Author: Ghaws Bahar
Translation: Carina Jahani
I had not picked up more than ten shells when four uniformed soldiers surrounded me. One tore the bag from my back and shook out the contents onto the ground. I was at a loss what to tell them when the butt of a rifle thudded against my back and I curled up on the ground. All four soldiers beat me with punches and kicks, rifle stocks and metal pipes until I fainted.
When I regained consciousness, lo and behold, I was in the holding cell at the police station. My shirt and trousers were torn and soiled. The watch had been spirited away from my wrist, and the sandals from my feet. I asked myself why such a thing was happening to me. What had I done wrong? But I could not make any sense of it.
Oysters were not that valuable and gathering them was not such a big crime that someone like me would be beaten and imprisoned for it, and coming to this beach was not something that would make the soldiers so infuriated. The people in our community spend both their childhood and their old age here.
Well, there is a difference. When I was small I came to this beach to walk around and pass the time, while today I came in search of bread for the day. Is it possible that such a pitiful means of securing life’s necessities is an affront to our benevolent government? The fact that a person who has studied fourteen grades is reduced to going from beach to beach gathering oyster shells and earning a pittance, does this not reflect well on the noble leaders of our country? “Is this the huge crime for which the soldiers are punishing me?”
I thought to myself that if someone comes near my cell I will ask him what crime I committed to be brought here and imprisoned, and how long I will be confined to this cell. But no one came close to me. I was isolated in the cell like a murderer. Only God knows why such a fear grew in my heart that my eyes involuntarily scanned my hands and feet for signs of illness. Well, I had not been afflicted by such a terrible disease that no one would approach me out of fear of infection, unless we count the disease of poverty.
You can’t imagine how I spent this unpleasant night in the police station, but the memory is carved into every fibre of my body. A pile of my own filth lay in a corner of the cell, and as for the flies and mosquitoes, there are no words to describe how they attacked me. The soldiers had not given me nearly as hard a time as these flies and mosquitoes did. The soldiers had hit me and caused me to faint, but the flies and mosquitoes tortured me in a state of consciousness. There was a mattress left in the cell from before I came. God knows what poor fellow it had belonged to. Its musty smell filled the air, but to escape the flies and mosquitoes I sometimes covered myself with it. Other times I ran around the cell in circles, like a spindle.
Now it was ten o’clock on the second day. I had been hungry and thirsty and sleepless since the day before, and it seemed like nobody was aware that a “murderer” was imprisoned in this cell.
Suddenly a soldier passed by in front of me in the police station. My eyes lit up. I was about to ask him something when he lifted his right hand and put two fingers to his lips signalling me to be silent. I recognized this soldier, and he knew me too. Passing the door of my cell a second time, closer now and with his AK47 swinging on his back, he whispered: “Mate, praise God. He had mercy on you. It’s now been an hour since Uncle Tangahi…”
He kept walking without finishing his sentence. I’m sure you can imagine the confusion that took hold of me. Has Uncle Tangahi made a complaint against me? Did I encroach on Uncle’s livelihood? Uncle Tangahi had surely lay behind it somehow.
Now I was filled with anger toward Uncle, and uttered some strong curses against his old wife and his grown daughters. There were so many oysters on the beach that even if Uncle Tangahi and I were to gather them for years and years they would not run out. Uncle has caused me so much torment for no reason that I wish God will torment him the same way.
I was grumbling against Uncle when that soldier again passed close to me. “What did Uncle Tangahi say?” I asked quickly. My forehead was all wrinkled.
“He hasn’t said anything. The poor fellow, this morning…” The soldier’s words broke off again. I almost went crazy now. “Uncle didn’t say anything. The poor fellow, this morning…” All these words were a riddle to me.
This soldier passed close to me again, but perhaps someone was standing outside, because he did not respond to my question and passed by in silence. Now every hair on my body was standing on end. I stood as if affixed to the door of the cell, keeping a hard grip on the bars. I was waiting for the soldier to return and give me a full account of the events. The few words from the soldier made it clear that Uncle had not made a complaint against me. Actually, poor Uncle, this morning… These words made me ponder.
