When I was little my father cried watching a TV drama “Matti aur Mashkeeza” (Pitcher and Dust) about an old couple whose job was to water the searing dusty streets of Peshawar every morning. This was before streets went concrete. Gallons of water in a camel skin sack would hang from the old couple’s shoulders as they splashed the streets at dawn to make them cooler. The drama showed their love, scarcity of money and their profession being phased out because of municipal development. My father, whom I had rarely seen cry, cried at the show. “Such stories are rare on television,” he said.
I was born in Garhi Shahu. It is a neighborhood close to the Lahore Railway station. Garhi Shahu was called Mohallah Sayedan under the Mughals before it was permanently named after a gangster, Shahu. In my childhood, stories of Shahu’s anarchic lootings was a way to scare kids during late night power-cuts.
The British laid a railway track in the area as part of growing India’s railway network to exploit its raw materials, and Garhi Shahu expanded for workers of the colonizer’s Railways, The North Western State Railway.
Top professionals and Christian missionaries living in the area were Goan Christians of Portuguese descent. Low-wage workers on the other hand were Punjabi Muslims and rural Christians--Dalits who embraced the Christian missionary promise to escape their untouchable status. They could not however escape casteism built into Punjab’s profession-based social system that designated them only to municipal jobs such as street cleaning.
After the British fled, and a new government stepped into the colonist’s shoes, The North Western State Railway became Pakistan Western Railway and my grandfather — hired as a mechanic under the Raj — retired as an engine driver.
With his retirement fund he added four rooms on his short four marla property. Two of those rooms became my home, when I was born to his son, thirty-three at the time, arranged married to an eighteen year old Pashtun girl, my mom.
My own earliest memory of Garhi Shahu is around 1992, a few months before my grandma passed on. I remember grandma putting on a shuttlecock burqa to roam the Main Bazaar. Her children — my aunts and uncles — would gather in the house and blame each other loudly for having lost her. She had alzheimer’s. They had written our address on daadi’s wrist.
Somewhere in between their chai breaks, Sardaran Bibi would walk back home on her own and more often would be brought back by people who heard the missing person announcement in the masjid. A few years later, when I would watch the missing people announcement before the evening Punjabi news bulletin on Pakistan Television (PTV) in Lahore, and then on Doordarshan (DD) broadcasting from a tower twenty miles away in Amritsar, I would think of grandma. “Talash-e-gumshuda” (Search-for-the-missing) in Punjabi the announcer would say on PTV and “Gwache barey Ghoshna Suno” (Listen to the missing people announcement) in Punjabi on DD. Both state-run channels on either side of the Pakistan-India border ran a slideshow of passport-sized photos: “kanak pinna” (wheatish) boys and girls, often not of sound mind, poor and lost in melas (fairs).
My uncle whom we called ‘I’ (pronounced Aa.ee) lived in the other two rooms with his son. Aping his father’s career out of convenience, Aa.ee joined the yet again rebranded railways, now Pakistan Railways (PR) as a technician and ended up retiring as one. With his retirement fund he bought a Rickshaw and drove it six days a week, 7am — 2pm. Friday was a holiday. As we grew older, Aa.ee’s son took over his morning shifts and Sunday became a holiday.
The father-son duo homed pigeons on the roof. I would climb an old rickety bamboo ladder to sit with Aa.ee, both of us staring at the birds pecking at bajra (millet mix). The pigeons were of different breeds with different feather patterns and behaviors: doms and femmes, straight-edge, the meeks, couples and free-lovers, dyed and undyed all would gutargoo, perching on wooden planks stacked in a bamboo and mesh cage. Twice a day, the pigeons were let out, flying low over the rooftops in a flock as Aa.ee kept an eye out for the stupid one mistaking another flock of pigeons as its and thus switching houses. Negotiations between these houses took place in the street where the pigeons were traded, returned, new ones examined but rarely bought. Every night the birds were counted, some held in palms, the sick ones fed panadol and the pretty ones kissed.
