Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Prisoner on a Bus

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Excerpt from Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Mashkel lies miles behind the ‘back of beyond’ of Balochistan; right on the border with Iran. And when friends Kamil Khan Mumtaz and Uxi Mufti decided quite on the spur of the moment to go to Iran for a couple of days on a temporary permit, I resolved to return to Quetta by bus. Our host, the Assistant Commissioner, said there was one early morning ‘coach’ that would put me in Quetta in time for dinner. This I thought was perfect.

The AC’s orderly who was sent out with five hundred rupees to reserve a seat reported that the bus would depart from a neighbouring village on the dot of six, and that I would get my ticket and the remaining two hundred and fifty rupees on the bus. Despite having lived in Pakistan all my life, I am still very much a punctual fool. As we drove across the flat desert landscape to the bus depot, I searched in the pre-dawn darkness for the UFO lights of the bus flashing on and off; but there was nothing save a darkness pierced only by the beams of our jeep. The bus was in the depot all right, but it wasn’t the ‘coach’ the AC had promised it would be. It was, instead, a tired old banger with the legend ‘1994’ on its rear end. Its ragged body bore the scars of countless scraps with passing vehicles in its eventful life.

The depot, however, was deserted: with only five minutes to departure, there was not a sign of our keeping to our schedule. My driver went banging around the several doors and returned presently with a young man vigorously rubbing his eyes and scratching his tousled hair. This was the bus driver and he said we would leave at six. I told him it was six already. His astonishment was genuine, ‘Oh, is it? I didn’t know six was so early!’ he flashed me a grin and scratching his head went back to the room he had emerged from. At the door he turned around and said I should come back at eight.

The bitter, almost gale force, wind that had picked up during the night steadily sand-blasted us and because there was no tea house I decided to return to the AC’s quarters for breakfast. He wasn’t pleased to see me back, but he fed me breakfast nonetheless. At just before eight I returned to the bus depot. A crowd was milling about the orange and white vehicle and some people were already in their seats. Ramzan, the good-looking driver with the tousled hair, grinned and said we would be leaving as soon as the Haji arrived. Haji, it turned out, was the owner of this service and I presumed he too was on his way to Quetta.

About thirty minutes later a shout went up that the Haji had arrived. There was a bustle of activity and Jilani, the conductor, stuck his head in to ask all able bodied men to dismount and give the bus a push. The engine came to life with a roar and at last we seemed set to roll. But not quite. We stood about with Ramzan revving the engine and expelling great black clouds of diesel smoke. We were leaving as soon as Haji was finished with his business here, he said pointing to a man who furiously pulled at his cigarette as he spoke to a group of men. The man eventually came on board, we pulled out of the depot, and I settled in my seat for the long drive to Quetta.

But we merely crossed the sandy street and pulled into another yard, that served as the local petrol station. Drum after plastic drum was siphoned into the cavernous tank of our bus as we waited in a dingy room with wide chinks in the door through which the storm raging outside would let itself in to sand-blast us as though we were outside in the open. Haji smoked with a vengeance and said he would give up if only he had fewer problems on his head. Knowing it was impossible to get public transport in Quetta after eight in the evening, I fretted about our delayed departure and suggested that since we were so late already, we should wait until after lunch in order to reach Quetta early the next day.

‘Don’t you worry,’ said Haji, ‘You’ll be in Quetta before public transport goes off the roads in the evening.’ As an afterthought he added, ‘If not, we’ll give you a nice place to sleep in at Kechi Beg.’ This place, it transpired, was his home just outside the city. Knowing full well that it was in vain, I yet protested like a fool. But I was stuck without an alternative for here in the outback of Balochistan this was the only available bus. Meanwhile, the tanks had been filled. Everybody piled in, Haji came to the driver’s door and the two talked. Haji counted a wad of notes, talked some more, gave the wad to Ramzan who counted and returned it to Haji. They lit fresh cigarettes, Haji re-counted the notes before Ramzan was handed over some money, and it seemed that at long last we were really ready to depart.

But again not quite. Somebody said something about the spare tyre. Ah yes, the spare tyre that was being repaired at the tyre shop in a neighbouring village, said Haji with a snap of his fingers. This revue was in Urdu in a country where everybody spoke either Balochi or Persian. It was therefore entirely for my benefit, I suppose. But the road to that village was only jeepable so a pick-up truck was sent to collect the tyre. While we waited Haji told me how foolish it was to drive in the wilderness of Balochistan without a spare tyre where we could be marooned ‘for days’ without recourse to help in case of a flat. I found myself marvelling at the Pakistani inability to carry out a number of chores simultaneously: surely while the bus was being tanked up, someone could have gone for the tyre. Another thirty minutes went by before the tyre arrived and after another round of feverish instructions from Haji (he wasn’t coming to Quetta after all), we finally did set off. It was just after ten o’clock.
Our manifest comprised of a Baloch family of four, six Iranians who kept strictly to themselves, a single Mashkel man who owned the twenty or so large sacks of dates stacked on the seats in the rear and I. To manage us we had a crew of six, excluding the driver. The merry bunch was headed by the boisterous Jilani.

Across the great sandy plain we sped on a clearly marked track straight into the teeth of the gale. To the west a line of date palms straining against the wind marked some village and to the east the horizon was glazed by the pale disk of a sun struggling through a yellow-brown haze of sand and dust. Soon the trees were behind us and in the open plain there was no point of reference, but the sun. The droning of the engine and the monotony of the sterile desert lulled me to sleep. For two blissful hours I slept.

‘Lunch time!’ Jilani, the conductor, yelled and we lurched to a stop. This was Yakmach on the RCD Highway. The name means ‘One Date Palm’ and it is quite appropriate. A couple of eateries, a deserted railway station that comes to life just four times every week, a few mud-plastered houses and a couple of government buildings are all it can boast of. For vegetarians our restaurant served boiled lentils smothered with ghee from the pot of meat. This was surely among the worst meals of my life – and I’ve had some really bad ones. The crew of our bus (they were six in all) were surprised that I did not eat meat.

‘We Baloch eat nothing but meat,’ Jilani boasted through a full mouth. I very nearly said so did dogs owned by rich masters. But that would have been as inappropriate a rejoinder as any, so I let it pass.

It must have been an impressionist God that created Balochistan. Wide open vistas, jagged hills, crescent-shaped sand dunes with razor-sharp crests, pebbly plains with bright yellow flowers and dull yellow tussocks of dying grass, rare signs of human habitation and through this the cold steel track of the railway they once called ‘The Lonely Line.’ Watching the line of hills run past I realised that every hill presents the profile of a human face – or at least in this impressionist landscape they do.

We stopped for tea at Dalbandin. Our driver Ramzan seemed worried. It turned out that the alternator wasn’t working and we would be benighted somewhere in the vicinity of Nushki with the treacherous, winding hill road still to be negotiated without headlamps. All my questions about where we were to spend the night were parried until, irritated by my persistence, he snapped that we would all sleep in the bus wherever night fell. I panicked. That wasn’t my idea, either of adventure or of fun. I asked for the money the conductor owed me so that I could get on another bus, though there were not many plying on this lonely road. But he said he only had Iranian currency. I was stuck; held to ransom on the bus. The sobering thought was that my price was an unflattering two hundred and fifty rupees. I desperately wanted to get off, but if I forewent my money, the feeling of having been taken advantage of would have hounded me for the rest of life. I was despondent: not only was I not going to get to Quetta for the night, I would also have to go to bed grimy.

We set off again. The railway line disappeared and we started to skirt the black base of the looming Ras Koh Hills. Jilani said the army had a secret base in Ras Koh. He leaned across to me and looked over his shoulder to the family of chinky Iranians behind us who spoke no Urdu. Finding them suitably unconcerned, he conspiratorially informed me that they were building the Bomb in these hills. (Exactly eighteen months later Pakistan tested its first nuclear device in these hills. So much for the ‘secrecy and security’ the State is so paranoid about). We rattled along, every climb slowing the bus to a crawl while the engine strained for all it was worth, and every descent sending us hurtling until the bus seemed on the verge of disintegrating from the vibrations.

Jilani narrated how he and his crew had once beaten up a ‘Punjabi’ lorry driver for not giving way.

‘We were six, they were two. It was a cinch.’ He gloated. Then he told me what the Baloch would have done to India if they had a common border with those kafirs. His idea, and this was no frivolous thought but something he seriously believed in, was to simply sneak across in the dark every night and dispatch a few hundred infidels for sport. As for Kashmir, it would have been a part of Pakistan fifty years ago had the Baloch had a go at it. Had that happened, I said, the Kashmiris would already have fought a bloody war of independence against us and seceded like Bangladesh. This reality was unfortunately lost on Jilani. I named a religious party that habitually sent out ‘mujahideen’ to Kashmir, and exhorted him to do his holy duty by signing up. I even offered to personally take him to their headquarters in Lahore and ensure that he was swiftly sent out for this pious undertaking. Thereafter I cruelly pestered him to give me his address to be passed on to the holy warriors, but always he was too hard pressed with his conductor’s chores to attend to me.

As the sun dipped in the west, the wind died, but it was still very cold. With nightfall, Ramzan glued his nose to the backside of a jeep. For several miles we sped along lighted by the vehicle in front. Somewhere between Ahmedwal and Nushki we lost our pilot and then we trundled along in total darkness.

At Nushki there was a half-hearted query for an auto electrician. At seven in the evening the repair shops on the highway were closed for the day, but, we were told, we could find a mechanic in town. We turned off the highway and drove into Nushki. If we were unable to get the thing repaired, said Ramzan, we’ll buy a pair of torches, fix them to the bumper in front and go over the hills. Splendid, I thought, what a brilliant idea. Condescendingly I patted his shoulder; then Ramzan and his crew disappeared into the bazaar.

Half an hour went by. They were taking an awfully long time purchasing those torches, I thought as I sauntered in the direction they had disappeared in. Presently I found the gang outside an eatery. There was another man with them, obviously a local, and the discussion was not about where we could buy torches, but where we could find an auto electrician. I asked why we weren’t getting the torches as proposed earlier. Everybody ignored me; I persisted and Ramzan turned angrily on me. ‘Don’t you have any sense at all? Can you imagine anyone going over those hills with a pair of puny torches?’ Indeed, how could anyone? How silly of me to have harboured such a fanciful notion. I knew we were in for a long, long night, so I asked for my money again.

‘What’s the hurry? We’ll give it to you in Quetta,’ said Jilani irately. My hurry was to get back to the highway because meanwhile I had been told by a Punjabi soldier that I could still get on the bus coming in from Kharan. Shortly, however, this man returned to tell me that the bus had already gone by. My luck seemed to have run out, but Jilani was delighted that I did not need my money anymore. I said I still did, because now I planned to sleep in the hotel the soldier had said was ‘nice and clean.’ Jilani reminded me that he only had Iranian currency and he wasn’t a fool to change in Nushki where he would get less than the going rate.

I resigned myself to the situation and walked back to the bus. Here I discovered that while we were discussing the disadvantages of the torches, one of the crew had removed the parking lights from the bumper and organised a length of flex to secure the round torches in the oblong holes left by the lights.

Sometime after eight we had an electrician who got under the dashboard and fiddled about for what seemed an eternity before asking for the engine to be started. We pushed, the engine came to life, Ramzan revved hard and turned on the lights. Lo and behold! There was light. When it came to pay the mechanic Jilani asked me if I had any change. I lied that I only had a thousand.

‘You give me the thousand and we’ll settle in Quetta,’ said the man. I was already held to ransom for two hundred and fifty, and had no wish to raise the ante. I refused to part with my money.

Jilani asked the rest of the dozen passengers. Strangely, no one had two hundred rupees. A pack of cigarettes went around. The driver, his crew and the mechanic and his helper lit up and seemed to settle down for the night ahead as Jilani casually asked where he could change some Iranian money. Fifteen minutes passed before one of the passengers discovered a hundred rupees in his pocket. Not up to waiting another quarter of an hour before the remainder could be found, I surrendered the requisite one hundred.

We set off again as Jilani announced that we were now heading non stop for Quetta. I zipped up my jacket, pulled up the collar and settled down to sleep. Sometime later we jolted to a halt and one of the crew announced dinner. It was just after 10.00 PM; we had been on the road for twelve hours and Quetta was yet over a hundred kilometres away. I was tired. I was also cold and miserable from the draught running through the bus and had no desire to eat another lousy meal. The feeling of being a hopeless prisoner that had nagged since Dalbandin completely swamped me and when Jilani cheerfully said something about meat, I told him to get the hell lost.