The soldier did not come. Had poor Uncle died this morning? Had poor Uncle been imprisoned like myself? Poor Uncle, this morning… I was immersed in thoughts when the soldier passed by again, and this time it seemed like a good opportunity. “What happened to poor Uncle this morning?” I asked quickly.
“The soldiers shot him dead,” the soldier replied.
“Wh…at.” My heart froze.
“Yes, Uncle was shot to death for the crime of gathering oysters,” the soldier informed me. Then he walked on, leaving me wishing that the ground would open up and swallow me then and there.
I had doubted Uncle and cursed his wife and daughters for no reason at all. I thought I really should be ashamed of myself. My thoughts went to Uncle’s old, lame wife and two grown daughters whose breadwinner had been wasted by the oppressors over nothing.
Well, now I knew why I had been arrested, but I couldn’t understand what kind of greatness had come into the oysters to make gathering their shells a worse crime than murder.
Yesterday was my first day of gathering shells, but Uncle Tangahi had been doing this job for a long time. I remember that it was a year earlier, when I came to the beach to spend some time with a couple of friends, that I first saw Uncle picking oyster shells. I was surprised because nobody had so much as picked up a single one here before.
For hundreds of years these oysters had been lying on the red sand of the beach. No one ever valued them even as much rubbish. Well, occasionally the small children would pick them up, hit them against each other as if they were fighting and break them.
Astonished, I asked Uncle why he was gathering oyster shells.
He answered: “Hey mate, it is to fill a hungry stomach, a stomach.”
Uncle raised his head a bit, looked at me and slapped his stomach with his hand. “I’m an old man. I can’t work any longer. Well, you know a male child is a treasure from God, but in my house there is none. They are both girls and I cannot bring myself to send them to work in other people’s houses. The world is a bad place. Your auntie has lost her strength and cannot go and wash dishes in other people’s houses to help me. I was at a loss as to what to do. God himself had mercy on us. No doubt God is the giver of daily bread, mate. It is a miracle that he sent someone who buys scrap iron, old sandals and rubber, clay pots and oyster shells. So I wove myself a basket of palm leaves, and every morning I come and gather some ten or twenty man of oysters to get twenty or so rupees, which buys enough bread and onion for half a day.”
“Twenty rupees for some ten or twenty man of oysters?” I was surprised. “Businessmen are really mean.”
“A man is nothing, mate! A man is only two and a half kilos. What kind of times has God brought upon us that not even twenty rupees is enough for half a day’s bread and onion?” Uncle went on talking and his hands were working fast. He was constantly picking up the closed oysters and putting them in his bag. For a long time we watched the eighty-year-old man’s efficiency and then we took farewell of Uncle and went on.
And a full year later, after I had finished my studies and worn myself out fruitlessly searching for a government job in different offices in Kech, Quetta, Karachi and Islamabad, I returned home with a heavy heart. I was at a loss regarding what to do. For us poor ones, finding work was rarer than a fig tree coming into blossom. In our town there was not a single factory, and educated people like me were not made to lounge about. Therefore my many deliberations and ponderings of the night before led me to think of Uncle Tangahi.
Yesterday morning I bought a bag for ten rupees and went towards the seashore. I strongly sensed that people were watching me closely. It seemed that they were mocking me, saying “why not go and study some more?”
When I arrived at the beach my eyes tried to find Uncle Tangahi, but he was nowhere to be seen, not even far away. Actually, soldiers were measuring the ground near the shore and putting up tents, but I paid no attention to them and went towards my daily bread.
After a lot of requests from different people, I was released from the prison today, but first I had to swear that I would never again go to the seashore for oyster shells. When I got out I went straight to the marketplace to buy something to eat, having gone without food for two days. At the marketplace my eyes involuntarily fell on the shop of an oyster dealer and, lo and behold, before his shop two military vehicles were parked, full of oyster shells.