After the Asr namaz, Aa.ee would read for me Abrahamic stories from the Quran, tell me stories of Sufis of Punjab and during power-cuts in the heat of the summer when we slept on the roof on vaan charpais he’d pull out some after-dark specials: urban legends, railway ghosts, shape-shifting snakes and more Abrahamic stories.
My favorite local legend was a barber whose shop was over an underground abattoir, with a makeshift cafe outside. Clients seated in the barber’s chair would get sucked downstairs and become the food served in the cafe. It was my first introduction to how assembly line production really worked. Years later, when I figured the Garhi Shahu barber’s resemblance with a Victorian fiction character Sweeney Todd, I asked Aa.ee which story inspired which? He said that the gora stole it just like they stole the Kohinoor. I believed it.
Then there was a sheshnaag cooling off on the railway tracks that got run over by a cargo train driven by my grandfather between Amritsar to Lahore on the regular. He brought the cobra’s carcass back home and distilled its oil to cure an underarm rash…It was cured but he never got his armpit hairs back.
One cannot corroborate these stories, these are oral histories that stay in the imaginations of people who narrate them. These narrators will not have the grammar nor the social mobility to access those who have power to promote one narrative over another; and as time goes on whether these stories actually happened or not doesn’t matter, much like the Abrahamic tales, faith ends up overriding fiction.
In the hot muggy summers of the 90s, around July — August my brother and I would have our heads shaved off. There would be collective prayers after Jummah for baran-e-rehmat, the grand rain. The maulvi sahab would ask Allah for help and we would exclamate it with a loud Ameen. Aa.ee once told us that if innocent children rub their bald heads together under the open sky, it helps the prayer reach Allah faster. That day, as me and my brother sat on the roof, perching on a shared wall with our neighbors, we rubbed our bald heads. I felt bad for not feeling innocent. But, It rained.
The monsoon rains overflowed the open lines of sewage on either side of our narrow streets. We would peep outside our window, into the flooded streets, dropping paper ships and incessantly spotting turd in the nehr (puddle). When a new political party won the elections, construction workers swarmed the streets to cover the open sewage lines and to lay concrete on the dirt-and-brick ground. The dirt-and-brick ground we grew up on and the sewage lines we fell into many times over ruining our Eid dresses. My aunts and mother made halva and pooris to celebrate this ‘development.’
My father’s youngest sister — my favorite Aunty Peena — was an avid product reviewer. Every Friday she would walk to our house from choti galli (short street) to review new brands of detergent for my mother, not caring or knowing that they were all owned by the same American or British corporations. Surf Excel was bad, and Ariel was good, the next week Ariel had ruined her clothes and she had to turn back to Surf Excel. She never liked Express Power. Eventually she started to make the detergent herself. Aunty would wrap a thick plastic bag around her hand, and stir the caustic soda with other fuming chemicals in a round plastic tub. She would then split the DIY detergent with my mother. Aunty Peena didn’t like the orthodox thinking of her older sister, Cheena, a widow, she would boycott the detergent production and instead synthesized her own Kaala Sabun (black soap). For Cheena detergent was bougie and for Peena the black soap smelled pendu (rural).
When I got measles, Aunty Peena and Cheena distributed black roasted chickpeas and phalliyan (sweet rice puffs) among the neighborhood kids as sadaqa to ward off the evil eye, a ritual they continued and later my mother picked up in times of crises. Baalo Kuriyo Cheez Wandi Di Laye Jao! (boys and girls come and get these free snacks) a loud kid would yell for other kids to gather in a crowd. My aunts stood on the doorstep holding snacks close to their bellies in their dupattas shaped as bags.
The trauma of poverty means lifelong suffering. Even when you’re out of it. Especially when you are out of it. The suffering is not only because you don’t have money to buy the daily liter of milk, have run out of rice and flour or the staples like onions and tomatoes are too expensive to make daal. The happiest day with my family was when we searched for the only money we knew we had lying around somewhere in the two rooms of our house but didn’t know exactly where. From morning till late afternoon, my siblings and mother searched for the 10 Rupee note, making jokes about the situation and chuckling. We finally found it in my mother’s 80’s beauty box. Hunger was a temporary challenge. A challenge of the body. The defining trauma that just sinks into your psychic depths is due to what poverty brings with it: violence: emotional, physical, sexual, patriarchal and class violence, uneasy access to education, abuse, neglect, humiliation, family dysfunction and untreated mental health issues. Things that mark your unconscious, without you knowing because, survival mode.
We had an often over drafted credit account with the corner shop, Nalkay Wala (The guy with the tap). “My dad says write it down” I would have to say to the Nalkay Walla after buying a kilo of sugar, or a tea box. We were lucky that my maternal aunt from Islamabad would courier us some dry rations whenever she could (sugar, daal, pettle, sometimes instant noodles) often she sneaked money in an envelope. That 7x7 aid box was secretly awaited but rarely talked about.
My mother was raised middle-class and could read. She saw her husband the day of her nikkah and when she was brought to the compact four marla house, the aunties of the neighborhood flocked to see the young fair-skinned Pashtun bride. Four joint families of 17 people shared the house. My aunties and uncles talked in Punjabi with each other but would sometimes switch to Urdu to talk to my mother. Pashto was our code language: used for sharing secrets, for private conversations and for scoldings.
The first word in English I learned was “guilty.” I just knew what it meant. It came to me watching a 90s BBC news bulletin on Shalimar Television Network (STN). It was a free terrestrial channel, which means we could get it through our antenna on our analog TV, just like state-run PTV. STN was PTV’s commercial alternative with slightly less state control (like what U.K.’s ITV was to BBC). The channel paid western broadcasters to re-broadcast their programming from 6am — 2am. CNN’s Larry King Live was on at 7am, switching to BBC World News at 10am, Cartoon Network came on at 5pm and TNT movies played in the after dark hours. Whenever a too western thing such as fashion shows with skin showing, movie scenes in which men and women were drinking, hugging, kissing, fore playing (big in the 90s popular American tv/movies), Johnny Bravo, Madonna or Michael Jackson came up, the screen pixelated, like the pixels in MS Paint. I pictured a guy or two whose job was to be alert, to immediately press a button whenever such corruptive imagery popped on the live broadcast, press a button and pixelate the screen. If one wanted to focus, which me and my brother definitely did, one could see what laid beneath the thick blurry pixels. The sound always remained on. Just knowing that someone’s realtime action in Islamabad did something to my TV everyday was fascinating. Many times, especially late at night, the censor guys were pretty delayed in pressing the button, and if a rebel was on shift that night, the screen did not pixelate at all. Me and my brother would scream in excitement.
On Eid, we’d dress up in neutral colored shalwar kameez and walk towards the local public school murmuring the takbeer. The Eid prayer offered at the school playground felt awkward so did the three hugs right after. I would then walk to the graveyard with Aa.ee, sometimes holding rose petals, other people held garlands and Metro Milan agarbatti (incense) in addition to the petals. The spread of flowers on a dead relative’s grave showed how rich one was. After silently reciting prayers for the dead we would walk back home to a floral spread on the ground with white-flour parathas, omelette and kheer on old but fancy dishes from my mother’s dowry collection.
I would watch Lollywood films playing as Eid specials on TV, then change into colorful ‘pants & shirt’ and walk the Main Bazaar, buying a 2-rupee qatlama placed in a piece of crisp newspaper, a 1 Ruppee spiced murgh daal, 7-rupee Pepsi bottle, and twice a year, on Eid, a 10-rupee Wall’s Chocbar ice cream, whose warm-toned commercial showed a woman on a bean bag neatly chowing it down as Take My Hand, the UB40 version, played on her VCD system. My siblings and I would watch other kids, dressed in gaudier clothes march in packs through the bazaar, talking in Punjabi and slurping on local Panda ice-cream. For us, that vibe wasn't cool.
Our mother had made a strong case for us to study in a Christian missionary school. Vans blasting Noor Jahan’s songs — the ones we wouldn’t hear on PTV/STN — and xingxis (bike-rickshaws) blasting Naseebo Laal on portable stereos would take us to Caren’s hospital. We would then walk a short-cut towards Saint Andrew’s Church on Empress road, our school. In recess, I would trade my daily lunch: a sugar-filled meetha paratha made by my mother with my friend’s pressed panini sandwich made by his maid. Same vans, buses and xingxis with blasting stereos would take us back home. An older man once grabbed my crotch in a crowded bus, I jumped off the moving bus and rolled on the road with my backpack on, stood up and walked home. The fare was Rs. 2 on a student discount.
