of drinking, washing, bathing, sanitation and all water-related transactions. This tiny tap was not installed there by government but themselves right in the heart of clumsiness, like a fountain of happiness! Their elixir of life!
All they had to do is to collect as much water as possible at a specific time scheduled by the government. They use dented and misshapen pots to collect water not clean at all – primary source of transmission of water-borne diseases.
These people live in open sky at the mercy of inclement weather conditions. What they do for their survival? My calm face did not show the flood of questions surging in my head and I kept myself focused so as not to reveal my despair and dejection.
Cheers and shouts of kids playing cricket brought me back to reality. I was standing in the middle of their batting pitch. A young girl in her shrill voice shook me to move, her brother was batting. Feeling embarrassed, I quickly moved and started walking towards another group of children. Someone was following me. It was the same little girl. Perhaps sight of a suspicious stranger in their huts had pushed that curios girl to follow me. She was in rags and shreds, bare-feet and visibly bedraggled. Her yellowish brown hair, pale eyes and inflamed gums spoke loudly about her noticeable malnourishment. But her face was exceptionally shining with hope, and a contagious smile. Within no time and without even sharing a single word we became friends. Was not it another gypsy trick?
I initiated the conversation; “tera ke naa aye” (what is your name) I asked her. “Sobia!” she replied confidently. Against my presumptions, she was a chirpy and energetic girl, she reminded me of my own childhood. Despite of all the problems she was facing in her day-to-day life. She became my guide for the rest of the day. She held my hand gently and started showing me around.
She took me to her friend, an 8 years old girl, equally under-nourished and frail. She was trying to light the fire to cook Chicken-paws; a local delicacy famous in slums. The chicken-paws were insalubrious and blood-stained, she did not even have enough water to clean and wash them properly. I was wondering how she was going to wash them? It was sad to see these young children deprived from all the birthrights. I mustered some courage and asked her how she was going to clean them.
Shyly, without even looking at me she said, “My father will wash this.” Her mother goes to work every morning and it is her father to take care of households. Our conversation could not proceed further due to her shyness. With the positive note of hope and struggle, we moved from there. The next stop was a little puddle of dirty water where young women were washing their clothes, talking to each other and laughing.
Soon we started conversation and they made me feel very special by offering their big and warm smiles. They told me how they coped with their tough situation in day-to-day activities. They did not have any other option but to live the way they had been living for ages. Their tone was a bit complaining as if they were trying to give me a message that I did not have the slightest idea that what they had to put up with everyday. Their expression reflected their criticism. One of them further added that though they worked in rich people’s houses as maid and they had modern appliances to wash their cloths but were not supposed to wash their own cloths there. Her frankness prompted a couple of questions into my head about their health. She was visibly fragile and weak. On my request, she took me to her hut to get a clear idea of her life. A wave of shiver ran through my spine; this unclean, unhygienic, and damp place was not for a healthy life. It had a thatched roof, covered with some plastic sheet to prevent the rain. A strong blow of wind or gale could easily toss is upside down.
In this settlement of a people, there is no concept of lavatory. That made me ask her a few personal questions, Taking the liberty of being a fellow woman, I asked her what did she do when she has her menstrual cycle. Soon I realized that I had ignored a very basic question about her daily toilet visit. She felt embarrassed and confessed that they had no concept of washrooms and as a result they defecate in open, without even having sufficient water to clean and wash themselves.
I felt as if we were living in two different eras. Even in the age of technology, people are living in such primitive conditions. However, despite of all these peculiarities these women were very positive and enthusiastic — laughter pure and full of life.
Soon, we walked from there and I asked Sobia that what she wanted to become when she had grown up. She smiled and looked at me with mixed feelings as if she was trying to find some appropriate answer to please me, but she could not form anything and replied, “baji menu nahi pata“, (I don’t know). We walked through the dung-hills, and our next point was a group of children, lying under the sun, in front of their tent while their mother was cooking something for them. They surrounded me, Sobia gave me a quick introduction: “baji saday naal galan karan aye ne“, (the lady came to talk to us).
They were excited and started talking to me, a few of them shy, but soon they started telling me their little stories.
The sight of young girls having babies of their own made me sad. They themselves were poorly fed and scrawny to feed their babies! Child marriage is a common thing in this community.
I was in a process of making more friends with them, and there walked a young girl of hardly 14 years. She was Sunbal, clad in a shawl and eyes full of courage and positivity.
She walked to me with confident gait. We shook hands, and I initiated the conversation. She was a maid in one of the nearby concrete houses. She told me that she got back home at about 11 am, and helped her mother to do household. She cheerfully told me that she went to school in the second shift as well. In spite of all the hard work, she still managed time to study. What an inspiration! To my surprise, someone whispered that Sunbal knows how to ride a bike as well. For a girl in our society, riding motor-bike is a big daring step. I requested Sunbal if she could take me for a ride. which she proudly accepted with great happiness. With high confidence she started her bike and off we went, everyone around was waving.
I am unable to put my feelings in words. To see a young girl from an underprivileged background, deprived from all basic needs, flying her motor-bike, leaving behind worries and not caring about this ruthless society is rare. She even made me forget all the miseries of life!
The writer is currently living and working in Lyallpur. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org