‘Hostage On a Truck’-by Habib Khan

“Cushtum as they still call the place, though the actual checkpoint has since moved.”

Burglars is a good movie I thought, as I felt the five Rupee note intact in my pocket.”

Engr. Habib Khan from Quetta: 1973 had proved to be a devastating year for Balochistan. The great hope the abolition of one unit and the elections of 1970 had given to young people suddenly seemed to have vanished, when in Feb of 1973 the truly representative provincial government was dismissed and lot of people were put into jails and others went into hiding or moved to neighboring Afghanistan.

The good thing however, in those days was that no one used to get disappeared, and at least one knew, where or which jail, thana or tehsil, his or her relative or friend was in.
The other good thing was that the political parties were well organized and offered full and free legal support to their imprisoned leaders or workers.

So one day our lawyer Hanafi Sahib (his full name, “Syed Imtiaz Hussain Baqari Hanafi” Advocate) asked me to go to Dhadar to appear before the district magistrate on his behalf in my Uncle’s case and bring back certain documents.

Dhadar is a small town some 135 km southeast of Quetta and for those interested in history, Dhadar is the town where in the 17th century, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s elder son “Dara Shikoh” had taken refuge, but was betrayed by the local Sardar, and was handed over to his younger brother Aurangzeb who later beheaded him in Agra.

I had to appear before the court at 8AM in the morning and there was no bus that could take me so early to Dhadar. So decided to take the train to Sevi (Sibbi) in the afternoon, stay overnight at the railway station, and then take an early morning bus to Dhadar which is just 25km west of Sevi.

Everything went according to plan, and I was free within an hour upon reaching Dhadar. I put the documents in my bag and waited for the next available transport to Quetta– thse were buses plying from Sukkhur to Quetta. The earliest bus was expected to reach Dhadar at around 11am, so I had around two hours of waiting and had just started thinking as how to spend those two hours when out of nowhere a truck stopped, and a plump man stuck his head out from the window and asked me where was I going, and when I said Quetta, a smile appeared on his face and he asked me to climb to the top (the tool as he called it) and also said to me that I could use the damp gunny bags on the tool to protect myself from the heat, as the sun had already started to shoot its merciless rays on the plains of Dhadar where the mercury normally touches 50 degree Celsius in the Summers.

“Who says that kind people are no more around in this world?,” I thought to myself, while trying to settle down inside the wet gunny bags (bori) and noticed that the truck was loaded with firewood, and that there were three other people in the truck and the other two including the driver seemed more plumper than the one who I earlier called plump.

What should I do with the three Rupees that I save as a free ride? I should take a good lunch? No, no. I will watch a movie “Burglars” is a good one I have heard, I said to myself.

Fate had something more thrilling in store though. After moving for an hour at creeping speed towards the Bolan pass, the truck stopped and the less plump person came out and shouted for my attention, “O boy” (alika in pashto), and when I extended my head to look down from the tool, I saw an unfriendly and demanding face ordering me to tell the soldiers on the checkpoints along the Bolan pass that the load (seemingly of firewood ) was mine.

“Are you out of your mind”, I answered. “A military operation is going on and can you imagine the consequences?”.

“Forget about the consequences, and leave the truck if you are not ready to say what we want you to say,” the less plump man said to me.

The sun by then had truly started to show its wrath and was pouring fire in that wilderness where there was no shelter and no traffic seemed to move.

“Why didn’t you tell me this in Dhadar? This is dishonesty,” I pleaded, but he seemed least bothered, and by this time his colleague with an intimidating body also joined him and asked me not to waste time and to quickly make my decision; either comply or leave.

What could have I done? I was not equal even to the half of the one less plump person; being prepared to die in the heat was the other option. So I reluctantly said yes with Allah malik hai, or Allah khair karay ga–my way of saying yes when I want to say no.

So the truck started to move, this time faster and with it even faster were my heartbeats and they sounded more like a drum as we approached the first checkpoint near “Bibinani”.

Nothing happened, and the truck kept moving and the stupid thing that I had done brought stupid thoughts to my mind and I had to confess that people with experience were right, there are no more kind people around. And what if they arrest me, I will not even be a political prisoner and the drug smugglers are kept in dens and their mulaqats (meeting with relatives in jail) were through pigeon nets.

More stupid thoughts…and the second checkpoint arrived and again smooth sailing, because my intentions were true…another stupid thought.

Well, the truck stopped at a roadside hotel, and by that time I had decided to save the five Rupees that I had in my pocket as who knows how the day may end? And so inside the hotel I decided to ask for a cup of green tea and half a loaf of bread, but before the order was taken I saw the waiter coming towards me with a plateful of “rosh” (meat roasted in its own fat) salad and two hot Naans; and this time the less plump person with a wry smile on his face exclaimed “khura khura” (eat).

That was the first rishwat (bribe) ever extended to me, and probably the last one. Otherwise, throughout my life I have been on the giving end; sometime to the gas company, sometime for electricity and sometime to the traffic police.

Well, not detracting from the story, we kept moving and there was just one more army checkpoint left between “Mach and Kolpur”, and nothing happened on that checkpoint too, and now more than believing my true intent, I was convinced that the ‘plumpers’ were using cash as pay off for safe passage–the rumour around was that it was a much cheaper deal than at customs.

After the final danger had passed, the breeze had cooled too, and having passed a sleepless night on the railway station, I dozed off and rather slept like a child, forgetting that there was a normal custom checkpoint near Quetta.

In my dreams I heard someone calling, “O malik, O malik” (the stupids had not even asked my name) and one of them was calling “O Mr Owner”. I immediately realized that it was a real call and not a dream and recognized the place as the Quetta Customs (cushtum as they still call the place, though the actual checkpoint has since moved)

Anyway, I protruded my neck from the tool and a custom sepoy standing with the two plumpers asked me “Tumhara hai?” (Is it yours?). I tried to say yes, but a lump had blocked my throat, no voice came out and so I just nodded.

And again smooth sailing, so the ‘plumpers’ had successfully reached their target with whatever stuff was in there, and had spent only three ten rupee notes, one note of fifty rupees, and one plate of rosh.

Burglars is a good movie I thought, as I felt the five Rupee note intact in my pocket.