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Monday, August 30, 2004

true story - 002 - it was a monsoon Friday!

assalam-o-aleykum wa rehmatullahi wa barakatuh
الســـلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته


it was a monsoon Friday!

Do you know what monsoons are?

These are torrential rains that come in July.

In the Indo-Pak subcontinent, life depends very much on the timely arrival of these rains. In the mountains and the valleys and the vast plains of this sub-continent where more than a billion people strive to keep body and soul together, two seasons bring a great shortage of water. In winter, the rivers have very little flow, the mountains keep the snow, and the springs dry up. Occasional rainfall and then the spring rains keep life from being extinguished altogether. Immediately after spring, comes the dry season. The land, the wells, the springs, the rivers, the dams, and the lakes do not only lose water, they are so parched you would think they have not seen water for centuries. All over the land, people look to the skies, and pray for the rains to arrive in time.

The monsoons come from the Arabian Sea, crossing South India, then over the Bay of Bengal into Bangladesh and Assam. Traveling along the North touching the Himalayas, they saturate the thirsty land of the Ganges and the Jumna, and then they arrive in Pakistan, fifteen days after they have hit Eastern India. Every day until the rains come, the farmers, and the thirsty humans and animals wait anxiously. If there is delay, many will die of thirst, there will invariably be a famine, and many more will then die of hunger.

So, monsoons are welcome. When they come, the land is full of water, the rivers become mighty seas, floods are common, and there is such an excess of water you would not think there ever was a shortage. Dams have been built to keep the excess water, but these dams silt up, and new dams take a lot of money, and you have to take into account dislocation of populations whose land new dams affect. There is another downside as well. Across the land, the poor build mud houses near the streams or depressions, so as to be closer to water sources.

And when there are floods
..... the Dam water is released to protect the dam and surrounding humanity
..... sometimes whole villages downstream that have not had warning, get swept away
..... and there is no one to mourn their loss
..... but this is not what the story is about,

although this has happened in the past.

It was a monsoon Friday!

It had been raining the last four days and nights; the sky having cleared only in the early morning was again covered with threatening dark grey clouds. My friend and I walked to the mosque for our Friday prayers and felt a few drops fall on our faces, so we increased our pace - I no longer liked getting wet in rain. As we entered the mosque, I saw some women outside the mosque, near the place shoes are taken off. These were of varying ages, in the weather-beaten rags that only the poor know how to wrap around themselves so as to pass for clothes. My friend stopped and called to them: “sisters, come inside, it is about to rain, and if you want, you can say your prayers, too.”

If you knew this part of the world, you would have noticed two challenges to the status quo here. One, in the Muslim community of the Indo-Pak sub-continent generally you do not find women inside the mosque. Some groups do allow women to have a separate portion for prayers, but not most of the Afghan-Indo-Pak society. The second is that begging is not allowed inside the mosques, and these women were obviously there for begging. The other people in the mosque looked annoyed but said nothing because we were considered rather respectable members of this posh locality we lived in.

The women were hesitant, but when thicker drops started falling, they saw wisdom in coming inside, and then shyly, one went for performing ablution (wudu – cleaning with water), and one by one they all did, and lined up behind the men for the Jum3a prayers. The khutba (sermon) and the prayers over, we started to come out of the mosque, when one of the older women said: “please sirs, listen and help us”. At this my friend stopped again, and asked in a soft voice: “yes sister, what is your problem”? One gentleman, very well known, very rich through selling government land, very active in the community here, spoke up to my friend in his authoritative voice: “You are wasting you time with them sir, they are professional beggars. Just leave them alone”.

The woman who had asked for help suddenly got angry and said: “Respected Sir, how dare you call me a beggar? I come from the mountains, and we work to provide food for ourselves, but this is the rainy season and there is no work, and my son has been ill with fever for the last three days, and we haven’t eaten for that time, and my house is leaking. You come with me, and I will show you”. She was shaking with rage, but her voice was still composed, and you could see that she had been hurt deeply. My friend said: “Yes, Respected Sir, let us go and see if she is telling the truth”. The gentleman sensed a waste of time, and sought a retreat. “I am sorry, here take this hundred rupee note”, but the woman would not take the money. She insisted that the man who had called her a professional beggar accompany her to see for himself that she was not one, and that her condition was indeed as she had described. She had been grossly insulted, and she wanted her pride restored.

My friend encouraged her. He loved such confrontations. All his life he had been working to restore to the downtrodden their right to live with dignity. The gentleman was upset, as the raindrops had become bigger, and they would eventually bring in a rainstorm, for monsoons are nothing but water pouring from the skies. To tell you the truth, I also wanted to get back to my cozy home. I have been through quite a few uncomfortable times, and I did not want to expose myself to the elements any more; but here was my friend, and I could not possibly leave his side now. So, we all squeezed together in his old diesel Mercedes, and drove to the locality of the women. When we arrived, it was a bigger mess than we thought. In the centre ran a hilly stream, which becomes violently uncrossable if it rains heavily upstream. We would have to cross quite a few hundred yards of muddy and slippery terrain on foot with rain now falling over us. The gentleman took a look, offered his deep apologies, and increased his offer to two hundred, and then five hundred rupees, but the woman still refused. She no longer wanted help; she just wanted to show the objector that he was wrong. You can rest assured that this was a substantial amount, as my salary at that time as a middle class professional was around three thousand rupees, and so the five hundred rupees would have been sufficient for that woman and her son for one to two months.

