The Promised Land

August 17, 1947.
Musa had done what his biblical namesake, Moses, could not. He had arrived at the Promised Land. Though the land in question was not the same and neither was the promise. Nevertheless, when Musa’s feet touched the soil of the Promised Land, he felt as if he had completed the journey that had started thousands of years ago in Egypt with another exodus. Musa was part of a similar exodus; millions of people walking hundreds of miles to reach the Promised Land. But our Musa had not led the exodus like the prophet. In fact, our Musa had never led anyone or anything but life. He was a follower. He had always followed orders; orders by the staff at the orphanage where he grew up, by the staff and customers of the roadside dhaba where he started working when he was seven, orders by his temporary captors when he was 12 and orders by a group of young well-meaning men.

Musa’s family had lived in a remote village of Rajasthan, a northwestern Indian state, for many generations. Musa’s was the only Muslim family in the village. Musa’s father, Ibrahim, owned one of the two grocery stores of the village. The grocery store was started by Musa’s grandfather, Ayub, who was the only follower of Mahatma Gandhi in the village, practicing his own flavor of Satyagraha. Gandhi’s Satyagaraha’s aim was to make the British leave. Ayub’s Satyagraha aimed at making his family stay; to stay in their ancestral village despite the growing tension between Hindus and Muslims all over India. When the clientele of the grocery store started declining and Ibrahim started observing people staring at him with contempt, he suggested to his father to move to some Muslim neighborhood. Ayub refused.

“This is temporary,” Ayub told his family “the people in our village are not bad people. Their minds are being poisoned by the political propaganda coming from outside. We just have to wait till these clouds pass. They are not bad people. They are not bad people, “said the old man shaking his head, “It’s the air they are breathing that is bad.”

Ayub’s take on his people, his vow to weather the storm, didn’t help clear that air. It kept getting thicker and thicker with the news of communal violence arriving from other parts of the state. Then came the tipping point, the news of bloody violence in some far flung place in India whose name was not heard before in this part of Rajasthan, and upon hearing the news and motivated by a visiting politician of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh party, the sar-punch of the village, the elected head of the village council, ordered everyone to stop shopping at Ibrahim’s store.

“Ram Raaj,” shouted the visiting politician addressing the panchayat, the village council, while punching the air with his fist making the air even thicker with hatred. “That is our goal and it cannot be achieved without achieving pavitarta, the purity, and we will attain that purity all over India one village at a time.”

“Wait,” advised Ayub to his family “wait till these external influences disappear. These are good people, the people of our village. With our resolve to stay among them and loving them will change them back to their own old ways. Just wait.”

But how can one wait and sustain oneself in such conditions; mouths to be fed but no income stream? The store was filled with rotten food items and the stomachs in the Musa’s family were empty. Little Musa, just five years old, was suffering of malnutrition. Ever so obedient Ibrahim told his father that Musa would die if they didn’t move.

“In a village some miles away is a mosque that operates a small orphanage. Go give Musa to the orphanage”, Ayub told Ibrahim “It’s only temporary. We will get him back when things change.”

Things did change. They became worse. About a week after Ibrahim left Musa at the orphanage, their house was attacked by people from somewhere else. They ransacked the adjacent grocery store first and then brutally killed all of the people in Musa’s family. The villagers just stood by, dumbstruck, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. They had never seen this kind of violence before and they had not a single idea of how to deal with it.

Musa was eventually rescued from the orphanage by a dhaba, a roadside food-stall, owner from Delhi who adopted Musa when he was seven years old. He also adopted two other boys. It was cheap labor for the dhaba owner. With rising prices, he could not afford to pay the workers. This was the only way to keep the business going. Since he sold tea and snacks in a Muslim area, he had to hire Muslim help since his customers didn’t like to consume items touched by Hindu hands. To keep him out of trouble, the dhaba-owner had to go to remote areas to “recruit” so there wasn’t any follow-up from the orphanages.