The standard duration of a driver’s meal stop is forty minutes; but now I had stopped caring about time. Now I was reconciled to sleeping in wretched Kechi Beg. And so when we stopped at a customs check point somewhere before Quetta and simply waffled about for almost an hour, I just couldn’t get myself to fret. At three in the morning we were winding around the narrow alleys of Kechi Beg, barely six kilometres from the WWF guest house where I was staying. We stopped outside a steel gate in a high wall and Jilani announced in Urdu, Balochi and Persian that we were to spend the night, or whatever little remained of it, here.

He did not approve of the idea of my taking my baggage.

‘You leave it on the bus,’ he said, ‘We will leave here at six for Quetta.’ This, I told him, I had heard but yesterday and wasn’t fool enough to fall for it again. I told him that I actually did want to leave at six and wanted my baggage with me and that he should settle with me before disappearing. Jilani and his whole team assured me that they would see me off at six in the morning, in fact, they would drive me to Quetta with everybody else. I didn’t believe a word of that, but because one of them was sleeping in the room we travellers had been allotted, I relented. At six the horizon was just beginning to light when I roused this man.

‘Shut up and go back to sleep!’ he snapped at me gruffly. I became hysterical.

‘I knew this would happen, and I told you worthless lot so.’ I railed. But while everybody else was roused by my hysterics, the lump that was this man under the quilt did not budge. I yanked off his covering. He tried to pull it back. I refused to let go and screamed at the man to go get Jilani.

‘Stop yelling. We told you we’ll take you to Quetta at six,’ he growled.

‘You fool, it’s bloody six now!’ I hissed through clenched teeth.

A Punjabi or a Pathan would surely have told me to go to hell, turned over and gone right back to sleep. But a Baloch has perhaps a little more respect for his word. Reluctantly the man left the room, and as I saw his back disappear, I thought I was seeing the last of him. Miracles, however, never cease to happen, and five minutes later Jilani arrived, albeit a trifle miffed for being disturbed so early on this cold winter morning. However, he still had no Pakistani money. I managed to get some change from him to pay for the rickshaw and he escorted me to the gate to show me the way out of the village. He told me where I could meet him later in the day to collect the rest of my money. I didn’t believe a word he was saying, but like a fool I went there at the appointed hour. Jilani was a bigger fool: he was there; and he paid me my money. Perhaps that was the unspoiled Baloch in him.

Related: Prisoner on a Bus

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:30,


At 11 May 2013 at 16:11, Anonymous Attique Anwar said...

You are great writer Salman Rashid. You have created this wonderful story out of nothing. I, or many others like me, would have traveled this, cribbed a little and forgotten as a bad experience. I enjoyed reading this while watching election hype on tube.

At 12 May 2013 at 05:23, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Attique, When I reached Quetta I thought this was indeed a bad experience. Then over breakfast I narrated the story to my friend Peter Neal of WWF and had him rolling on the floor with laughter. He suggested I write it for my paper. And so it appeared in The News on Sunday in November 1996.

At 12 May 2013 at 11:16, Anonymous Carrie Finley-Bajak said...

I want to do everything, like traveling the world and making "a million memories." This was a good read though I am not familiar with the area and can't relate.

At 12 May 2013 at 13:00, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Carrie, Do and the million memories will shine like beacons for the rest of your life. I wish I could offer to show you Mashkel and the route we took to Quetta. But, sadly, this is no longer the country it used to be.

At 13 May 2013 at 14:25, Anonymous Umer Jamshed said...

That, Salman Sahib, is brilliant storytelling. I was right there with you, a prisoner on the bus. This makes me want to visit nook and corner of Baluchistan. But with this place being a no-go area for Punjabis, this is to remain a dream for sometime.
Thanks for sharing this with us.

At 13 May 2013 at 15:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Umer, you are not alone. As a Punjabi my great grief for the past some years is not being able to travel across Balochistan at will. My last trip in Moola Valley with Baloch friends was four years ago. Very glad that you enjoyed the yarn.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days