I saw them from afar…… delicate, petite and elegant and the last of this evening which was rapidly coming to a close.
It had been a very hot Friday and I had stayed in. However the desire to buy fresh peaches made me put on my sneakers and head towards the jumma Pazar which is basically a miniature grand bazaar of Istanbul. It has everything you can ever want from fresh fruit and vegetables, to homemade jams and sauces, the long raised truck selling a thousand kinds of cheese, delicate jewelry good for little wrist and fingers, freshly kneaded dough to make your own bread, and a broad array of clothes, handbags and plastic ware.
I was obviously late. Most of the souks were empty and were being taken up. I turned left and immediately saw them: a small heap of petite apricots most of them a beautiful hue of apple green and some evolving into the reddish apricot color that is so aptly used to describe the first blush of sunset in clothes and wall color.
I immediately knew what they would taste like, sweet, crunchy and just enough to fill the mouth with their nectar, finishing with a pit in the middle which if broken delivered an almond. I had eaten them in Baluchistan.
My mother and I are visiting my brother in Ziarat where he has been appointed as a hotshot in the Central Government. Ziarat has the largest forest of juniper trees in the world. Walking through the green landscape it feels like y aromatherapy immersion with the incense of juniper embracing you from all sides.
“We are going to another place tomorrow” my brother says to my mother “ I want to show you some of the untamed parts of Baluchistan”
Both my mother and I are excited, we had never been to Baluchistan.
As night fell and we packed our bags I eavesdropped on a conversation that made my hair stand on end and I felt I was in a dangerous detective movie except this time my brother was a player.
“Sir do you think we should be taking them “ the orderly said tilting his head towards our bedroom.
“ Yes” said my brother “ we can’t leave them here”
He turned to leave and then turned back to the orderly “ Send an armed guard with the jeep” he said,
He turned to leave and then as a second thought turned again and said to the driver who had remained silent so far, “ if there is gunfire remember to drive fast to the Dak Bungalow, and don’t worry about me”
There was dead silence and I could feel the tension in the room. I scurried back to the bedroom. His room was next to hours, the light was on and the cigarette smoke wafted into our bedroom all night long giving me a smoke induced migraine in the morning.
“Where are we going? “ I asked after breakfast. He smiled his serene smile and said “ I am taking you for a spin around Baluchistan”
As he turned to leave the breakfast room I asked “ What is going on?”
He gave me one of his long, cool sarcastic look that puts you in your place. His half smoked cigarette hung loosely from his first two fingers. He smiled and said “we are going sightseeing…….remember?”
I knew from that look that something was amiss but did not know how to approach it after his shutting down the subject.
We got into the jeep. Behind us was another rougher looking open jeep but I could not see the armed guard in it.
We went over the arid mountains, up and down the narrow roads. we passed by the tunnels that the British had made for their trains to transport their soldiers to tame the Baloch freedom fighters.
We passed below in the valley above which were the forts that had held single British sentries in the past overlooking the railroad. They were trained snipers instructed to “shoot to kill” any Baloch who seemed to be approaching the British train which were usually loaded with British soldiers and ammunition.
I was not in medical school yet and I did not have a camera but there are somethings that are recorded in the hippocampus of the brain in intact form that are unchangeable and remain so until one day they are retrieved with the sight and taste of a bowl of apricots far away from home.
It was almost evening when we reached the Dak Bungalow. The Gate to the walled orchard that surrounded the Dak Bungalow was opened by an armed guard and our jeep snaked through what seemed like a dense orchard in the middle of this arid terrain, The gate shut behind us and was locked.
As we drove through the narrow road flanked by trees that were laden with small apple green apricots, “oh they are not ripe” I thought to myself.
Growing up in Karachi I did not much care for apricots because by the time they reached us from Baluchistan they had taken a beating and those that had not were unbelievably expensive so I had sufficed with mangoes which even the poor could enjoy.
Apricots, loquats and strawberries were the fruit of the rich.
There was a line of men waiting to receive us outside the Dak Bungalow. They were all dressed in impeccable crisp white Shalwar kameezzes and most were wearing the Balochi caps. Their faces had history written on them in the form of experiences and their eyes were sage with knowledge of all those that had passed these precincts.
“Salaam Sahib” they said one by one touching their forehead. An invisible hand ushered us to the living room. Coming in from the bright sun of the early evening into the shadows of the living room of the Dak Bungalow felt cool and restful.
There were some instructions given to the servants about the bedrooms and our luggage was quietly carried in.
My mother was tired and wanted to rest. My brother had some business to attend to with one of the men.
I asked if I could go into the garden. “ Of Course, Bibi” the older man said and ushered me to the door. I walked in the narrow paths of the garden trailed at a distance by the older man whose presence interfered my ability to imagine a magical forest. The paths were neatly lined with bricks and there were apricot trees laden with the reddish apple green turning to gold as far as the eye could see.
While I was still resenting the man trailing me, suddenly I heard a growl and in front and to the right was a large black dog with his teeth bared. I froze with fright! The man behind me rushed forward and scolded the dog in the Baloch language and I almost ran back to the Dak Bungalow, thankful for the presence of the man who had followed me.
Such is the life of a woman: While we resent the men for protecting us, yet when we need protection, we want them to be there.
I ascended the shallow steps of the Dak Bungalow and entered the quietness of the drawing room, It was devoid of all ornamentation, I could see the marks on the wall where at some time there must have some paintings hung.
We ate a refreshing dinner with a lot of meat the details of which I do not recall. After dinner as we pushed back in our dark walnut engraved chairs, There appeared in an walnut carved tray a bowl of apricots……….
Many years later when my brother came to visit me in Geogia, one night when we were both awake into the wee hours of the night, both of us being night owls, I noticed that he was restless and pacing the room with the cigarette dangling from his fingers.
I asked him………..
“ Tell me about your time in Ziarat” I said.
He looked at me his glance razor sharp and his eyes spoke because he seemed to know exactly what I was asking him.
“ I can tell you the story now as the major actor in this play is dead……” He said.
And I am going to share this story with you my dear readers as most if not all the players in this story are dead, including my dear brother H. ( May Allah grant them Maghfirah)
Here is what he related to me that night in Georgia:
“When I was posted in Baluchistan, lots of things happened which were unjust but were tribal rules which included vendetta, and things pertaining to women. The rulings meted out to the Baloch’s by their tribal leaders was not in the jurisdiction of the Government and we were told to look the other way. As Government servants we were ordered not to interfere unless they crossed over into our jurisdiction”
He fell silent, thoughtful as if re envisioning our visit to Ziarat and that tension filled drive across Baluchistan crossing tribal territory.
He started again pausing in his restless pacing: “ A week before the night you and Ammi arrived, something happened”
“ I had fallen asleep when someone knocked on my bedroom door, I got up, the cigarette had burned a hole in my bedsheet and the book by Dante had fallen to the floor.
I opened the door and it was my orderly …………his face was ashen and he was stammering.
“what is it?” I asked, as I closed the bedroom door behind me and stepped into the darkened living room lighted only by the moonlight coming through the window.
As my hand went to the light switch “ he said “ Please don’t” Please do not turn on the lights”
As he said this, I noticed a movement in the far corner of the room.
“It is my niece and her husband” he said.
He was shaking with fear.
“they need a government pass to leave Baluchistan”
I still did not see the issue as a problem. “ Well” I said “they can apply in the morning to my clerk and he will make the pass for them”
He looked at me his eyes glistening in the moonlight with unshed tears.
“ They need it tonight…….” he hesitated respectfully trying hard not show his fear and desperation leaking out from every cell in his body.
“They are eloping……… I mean they are fleeing their tribe” He said breathlessly and stopped as if he had uttered a bad word.
“Which tribe?” I asked and he named it. It was ruled by one of the most powerful and ruthless Tribal Lords. He was known for his cruelty and extreme judgements. He was stunningly handsome, physically strong as he rode horseback across where we had crossed his lands in a jeep and was unrelenting in his vendetta if crossed.
The orderly was continuing…….
“My brother is dead, he left me and my wife to take care of his daughter, she fell in love with this boy who used to work for us in the orchard and I did their nikah without getting permission from the tribal Lord”
Everyone needed the permission of the tribal leader to marry , divorce or do business or leave tribal lands, otherwise he was executed. Such was tribal law.
My brother stopped and looked at me thoughtfully …………. As if wondering if I was mature enough to take the rest of the story.
By this time, I was a Doctor, teaching medicine at the Medical College, but his calculating gaze on me was like that of one evaluating a young innocent woman who does not know the cruelties of the world.
“…………. And then? “ I asked
He shook his head, as if to shed the memory of the event…….
He continued with the story:
The boy and the girl came forward…… and even in the moonlit room I could see that the girl was a beauty, her skin shone like porcelain and her eyes the color of the ocean dripped innocence.
“ The orderly continued……….” The Tribal Lord saw her somewhere and sent a woman from his servants with a message to bring her to him tomorrow, he wants her to join his household…….” And he tailed off……
We both knew what that meant i.e. to use and throw away.
I said to the orderly “ But you said she is married?”
The orderly continued” He said he will annul the marriage or she will become a widow”
Now I looked at the boy and I saw a face hewn in wood, tanned by the relentless Baloch sun, his eyes wise, and brave, I saw no fear in them”
I turned to the boy” “ Is she your legal wife”
“Yes Sir”, he said and produced the Nikah nama, I glanced at it.
“ Can you take care of her if she leaves her home with you?” I asked
“ Yes sir ! I will guard her with my life”
I went to my desk and signed a pass for them and handed it to him. This pass would allow them to leave Baluchistan and while doing so I placed them under the protection of the Pakistan Government until he was out of the tribal lands of Baluchistan” I was fully cognizant of the storm this would bring for me personally at the hands of the tribal Lord and the Government brass.
“ Thank you !” said the boy, his gaunt but brave face shone with idealism and both of them disappeared noiselessly as they had come.
The orderly…… began to speak………. I shushed him, “go take care of them, they should be out of Baluchistan by morning”.
The morning brought me a warning from the Tribal Lord and a promise of retribution. I invited him for tea………….
I sat stunned on the sofa in our breakfast area trying to absorb what I had heard.
“…….But, but didn’t he come to your wedding, the man with the turban and entourage of servants? “ I asked perplexed and amazed.
My brother smiled sarcastically and said……….” Sadly, everything and everybody in this world is for sale and if not for sale they are for rent”
My bowl of apricots in Baluchistan, and now in Istanbul, and my brother smiling at me in Georgia, are all engraved in my mind and my heart…… he was a gentle but courageous soul and he did a lot of good in the wilds of Pakistan, by putting himself in danger.
May Allah grant him Maghfirah.