I met a boy this morning. He told me his name of Akhtar Mohammed. When I first saw him he was sitting crouched on the street, holding his head, as blood streamed down his hands. Someone had thrown a stone at him and seriously hurt him. From a distance he looked like a piece of discarded cloth – a small, black bundle sitting there, rolling to-and-fro gently as he tried to bear the pain of the injury. He was crying, and he was alone. His garbage collection bag lay some distance down the street – he had left it there as he looked around for suitable trash to scavenge and take home. Before I could move towards him to see what had happened, a man appeared, carrying dirt in his hand. He crouched over the boy and, without touching his head, tried to spread it over the wound. I ran towards them, and stopped him immediately – the danger of an infection, the germs of the dirt just did not seem the right response to the large open, blood filled wound on this child’s head. As I stepped closed to them, pushing the man back and informing him that we will take him to the hospital for a proper dressing, I finally saw the child more clearly.
He could have been no more than four years old. His entire body was covered with a thick layer of black dirt. His face – smeared with blood, dust, dirt and snot, revealed two sharp and bright eyes. His small hands – nails caked with dirt, the skin wrinkled like that of an old man, scraped at his skull. His entire body convulsed from his crying. His bare feet – black, wrinkled, deformed kept scraping at the dirt as if he was trying to grasp it to reduce his pain. A four-year old child, alone, sent out by his parents in the early hours of the morning to search and scavenge for recyclable trash. A crucial contributor to a desperate family.
I knelt next to him and bought him closer to me – I am not sure why I did this. I have never done anything like this before. But in that instance, at that moment, this child become for me a symbol of something else, something larger than that particular injury, that particular accident. I felt, and saw in him, the failure of our society, one in which small children had to forego a childhood to earn money for their families. In that instant, this boy Akhtar Mohammed, represented all that we had failed to achieve, all that we had failed to rectify. To most this reaction will of course sound rather over-wrought. But it does have a history.
Some years ago I wrote a small essay as part of a grant proposal where I found myself recalling a particular incident in my life. This is what I wrote:
…while walking back from the local market, I saw two small children, no older than five perhaps, holding hands and sifting through offal outside a butcher’s shop looking for something to eat. None paid them any attention, suggesting that it was a fairly common occurrence. I too had probably walked past here dozens of times and never bothered to see anything unusual. But on that day what once could easily be ignored became impossible to turn away from. The shock was profound, the sense of awareness even more so.
My eyes became stereopticons, noticing details. The sister’s gentle clasp of her smaller brother’s hand, their uncertain steps, their dirt covered skin, their hair of a color that suggested something other than natural, their eyes that cast a look that cut through the veneer of civility and sophistication constructed by a middle class society living in complete indifference amongst such deprivation, their cautious but determined steps as they sorted through discarded entrails to see what could be taken as food. I stopped. I looked. I stared. I remember a feeling of discomfort at being the only one stopping to stare. And then, the act of cowardice that scared me for life; I moved on.
That was over 20 years ago but, as Faiz said ‘I can’t help but look back when I return from those alleys – what should one do?’, those two children have never left me. It is because of them that I began to see the world more clearly, to understand my place in it, to question it and examine the makings of it. Perhaps most importantly, those two children, discarded dregs of Pakistan’s false modernity, made me understand a country that I had until then loved unconditionally and defended thoughtlessly.
It is a true story. I have carried that moment with me since. This morning I was reminded of it in the shape of Akhtar Mohammed. I was reminded of the state of a nation that cannot offer a child a childhood, that can bray and brag about its nuclear weapons, its crucial role in the war against terror, its pretensions to power and relevance, and yet cannot offer a small child and his family a decent living, some food. It cannot put shoes on the feet of this small child. Like the tens of thousands of others that it has betrayed and abandoned.
I was reminded of the fact that our politics, our government, and even our ideas of the priorities of our nation, are a long way away from this small child’s life. Centered around a borrowed language of ‘development’, an empty rhetoric of ‘democracy’, and a retarded obsession with weapons and violence, an obsession with ethnic allegiances, a craving for class status, and a celebration of empty and useless achievements (the world largest human flag, for goodness sake!!!). For all our nuclear weapons, our American made killing machines, our American fed economic models, our borrowed / purchased modernity in the form of toys and trinkets, our mindless mimicing of the behaviors and pretensions of those who mock and disdain us, we are still unable to care for this four-year-old child.
