Saturday, 12 May 2012

Bannu, Zia-ul-Haq, And Bhutto's Reincarnation

Qissa Khwani - story-telling. Hmm ... ! I remember a little story. Perhaps have told it many times in 140 words or less. Jokingly mentioned on my Wall. But somehow feel it needs to be retold.
Year: 1988.
Place: F.G. School for Girls
City: Bannu
Characters: Talkative Little Girl, Frustrated Government-Paid Teachers, Jealous Little Boys and Girls, A Military Dictator and Other Dead and/or Forgotten People 

She was 9. She talked a lot. Loved being a monitor in her class 'coz it gave her the immense power of hitting other kids with the broken leg of a wooden chair that the teacher kept for control. As she barked at them to take out their hands from behind their backs so she could gleefully hit them so hard they would howl she thought to herself, "How I wish I was made monitor every day!" But before the first blow came down something inside her always winced - the terror-stricken faces waiting for the pain, the feel of wood on soft almost-baby flesh, the thwack and the quick redness spreading across the palm left her nauseous. "No! I can't let them see I am a weakling. They do the same to me when its their turn. Worse ... they laugh at me (and anyone else) when I cry. I'll do it even if it haunts me the whole long afternoon and evening and night back at home. Afternoon when I drive my brother's BMX up and down the scorching tarmac driveway of our yellow-bricked colonial Government residence. Evenings when I sit under the Jamun tree and collect the fruit with my purple-stained fingers singing songs I had made up. Nights when I slept in a huge bed between my two elder sisters and couldn't put away stories of the young English woman who jumped from our balcony many, many years ago and haunted the hosue. They are neither of them very huggable and I have a feeling its because they don't like me". And she would bring the wood cracking down without any feeling any more. 

This day was like any other day. The teacher dozed at her desk with hands placed on the table, fist under her chin. 9 year olds sneaked bites out of their lunch boxes unable to wait for break. The smell of half-fried eggs and parathas filled the hot Bannu afternoon. And something unusual happened! 

The Principal was a skinny old woman (40+ seems old at 9) with a stern mouth and unkind eyes. There were strange lines around her mouth and eyes though that were firmly and permanently crinkled in an unfamiliar way. They never deepened but they were there. Tell-tale signs of something the kids could never decipher. She was out of bounds for all kids. No one was ever supposed to greet her. They were too insignificant. But on this day she came into the class and made a grunt. 45 saucer-like eyes and wax-filled ears focused with all their might on her. What could she want? 

"Children whose fathers are in the Police stand up!" 
*crickets chirping*
Looking at the classteacher, "Who was that girl you were telling me about?"
"That's her, Ma'am" - and for one agonizing moment 45 erratic beating hearts prayed with all their might it wasn't them. And sure enough the finger pointed at her. "Dear God, no. Please whatever it is I have done I'll never do it again. Please save me this one time and I'll never miss a prayer or watch a Bollywood movie again". 
"Come forward! What is your name?"
*chirp chirp*
"I asked you a question!"
*chirp chirp*
"Is her father the *xyz*? You said she was the most talkative. What's wrong with her today?" 
Frantic classteacher, "Do you know who the president of our country is? Remember I told you all in class last week?"
Last week Baba had given her Rs. 10 and she had a feast with it at the canteen. Rs. 2.75 could buy a coke and with Rs. 0.25 you could buy a samosa. Also, a rupee could buy you 20 Fanty candies. But she knew the answer to that question any way. 

She was born on 4th April 1979 at 5 PM. No one ever let her forget that. It was the day Bhutto was hanged. It never made sense to her why or how that was important. All she knew was it was how her birthday was remembered. The guy who killed her was Zia-ul-Haq. The funny man with the big moustache who was shown on PTV all day long. He was the reason they sometimes cut-down the 10 minutes Danger Mouse cartoon that was shown every day at 4 PM. It was the highlight of her day and this man ruined it for her on many occasions.

"Good! Get her ready."
"Yes, Ma'am Principal!"

And then started one of the the most embarrassing moments of her life. The teacher gave her a bar of soap and made her sit next to the tap in the playground where she was a sitting duck for everyone from 1st grade to 5th. And the scrubbing started. It went on till her face was raw and her hands sting. A pathani-dress was produced from thin air and before she knew she was wearing it (the memory of how that happened is foggy). Teachers in the staffroom produced a white creamy stick that was smeared all over her face. Long nails were skilfully used to paint as near her tear-ducts as possible. She had to look white - she was a pathani! A blood red SwissMiss Lipstick was applied to her lips. The same lipstick was then used to add some color to her cheeks. After much fussing over when she was finally allowed to look in the mirror she almost squealed in terror. But oh well ...

Shame of shames, another classfellow was brought out all dressed up. Mortified, she looked around for someone to save her but no help seemed to be coming. She heard her jeering school-fellows make comments like, "Ooh look at the bride and groom". She almost died!

All she remembers after that is being handed over to a pair of complete strangers, men for that matter, who took them to the airport where a huge chopper almost blew her off her feet. She was given a bouquet to present to the guest. A bunch of grinning men came out of the heli and she was pushed to walk towards them. A man who looked familiar broke away from the rest and walked up to her, took the bouquet from her hands, smiled down and thanked her. 
Only when she reached home she was told that was the guy from TV. She was somewhat of a celebrity that day and it took out the sting from her earlier humiliation - just a bit of it.
Few weeks later on August 18, 1988, the president died in a "Case of Exploding Mangos". The story that went around in the family said she was the last kid to give him a bouquet. Not sure of the truth of that. But some called her Bhutto's reincarnation that avenged his death. 

Of course the kid in the story is moi. Incidentally, my husband's birthday is 27th December.

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