My father was in the Pakistani army, so we moved frequently, every few years. Soon after I finished Grade 10 in 1966, we made a big move: from Chittagong to Rawalpindi. A few years later our family moved again: this time from Rawalpindi to Abbottabad, then from Abbottabad to Lahore and finally to Quetta. During my engineering studies I stayed mostly at Lahore but travelled often, visiting my family wherever they moved.
By late 1971 the India-Pakistan war over the liberation of Bangladesh had worsened. Indian fighter planes were now routinely flying over Lahore and the city was no longer safe. I, along with my two close friends, Masud and Baset, made an overnight train journey to Quetta where my family then lived.
Quetta was (and still is) the provincial capital of Balochistan province. Located in northern Balochistan near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the city (some 240 km from the Afghan city of Kandahar) remains a trade and communications centre between the two countries.
Although the Balochi’s and Afghan’s native language is Pashto, most of them speak Urdu as a second language.
The Inner Man
In those lazy, cold days in Quetta our favourite pastime was to take a leisurely stroll through the old bazaar and drink tea in the roadside cafes where they played old, evergreen songs from Anarkali, Pakeeza, Baiju Bawra and the like. Now looking back, those peaceful hours in a distant, exotic corner of the Earth, spent warming up in the sun, sipping hot chai and enjoying melodious songs in the company of friends, were priceless. I long to return there someday, but it would be lonesome in the absence of my buddies. It might still be worth the trip if I could find Mirzaad.
It was during just such a normal day relaxing in Quetta that I encountered Mirzaad. Sometimes in life the most important events happen out of the blue. As I remember it, we three friends were on our day’s walk in the bazaar. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tall, bearded Pathan wearing salwar, a long kurta, and with a turban on his head, greeted me, “Assalamo alaikum, Brother” and then gave me a big bear hug. I freaked out – who was this stranger and what was he up to? After releasing me from his tight grip, the Balochi stood facing me with a big, joyous smile, as if he had just found his long-lost brother.
I was really struggling to place him, but after a few more moments I finally managed to recognise him. We had done our second year survey course together in a group where I was the team leader. We were a group of six: me, a Bangladeshi, four Punjabis and the Balochi Pathan. From what little I did remember, my impression of Mirzaad had not been favourable. He spoke poor English and was not good academically. I had thought of him as a country (if not cave) man from a remote place on the Earth and had treated him as insignificant. Now, meeting him again, unexpectedly, I instinctively thought that there must be a reason why God had brought us together again.
Next, Mirzaad greeted Masud and Baset and then asked, out of all places, what were we doing in Quetta. I explained to him our circumstances. He was delighted to see us in his home town and, as is the custom, invited us to his home for a meal. Speaking in Urdu he said, “Chalo yaar hamaare sath roti khao.”
I politely declined, saying, “Shukria, we are kind of tied up today.” But he would not budge.
“OK then, what day suits you?”
I felt that there was no escape, so I said, “Please, suggest a day.”
He said, “OK, Brother, this Friday after Jumma. We can meet here at the same spot.” He remembered my name but addressed me as ‘Brother’ as a customary mark of respect.
Friday was two days away and we did not have any better things to do, so we all agreed. But I still couldn’t remember his name. Hesitantly, I asked him: “How do I address you, Brother?”
He replied, “Mirzaad.” It definitely rang a bell.
We arrived on Friday afternoon after the Jumma prayer and found Mirzaad waiting. He greeted us with a warm welcome as if meeting friends after many years. We followed him. It was about half an hour’s walk, partly through the bazaar and then along a narrow, winding alley.
He stopped at a wide gate with double doors and a tall wall along the boundary. This was a typical house design to maintain privacy for the women who could work in the front yard and the kids could play indoors safely. There was a wide veranda where elderly people would relax on a chowki or charpoy, smoking hookah.
Mirzaad led us inside the gate. To my surprise, I noticed about a dozen men on the veranda sitting on a carpet. It appeared that something like a tribal majlish was taking place. The men all stood up as we approached. They were waiting for us. Mirzaad introduced us to his clan both from his mother’s and father’s sides – cousins, uncles, grandpas and also several neighbours. We exchanged salaams, greetings and hugs with one another. Their excitement knew no bounds in meeting Mirzaad’s fellow talibans (meaning students) from a distant land. They seemed to feel that a common ancestral blood ran in our veins.
We sat among them. Language was a barrier with the elders but Mirzaad was there to help. One of his cousins sat next to me and spoke in Urdu: “Bhai, tom toh sher ho. Hamlog abhitaq kuch na kaar saka”– meaning, “Brother, you are all lions. We have not been able to do anything as yet.” He was referring to the ongoing freedom fighting in Bangladesh – they had not yet been able to do anything towards fulfilling their dream of seeing Balochistan as a free nation.
First, they served tea in small cups, which they kept refilling. At some point they passed around a bowl half filled with water for us to rinse our hands. Then it was the meal time.
The younger men went inside the house and brought out several large plates containing fried rice with whole roast chickens. Then they served plates of Arabian breads and salad – tomato, cucumbers and olives.
Just when I thought that there was enough food to feed two dozen men, I realised that the main meal was yet to be served – a whole roast lamb.
As is the custom, four or five guests would sit around a large plate and share food with their bare hands. The plates were still half full when we all finished. Once they had cleared the leftovers, I could only hope that it would not get thrown away.
Next they brought several plates of fruits, nuts and dates. And the final phase was tea and hookah (for the elderly men).
We three Bangladeshi youths, with our small bodies and intestines, were exhausted! But as a courtesy we ploughed on for almost an hour and a half. Altogether we spent at least three hours relishing their hospitality, friendship and courtesy. Their warmth was such that I felt that if we had sworn enemies trying to kill us, these men, every one of them, would not hesitate to protect us, even if it meant spilling their own blood.
It was getting late. Mirzaad walked us back to the bazaar. He hugged us all goodbye. He was very pleased with himself for he has accomplished something big. I held him close to my chest for a while in return for what he had offered us that day.
Masud, Baset and I walked back home without words. Dusk fell upon us. It was getting dark and, luckily, the darkness hid my face. I was not sure what was in my friends’ minds, but I felt deeply ashamed for the way I had judged Mirzaad when I met him two years ago.
Tohon is a short story writer for The Daily Star Saturday Literature page.