We grudgingly trudged on, with our shoes heavy with mud, fearing slips and falls, and I most of all fearing my wife who would demand to know why I had, at my age, gone to play in the mud. As we reached the “house”, we saw how true the woman’s words were. Her "house" consisted of one room, made of mud, with a thatched roof also covered with mud, which had dissolved now with rain, and the water was pouring in. Inside on a bed made of jute ropes (we call it charpoy), lay a young man about 18-22, and he did had fever. We had not stopped at our houses to take a thermometer, but he felt hot to touch.

We gave some money to the women who had accompanied us, and came back, and that weekend we convened a meeting to decide what we could do. We formed an organization called “idarae huqool ul ibaad” which means in English “society for the rights of mankind”, and put some money from our salary in. The next day at office we asked our colleagues to chip in with a regular contribution, and so we managed to collect three thousand rupees per month from our salaries this way. Thus we, who were physical engineers, started our experiments in social engineering.

We went to that locality to look at its problems and to discuss and analyze with the residents. The money came a little later. With that and a grant from Zakat (from a Pakistani living in Saudi Arabia), we built a school, and persuaded the government to get a teacher for it. We built snother school-cum-training center-cum community hall for them, and a mosque, and improved their well's safety. Gave some of them employment, hope, education for their children and the adults. We devised a new technique for fast literacy. Made the residents think for themselves and work on a self-help basis. Opened a vocational training center for the girls. Hired a sewing master and his help. We also helped the residents build their own local dispute-settling mechanism, and dislodged the state repressive police from that locality.

Our activities were not without notice in this tiny elite town. The police lived by making the lower classes fight with each other, and collecting bribes from both sides. When the residents formed their own local dispute-solving system, the police and its stooges were deprived of a steady and substantial income. We estimated that the police were raking in rupees two thousand every day from that locality. When that money stopped leaking out, it was spent by the residents on their households and the environment, and the living standard or rather the quality of life improved.

Naturally this caused resentment, and not just at low levels. The police chief called us, and tried to convince us that we should concentrate on teaching the clientele good manners and how to pray. We politely declined to toe his line. Then came the summons from the Deputy Commissioner. We knew what it meant. He is the guy with the entire Federal administration for the district in his hands. He tried to reason with us: “Look, what are you doing?” We gave blank looks. So he explained: “You are from our class. If you educate this lowly class, from where will we get our servants? You are betraying your own class.” We just smiled. This would have meant a lot of trouble, but somehow our education, our background, and our prestigious jobs, gave the Federal Administration an idea that we must have some influential backing, so nothing happened to us. Then the local authority stepped in, because the shantytown was built on municipal land. Here the law was not on our side, but the ground realities were. These people were needed as low-paid workers. If they were thrown out, where will the laborers and the low-paid staff come from? So that gave us some breathing space. We had anticipated this and built our centre with baked bricks joined with very weak concrete to assure the local authorities that this was a temporary construction, and would be dismantled on their instruction.

Our methods gave our clients such confidence that our girls were in demand for official functions as well. When our girls went back "home" to their villages, occasionally we would get enthusiastic letters from our “graduates” that they were applying what they had learnt from us to educate their sisters in their villages. So we went to the office in the morning, came back in the evenings and occupied ourselves with community work, which lasted late into the night, as we had to fight on several fronts. Eventually, I fell ill, and had to be in and out of hospital for severe asthma, so I gradually gave up my active social work. Then my friend suffered a series of heart attacks.

We looked for younger people to take over, but there were no takers. The municipal authorities finally struck, bulldozed that shantytown, and threw the residents further away. We continued to provide help, but the community had been destroyed, and we were no longer up to the task of visiting there new environment regularly.

The United Nations representatives came to us, wanting to learn from us the secret of our success in transforming the attitudes and lives of these people. We told them of our methods, of our determination from the beginning that any help must be in the locality, and that the residents should not have to come to a bureaucratic setup in posh offices. This is what we believe intimidates them. But that is all we could do. Our health did not permit active participation in any schemes the UN would evolve.

The stream quietly flows down the same route, roaring during the monsoons again. All that is left as a reminder of our efforts is the mosque, the multi-purpose building, and the improved well - all by the side of the hilly stream. Perhaps the school is also there, but it was quite far upstream, and I haven't visited it, so I cannot say for sure. The residents, unfortunately, are no longer there. And scattered throughout Pakistan, in the tiny villages are young and adult women we educated, and trained, and some of them are carrying the torch.

My friend too, is no more. He died nearly four years ago. His heart had suffered far too much damage. May Allah (SubHana Wa Ta`ala) open a window from Jannah into his grave, and grant him shade under HIS throne on the Day of Judgment, and give him the highest rewards in the Hereafter.

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