Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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It was a balmy day in February 1989 that he came upon me sitting under a kundi tree by the side of the road skirting the small village of Gori in the heart of the Thar Desert. I was in no hurry for I was awaiting the westbound kekra (WW II vintage truck) to carry me out of the desert and so we sat together and talked. Sakhia in his Sindhi (or was it Thari?) and I in my mix of Sindhi and Punjabi. We got along like a house on fire and Sakhia, all of twelve years old, endeared himself to me like few people have in my thirty years of travelling.

I returned to Thar on a brief visit in 1995 but despite my wish, failed to get as far as Gori. Indeed in these past years I had often thought of Sakhia. What would a live wire like him be doing in the backwaters of the Thar Desert? Wouldn’t he have moved on to a job in Hyderabad or Karachi? Or even to the Gulf? Would he have added to his two years of schooling? I even imagined young Sakhia, with his intelligent, active mind to be a sahib. Of course there was also the dreadful thought of him having got on the wrong side of the law. And so it was in quest of this remarkable person that I asked our convoy of three jeeps and twenty odd people to pause a while in the village of Gori.

Sakhia was a common enough name, I was told, so which Sakhia did I seek? He would be about twenty, said I. Two of them were that age, returned the man. He was a Bheel, I tried again. So was everyone else because Gori was a Bheel village. Sakhia, said I finally, was as bright a spark as the village of Gori could ever have produced; a right little devil was he. Ah, that one, said the man with a flash of recognition lighting his face. He worked the cotton fields near Mirpur Khas. That came down on me like a wet blanket: I would be unable to see my man. But he was visiting his family, said someone. And they went away to get Sakhia.

Back in 1989 Sakhia had told me of the Angrez doctor who worked in the local hospital and whose wife had gone away 'with stomach.' His loud, naughty laughter had made it sound like a pregnancy of highly suspect origin. Going off tangentially he had then asked me if I knew Javed Jabbar. I said yes, and the little devil condescended to inform me that I of course did not know of the pretty girls he had brought with him on the kekra only the week before.

He asked for my socks, but later not liking them offered to sell them back to me. When I declined he said he would give them to me as a gift, for he worried what my friends in the city would think of me returning without my socks. Sakhia had made the act of being sock-less sound almost illegitimate and scandalous. Then, in the very next breath, with untainted, childlike innocence he asked me for my pants! I burst out laughing, and Sakhia, somewhat discomfited, wanted to know if I was laughing at him. His masterstroke, however, was inflating the goats. Inserting a stalk of sere grass about four centimetres long into a goat’s teat he blew up the udder, and then milked it to produce a dry farting sound. Then he inflated the goat once again.

‘Its owner will think the goat is full of milk,’ he had grinned. ‘But all he’ll get tonight will be some old air.’

This time around, a full ten years and six months down the road, Sakhia was a stocky man, married and with children of his own. Working as a tractor driver on a farm near Mirpur Khas he had come home to visit with his family – entirely to my good fortune. Of course he did not remember me, yet from the outset he generously regarded me a friend.

‘But I had taken your picture. And you still don’t remember me!’ I accused him.

‘So had dozens of other visitors to Gori. None of them was important enough to be remembered,’ he returned. I became unsure if I was talking to the right Sakhia.

‘Did you like to drink goat’s milk and then inflate their empty udders? Or were there other children who practiced this craft?’ A jaunty smile cracked his angular face and his eyes shone with a cherished recollection.

‘That,’ he said with undisguised pride, ‘was my art alone.’ I had the right man! There was no recollection of the socks, though. A little later he asked, somewhat thoughtfully, if these were white socks. Somewhere in the mysterious recesses of his mind was a trivial item filed away under the title: ‘White Socks.’

In the years that I had thought of him and looked forward to seeing him again, I had always imagined him having done better than his peers. Of that he was confident: if his friends earned a rupee, he was making something more than that. I asked if the work of a tractor driver was good.

‘If it weren’t good, wouldn’t I have been a dacoit?’ Sakhia said with as straight a face as he had when asking to be given my pants ten years ago.

It is common knowledge that all paid drivers are crooks who steal fuel, oil and spare parts, so I asked Sakhia if he too could be so accused. Without pausing to think, he said that since all employees are necessarily crooks so too was he. He sold diesel sometimes to pay for his food, drink and cigarettes.

‘You know, sometimes my seth does not have any money to give me for the day and he tells me to improvise. So I improvise by selling diesel.’ That, he said, was not theft (chori) but something taken as a matter of right (zori).

Someone in the crowd sitting around us said that one day this improvisation will lead to the selling off of the tractor. Sakhia laughed out loud at the suggestion. That, Sakhia was quick to point out, would mean killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. I said if ever his landlord read my article and learned that he was selling diesel on the side, Sakhia was sure to lose his job, perhaps even get to see the inside of a police station. But he appeared entirely at ease for he enjoyed his Qaimkhani employer’s absolute confidence. This is manifest in the fact that every year, just before the monsoon rains, Sakhia brings out his landlord’s tractor to rent it out to small farmers in Thar. Never does the landlord or a supervisor accompany the man to keep an eye on the number of hours he works and the money he turns in.

‘I have worked for this same master for six years.’ Sakhia said with visible pride. ‘If he didn’t trust me, I wouldn’t have kept this job so long.’

‘Sakhia, I am a bit disappointed for I had imagined you to be a sahib.’ I said.

‘No need to be upset,’ said he, ‘I am a sahib in my home and in the village. I don’t have to be in an office to be a sahib.’ The spirit of the child I had met ten years ago, was still living.

‘Can any of your children inflate goat’s udders?’

‘No. Is it such a great thing that they should?’ Then without waiting for a reply he added, ‘I could teach them if you say.’

But more important than that was their education which was clearly low priority. I appealed and he solemnly nodded his head in favour of schooling. I could not tell how seriously he was taking my exhortation.

As we were parting we talked of the possibility of our next meeting. ‘As long as friends live, they are bound to meet again, even though it may take twenty years.’ Sakhia gave his own words to an ancient Persian dictum. We shook hands and he walked out of the hospital compound where we had parked ourselves at the head of the crowd gathered to witness our meeting – a very sahib leading his entourage. Outside the gate the shout went up about the inflated goats’ udders. I smiled.

For ten years Sakhia had kept his little game to himself, that day he would have to teach it to the youngsters of Gori. But another twelve year-old showing it off to future travellers would surely lack the spontaneity that I had witnessed. And when, perchance, they tell me of it, I shall sit back and gloat for I had the good fortune of waiting under the kundi tree outside Gori for a kekra on that long ago February afternoon. I had the good fortune of seeing the original show.

Related: The Spirit Thar Desert

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 6 November 2013 at 09:28, Anonymous Ramla said...

People are the beauty of any place. You glorify such ordinary characters (Sakhia and earlier Nawaz Ali Khoso) in the best way.

At 7 November 2013 at 10:17, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ramla, My journeys would be meaningless without these good people I meet on the road. How colourless and drab everything would be without the Sakhias and Nawaz Alis.


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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