In school it was bad to say and thus confess that you are poor. Me and my brother were on financial aid and when every few months the fee voucher was handed to me in class I would have to hide it, I didn’t know how to explain to my friends that why my fee was half of theirs, and even then how I was to explain to them in a few days when I would be standing on the cricket field as punishment for not paying that halved amount?
Sometimes, on my way back from school I would buy multi colored sugary badanas from Ghareeb Nawaz. After my generation witnessed its first military coup in 1999 — third one for Pakistan — a slickly promoted financialization campaign meant my 2-rupee budget wasn’t enough to buy the badanas anymore, the uncle at the shop however made exception.
On Christmas, in the rainy December, we would get dry fruits, nuts and tandoor-baked raisin cakes from our Christian neighbors, sing Jingle Bells in the school assembly and roam the school grounds as our teachers prepped a nativity scene. Around new year’s, the lower class Christian workers living in neatly aligned huts behind the school building were called in to hammer down some of the church’s facade. The broken stone and bricks would lay around haphazardly as white missionaries visiting from some foreign country would then be escorted to inspect the ‘damage.’ They would take pictures and jot down calmly in their notebooks. Whichever kid could approach them and talk in English was a hero.
On the prophet’s birthday on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal, my mother, sisters and I would tour the neighborhood to see pahariyan: make-shift art on the streets made out of dyed, shredded wood, hay and styrofoam. Snow white pigeons perched comfortably over green domes of miniature styrofoam masjids — these miniature models celebrated themes of Punjabi folklore, Pak-India war narrative, and the prophet’s migration story from Makkah to Medina. After Maghrib prayer, the grand showdown was an all male mujra dance competition over Naseebo and Madam Noor Jahan’s songs. The winners of best pahari design and best dance performance were awarded gold colored plastic trophies.
Throughout the year, a man escorting Zuljinah — a horse covered with a black silk cloth — roamed the streets going house-to-house of our Shia neighbors. In Muharram, the milkshops gave out Sabeel sherbats, Rooh Afza and the sweet sandal and cardamom kind, free, from their giant drums that on regular days held gallons of milk. Autotuned naats (poetry praising the prophet) were new back then and coyly emanated out of the windows of our Barelvi neighbors. I remember my mother being scandalized after she took an invite to one of the women-only zikr (Sufi devotional practice) mehfils next door, held in a dark room. That thing was new. No one talked about the Ahmadi masjid that stood quietly on Allama Iqbal Road — eventually destroyed in the 2010 Ahmadiyya mosque massacres.
It was in Garhi Shahu, where I first understood that capitalism is amorphous when my father haggled for a keyboard for our first computer, a 486 model donated to us by my maternal aunt. Abu figured the shopkeeper is Ahmadi, and claimed he’s a Rabwah native… for a discount. I watched.
In Garhi Shahu, I also understood lower class solidarity when I’d be punished for my very off-brand dark green coat, a part of winter school uniform that my father would buy from lunda bazaar: the flea market next to the Railway station that stocks piles of foreign/western people’s goodwill clothes. The lunda clothes had a distinct thrift smell that won’t go. While being picked out of the morning assembly line by a disciplinarian teacher for not wearing the right shade of green, I’d lock eyes with other kids marching to the class…undetected, wearing the same lunda thrift. It was like a secret code between us, never uttered but always felt and understood.
In Garhi Shahu I also understood the socialized lower class shame when me and my brother stood on the cricket field as punishment along with other kids (many of them lower class Christians) who defaulted on their tuition fees. These fees were subsidized by selling my mother’s dowry. In 3rd grade a gold locket, with an ‘F’ (her initial) written in serif font was the last to go. That midnight, our father formally presented us with two options: to study at Iqbal High, a public school or work as a mechanic/technician, like our grandfather, and like Aa.ee did.
In Garhi Shahu I also understood the shades of sexuality, gender expression and levels of respectability as they flowed through people around me. Whether it was the all-men family affair of watching sexually charged Punjabi commercial mujra dance that ran on dedicated local cable channels, Khwaja Sira performers in the streets discussing most effective hair oil and shampoo brands with each other in their toli (street-dancing) breathers, a girl forcing her partner to “french-kiss” in choti galli as I walked to the van for my 6th grade school fun-fair, women soaking the sun on the rooftop discussing oppression of family patriarchs while spreading henna/mehndi in each other’s hair, pederasty in the murky gaming arcades where tattered curtains hung over the entrance and the screens of the bulky gaming machines were the only available light, or aggressively masculine teenage boys in embroidered skinny jeans and rust colored, henna-dyed and oiled hair, chewing paan on street corners giving way to my mother — out of respect — as she walked to teach at the local school for $6 a month.
In Garhi Shahu, mothers warned their children that if they go out in the streets in hot summer afternoons old Pathan [Pashtun] men will kidnap them. The old Pashtun men were Afghan refugees who picked plastic from the streets to sell and to survive. Homophobic taunts against Pashtuns — sourced from old fashioned British colonial cultural propaganda through books, films and academia — would echo in Punjabi stage dramas as juggats (repartee) and travel to my classroom as regurgitated racist jokes towards me. This racism was culturally and socially systematized, still widely taken to be benign but isn’t.
In recent years, a brand of living is taking over Garhi Shahu’s public space. This reshaping of the neighborhood is spearheaded by Tehreek-e-Labbaik: a right-wing religious and political group hell bent on death penalty for people alleged for acts of blasphemy. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were originally codified by the British Raj. Lower and working class muslims and non-muslims are core targets booked under these laws and often violently killed by vigilante groups. Auto-tuned naats and hymns now confidently blast through the Main Bazaar more than Naseebo Laal, casually grim warnings in Urdu against blasphemy and gumrah, loose women are plastered on walls, on the back of rickshaws and on mid-air hanging banners. Street-performing Khwaja Siras are now sparsely seen. This and other forms of social control has made groups once very visible in physical public space retreat to safer spaces, online.
The second word I learned in English was “torture,” again from a BBC News broadcast on STN. That helped me label and thus verbalize the violent reality of every day and night and of the day after. I still jump on loud sounds, have trouble with money and the monied, my jaw is constantly clenched and I sometimes forget to breathe.
There’s a complexity to representing the poor or their stories like Matti aur Mashkeeza did. The current representations of the poor in Pakistani media are formulaic, voyeuristic, reportative, investigative, imitational, or wrought with pathos or satire. The upper classes, their institutions and their agents, who are gatekeepers of traditional media are selling bad representations of the poor to the poor and to others. They will continue to make copy. Bad copies that eventually get hard wired in the collective psyche of the poor to a point they themselves end up identifying with these easy, bad representations, rather than trusting their own lived experience.
On my saddest days in Brooklyn — and there are many — seeing a flock of pigeons, dyed and undyed, fly over my Puerto Rican neighborhood, I find comfort. Even though, I cannot tell which pigeon is which, who is the dominant one, which one is having a hard time and who is a lover. Even though these pigeons coo and don’t gutargoo, staring at them with my partner through our window, fly over the rooftops and perch on our fire escape where we put out bread and rice instead of bajra gives me comfort.
As a child, I wanted life around me to be seen on the media around me without a top-down gaze as lower class stories are represented…imitated. As a grown man who could speak English, I got access to the guarded spaces of the upper and the middle classes, of rich diasporas and the whites. I wanted the life I had known around me to be understood by these others: the culture-makers, the trend-setters, the ones whose narratives are imperial, are heard, acknowledged and lauded and whose hot-takes, opinions and stories are ‘nuanced’ and thus overwrite our stories. After living out of Garhi Shahu for many years, I’ve realized that negotiating one’s life’s complexity with the imperial other is like rubbing bald heads together hoping for rain. It never does.
Saad Khan is a documentarian and filmmaker.