For the next few years, Musa worked at the tea-stall during the day and slept inside the stall at nights with his “co-workers”. Hameed, Musa’s employer, gave all the kids food, an occasional change of clothes and shoes and a little bit of money, enough to buy candy from the convenience store across the street. Musa didn’t buy candy. He saved his money in a small wooden box that his used to hide between the cracks under the wooden counter of the tea-stall. What was he saving for, Musa had no idea.
When August arrived in the year of 1947, the month that would carve out a new country called Pakistan from the united India, the air in Delhi started to smell trouble. Spontaneous riots started every now and then in different parts of the city, sometimes by Hindus and at other times by Muslims. The polarization had begun. News started to arrive that Muslims of the bordering areas of the new proposed state, Pakistan, were feeling unsafe and thinking of leaving the graves of their elders behind and move across the newly created borders, a line drawn on the ground which didn’t make much sense to many of them. What did this line mean? How can an inanimate object, like a line drawn on the ground, has the power to influence millions of living, breathing, people?
A riot erupted one day on the street where Musa worked. A small gang of Hindu youth attacked the tea-stall and armed with machetes, killed the owner Hameed, looted the tea-stall and kidnapped all the workers and took them to a dilapidated and isolated building which looked like a ruins of an old grand house. Among the booty the hoodlums collected was a little wooden box containing the money Musa had been saving.

There, in the ruins, Musa and his fellow hostages were tortured and molested. A Hindu boy, not much older than Musa himself, raised the wooden box above his head and shouted the question, “Whose box is this?” Musa, browbeaten and stripped of all self-respect, struggled to get to his feet and claimed the ownership of the box. The boy holding the box said to Musa, “well, it is useless to you now. This is Indian money, no good in Pakistan where you are going. This belongs to India and it will stay in India.” With that, the captors left the building leaving their hostages behind. Musa didn’t understand. He had heard about Pakistan but he never thought of going there. Why would he go there, he wondered, to a place that he doesn’t know, where no one is waiting for him?
He got the answer that evening.
The news of the riots spread in the neighborhood and the kids working at the tea-stall were approached by the Imam of the local mosque who arranged to dress their wounds and feed them. He had some Muslim young men in the company who told the boys that the riot of the day was only a sign of a gathering storm. It would be best for them to leave India and go to Pakistan when it is created because they will not be a minority there. They will enjoy the bounty of freedom from Hindu majority and will reap the fruits that are only available to a majority. They will not be treated like untouchables and they will be respected and will have opportunities that they will never have if they remained in India.
Musa agreed to go as a part of the convoy to Pakistan. Pakistan; literally translated as the land of the pure. One kind of purity had Musa’s family killed. Towards the other he was told to go. He went. Not quite unwillingly. The Promised Land beckoned.
Musa grew up in the slums of Lahore, adopted by one family after another. He day-labored when he was young and started his old habit of saving money again, only this time the currency bore the name of a new country. By the time he was 30, he had saved enough money to buy a small grocery store. He had grown up to be a quiet, timid man who didn’t have a whole lot of expectations from his life and was quite content with what he had. He married a girl named Safurah. The marriage was administered in a mosque and people who showed up for the evening prayers were the unintentional and uninvited attendees. Musa had rented a one bed room apartment which was attached to a house in what is called the walled-city of Lahore. Safurah gave birth to a boy and Musa named his son Isa, the Arabic version of Jesus, keeping the biblical naming tradition of his family alive.
When Isa was a teenager, Musa reminisced to him what the group of Muslim young men had told him about the new land and the promises it held. Isa always asked his father about his elders and Musa told him that he only knew what Hameed had told him, which was that they lived and ran a grocery store in Rajasthan and were killed in communal riots. While Musa was able to put food on his family table every day, he still couldn’t afford to send Isa to school. Though the education was free in the public schools, albeit of questionable quality, the accompanied cost of buying textbooks and other supplies was beyond Musa’s financial reach. Besides, he needed help at his store and he didn’t want to do what his old employer in Delhi did, although the recruitment of orphans in return of food, clothes and a place to live was thriving even in Pakistan.
At the age of 55, Musa died of a massive heart attack. Isa inherited the grocery store from his father that day.
Unlike his father, Isa wasn’t quiet nor shy. He was a feisty fellow, ready to grab life by the horns and take it wherever he liked it to go. The fight though, started to die in him when he realized that the odds of him having any better life were stacked sky-high against him. He couldn’t ram through the obstacles between himself and prosperity powered by his will alone. Slowly and surely, as he gained years, he managed to make a compromise to settle the tracks of his life into the grooves of a lower middle class livelihood. He married a distant relative of his mother, a beautiful girl by the name of Safia. Her beauty and love was the only bright spot in an otherwise monotonous life. They had a son who Isa named Musa after his father.
While this little family was taking new roots, the Promised Land was well on its way to losing its promise for the majority of its populace. The waters in the Land of the Pure were getting muddied. Things were in a downward spiral for common folks. Rampant corruption, military coups, wars, terrorism, economic crises, all of those factors were making lives of inhabitants a bit more difficult to live with every passing day. Isa’s grocery store was now reduced to a vegetable pushcart because he could not pay the utility bills for the store. Things were not good. The money that he got from selling the store off was long gone and the new municipal laws prohibited him from selling from a permanent place. On any given day, one could see a parade of pushcarts selling various items emerging from the walled city early in the morning and none of the vendors knew where they were heading. The vendors pushed their carts from street to street trying to make stops, long enough to sell something, and brief enough to avoid the raids by the municipal police who would confiscate the only livelihood of the vendors, the pushcart, if they were caught encroaching on the street. Constant movement meant safety but it also meant little or no sale.
The air in Lahore started to stink with the discontent of people who couldn’t afford to eat three square meals a day while another section of the society, the affluent one, completely oblivious from the plight of the people being crushed under their own weight, was regularly having sun-downer parties where cocktails flowed and begums emerged from shining cars wearing even more shining sarees to attend these parties. The politicians talked about obscure grand things like “ideological frontiers” and “Renaissance of The Muslim World”; slogans that had nothing to do with the real problems of the real people. They talked about the greatness that was awaiting the Land of the Pure ahead while the discontent in the lower rungs of the society started to stir into a beast of revolt. Something had to be done to tame this beast; to keep the purity of the pure out of the reach of the filthy hands rising from down under, powered by the beast of discontent. And a lot of the things were done immediately. One of those things was to have temporary weekly markets for the pushcart vendors.
Isa had to resort to only selling his produce at the Sunday discount bazaar and such bazaars were booming because of the reduced buying powers of general population. The only thing bad about these weekly bazaars was that they affected the local sellers. The local sellers’ business in Rehman Pura, a middle class town, was getting hurt by the Sunday bazaar, which was the particular bazaar at which Isa sold his stuff. The local sellers solicited the help of local authorities, greased their palms, and they discontinued the bazaar in the name of “public safety.”

