VIEW : Quetta, a fairytale in time — Syed Badrul Ahsan
In Quetta today, death lurks in the silent streets. The old Quetta is a fairytale now resting in the chronicles of moving time
In the swiftly moving images on television, it was the old mountains that came into focus through the street seeming to open out toward the winter sky. On the road sat grieving men, beside the shrouded bodies of those murdered hours earlier in yet one more demonstration of violent religiosity. These sad men would not bury their dead unless the government promised action against the murderers. These were Shia who had been gunned down by a fanatical group. The living beside their corpses were Shias, a band of people marked for death in a curiously inexplicable brand of politics threatening to push decency into increasingly deeper holes.
It was all happening in Quetta, the capital of the sparsely populated Pakistani province of Balochistan. In Quetta, years ago, decades ago, Shias lived peaceful lives, much like their Sunni neighbours and friends. On Ashura, the tazia processions were a regular reminder of the martyrdom in Karbala. It was a time when, through the self-inflicted lacerations of men remembering Hazrat Imam Hussein, the power of religion to rekindle the fire of faith in the soul was on display. No one complained. Everyone understood, or thought they did, the meaning of belief. Those who watched were invited to drink sherbet prepared for bystanders by the organisers of the tazia processions. Between the drinking and the lacerating, people came together. And life moved on.
It is the life of Shias that is in danger in Quetta today. A whole lot of things are endangered in Quetta these days. It was not like this in earlier times. As a garrison town, Quetta was home, in a way of speaking, to the Pakistan army. It was also home to the Pakistan Geological Survey, which on August 14, 1947 set up its headquarters there. After the devastating earthquake of 1935, when much of the city was destroyed, it was rebuilt by slow degrees and restored in a big way to the way it had been before it was struck down. In time, Quetta came to have good schools — Islamia, St Francis Grammar, St Joseph’s Convent and Cantonment Public — where the children of civil and military officials as also of other strands of the populace were imparted good education.
That Quetta appears to have disappeared in the mists of time. Evolution through time is part of the natural process, but in Quetta, change has been brought about through foul means. The Taliban after 2001 have charged into it like mythical Furies, to a point where they have had the audacity to assassinate those who have not agreed with them. In the era of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Mujahideen made Quetta a place of agitated exile, and planned strategy against the occupiers from Moscow. For years now, Afghan men have flooded into Quetta, pushing what was once a sleepy town away from the normal world place into a hotbed of tension. Peaceful Quetta was the time when Pathans, Baloch, Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis and Mohajirs shared the beauty of a town nestled in the mountains. It was that time of life, everyone’s life, when in summer children picked ripe plums in spring and summer from ever-widening orchards. It was an age when children played in the snow, played games that enrich innocence and light up the road to experience.
Quetta had good cinema halls. At Rahat and Ismat were shown Urdu movies that families could watch on weekends without fear of stumbling into embarrassment. At Regal, well known English-language movies drew the discerning and those with a penchant for western culture to its warm confines. At the book hub, Gosha-e-Adab, it was not just a matter of school textbooks being bought every academic year by anxious parents. It was also the place where fiction in the form of pictorial classics illustrated and classics illustrated junior comics, along with Archie tales, fell into the waiting hands of the young. It was pure heaven walking down Jinnah Road, books and comics in hand, waiting for the moment when the gate to home would reveal itself. Quetta was that quiet little town where the roads led outward, toward Hanna Lake and Urak, spots of scenic charm and ideal places for picnics. On the frontier between declining summer and creeping autumn, schoolboys captained by their teachers trooped out of Quetta and into Baleli, where steep mountains, a forest of trees and a transparent stream peopled with jubilant fish gave them reasons to be cheered by the abundant colours of life.
That Quetta has passed into memory. Its staff college, its Ayub stadium, the expansive Khair Shah House where roses bloomed in spring and summer and its racecourse were once part of endless experiential joy. Beyond the railway station, away from the post office lies the long Sariab Road, the path to government offices and later to the Balochistan University. And beyond all these were the mountains on which the crimson hues of the sun came to rest as twilight approached.
In Quetta today, death lurks in the silent streets. Bombs are clandestinely seen to go through various pairs of hands, until at some spot where innocent, simple, poor men display their wares and sell their vegetables, they explode. In Quetta’s streets, snow and ice once gave them their lustre. Now, it is the warm blood of suddenly dead men, their torn limbs, the loud screams of the wounded and the surviving, which underline the days and nights of those who inhabit the city.
The old Quetta, for one who has lived there, who long ago passed from infancy to teenage in its passionate silences, is a fairytale now resting in the chronicles of moving time.
The writer studied at St Francis Grammar School, Quetta, from 1962 to 1971. He is Executive Editor, The Daily Star, in Dhaka, Bangladesh