This is a country where a democratic leader, the former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, when challenged by a CNN reporter to explain why so many Pakistani’s want to leave the country – ostensibly because of a lack of a future, safety and security, responded by saying Why don’t they just leave then. Like a dear caught in the headlights, he added, as if invited the car to run him over Who’s stopping them?. I was reminded of the Chief Minister of Baluchistan, when confronted with the deaths of 40 Hazara’s, callously commented I will send a truckload of tissue papers to the bereaved families. I’d send tobacco if I weren’t a politician. A degraded polity, a crass mentality, a sickened public rhetoric, an irresponsible and immoral outlook on the very people they are entrusted to serve.
I took Akhtar to the hospital. I sat with him while they cleaned and dressed his wounds. I watch him from a distance – alone, far from home, lost in a large hospital, surrounded by strangers, scared and in pain. I thought about my daughter, Sofia, and whether she would be able to handle this situation. I thought about the fear that must be piercing through Akhtar’s body at this moment. I caught his eye…they were blank.
Later I drove him to his home. It was about two kilometers away and we had to walk the last half a kilometer that led to center of a collection of mud-home on a hilltop that he lived in. Dust rose all around us – a barren, dirt landscape from which rose single-storied homes built from the same dirt. There was a beauty to it – a cruel beauty, but nevertheless one that I could not help but admire. There was a cohesiveness to the homes – they belonged to that landscape in a way that no modern, cement home, could.
As we walked through the narrow lanes, raising huge clouds of dust in our wake, I watched Akhtar as he made his way home – determined, anxious, and now, with a clean bandage and a pain that was greatly reduced, slightly more playful and excited. He looked like a child again and seemed, in a strange way to be proud of going back home. As other children rushed towards him – or perhaps they were curious to see Akhtar returning home in the company of someone who looked completely alien to the community, he carried himself with a greater confidence and a leap in his gait. At one point he grabbed my hands to turn me into an alley, and I could not help but smile. I realized that I was perhaps getting more out of this little adventure then he, but he seemed to be happy to take me home.
This was his world. And one alien to me – these mud homes, these dusty, curious children, their sharp laughter, this dust that we breathed, the harsh sun, the barren ground, the garbage, the stench of sewage, the sounds of sheep from inside the houses, the curious, suspicious eyes peering out from behind burlap curtains and around street corners, the surly looking men sitting on their haunched looking at us from under arms shielding their eyes from the hard sunlight. It was all unfamiliar to me. And I was completely out of place.
We finally arrived at his home. The twenty minutes it took for us to weave through seemingly endless corners and turns had me concerned that Akhtar had lost his way. But he had not. Once we arrived at his door, he ran into a room at the back and disappeared. I did not see him again. I waited outside to see if anyone from his family would emerge, and after about five minutes, I saw his father comingout from the room at the back, has face covered with a look of great concern and fear. He stretched out his hand towards me, his eyes imploring to know what had happened to his child. Tell me that he will be ok. It was his first question. I slowly explained to him what had happened, and how it was not a serious injury, but that they must keep the bandages on him for at least a few days, and to keep them clean (and how was he going to achieve that here in this place? I remember thinking) His face carried his concern and I wanted to say more to allay his fears, but we were now surrounded by at least twenty children, and a handful of curious adults who had arrived at the door and I thought it best to leave. I repeated my instructions, told him not to worry and that his son was fine, and asked him to stop by the house the next day to pick up the things the child had left on the streets – the garbage collection bag. He smiled, and said there wasn’t anything valuable in that.
I wanted to say more. I wanted to give him some money to buy his son some shoes. I wanted to suggest that we could wash his clothes at the house. I wanted to say that I could perhaps use some of my own money to pay for the child to go to school rather than trawl the streets looking for rubbish. I wanted to say a lot more, but the situation seemed wrong. Standing there in front of Akhtar’s father I realized that he was the patriarch of the family, the care taker of his children, and that I may have overstepped my place and could even be close to humiliating him in front of his neighbors. He shook my hand. My assurances seemed to have worked, but I do not know. Perhaps I just told that to myself. As I turned around and began walking back to my car I could not help but feel an incredible sense of failure. Perhaps even a sense of abandonment and irresponsibility. But perhaps I was simply avoiding accepting the fact that I had not done enough. But what would that have been, I was not sure. I just knew, and still feel, that I had not done enough.
I am glad that I met Akhtar. I am glad that I felt all that I did – the anger at his condition, the shame of belonging to a society where a child is allowed to live as Akhtar does, the desire to scream at nothing in particular when I first saw him sitting there crying, alone as people simply walked by, the rather fatherly affection I felt for him as I watched him being attended to in the hospital, the guardianship I experienced accompanying him home to the safety of his family, and the respect and admiration I carry for this small child asked to brave a world he barely understands, and do it in conditions that are unworthy of a human being, and in a society that I feel has not earned the right to call itself that. I prayed for him later that night. It was the only thing I had the courage to ask for.