Isa and his fellow vendors eventually ran out of places to sell their items from. All of the other Sunday bazaars were already over-loaded with vendors. It had been three weeks since anyone of them had sold enough to keep the stomachs in their families full. Isa and his friends decided to come up with their own Sunday bazaar. They decided to hold it in the Model Town cricket ground. It was in an area where mostly rich people lived but curiously, it was surrounded by small pockets of a lower-middle class population. Isa and his friends hoped that the people from nearby areas would find the new Sunday bazaar at Model Town Cricket ground quite convenient. They only had to bribe the person who gave them permission to hold the Sunday bazaar and advertise the bazaar through posters and handbills.

The news of the new Sunday bazaar hit the people of Model Town like a bombshell.
“Can you believe that?” asked Mrs. Karim to Mr. Karim. “Now our town will be full of riff-raff for an entire day. And who’s going to clean-up after they have pushed their pushcarts away?”
“What?” Mr. Karim replied, shocked by the news, “Do these people think we need the junk they sell?”

“I really feel bad,” said Mr. Nizam to his neighbor Mr. Hafeez “I have a feeling that this will increase the crime rate in our area with all these people being here every week.”

“Don’t worry,” replied Mr. Karim “they have the permission to do this but I know someone who can still do something about it.”

On the Sunday that had the promise of having a full meal after three weeks, Isa and his fellow vendors arrived at the Model Town Cricket ground very early in the morning, only to find out that it was filled with water by the orders of the manager of the cricket club to prepare for a game the following week. Isa went back home empty-handed. He had promised Safia that very morning that he would bring milk for little Musa and, who knows, also a toy maybe.

That night while Isa slept a restless sleep, Safia wrapped little Musa in warm clothes, walked out of the house, made a long trip to Multan Road on foot, and left Musa on the steps of an orphanage.

“It’s only temporary my son, “she whispered to the infant with tears streaming down her cheeks, “I will get you back when things change.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *