Captives of Minara
November 22nd – A Pakistani village halfway between Karachi and Lahore
A breeze off the desert sent dust devils skipping ahead of Chandi’s sandaled feet. With one hand she steadied the huge bundle of fodder balanced on her head. With the other she adjusted her headscarf to hide her face as she passed the Punjabi section of the village.
Down one of the dirt avenues, several fat, black water buffaloes chewed their cuds beneath the shade of shesham trees. She glanced toward the whitewashed mosque in the village square and grimaced. Two boys, kicking a soccer ball back and forth, stopped to stare as she strode past.
Chandi knew that the distinctive blue-bordered, red calico of her dress set her apart from the Punjabi women. And so it should. Not for her a life of bowing to every demand of an uncouth husband. She was a Marwari, daughter of the desert, worshipper of the ancient gods, no slave of Allah. And soon, very soon, she’d announce her status by exchanging her imitation ivory bangles for silver ones. Wasn’t her father in Karachi making final arrangements for her wedding?
Her skirt swept the ground as she passed the stagnant pond that separated her village from the main part of Dhera Mundi. Her tribe’s allotment might be on derelict land rendered sterile by salt peter, but to her it was home. She strode through a gap in the compound’s wall of thorn brush and called for her younger brother to come to her aid.
Kalu dropped his crude cricket bat and ran to help her lift down the load of fodder she’d brought. Leaving Kalu to chop it into feed for their brace of skeletal oxen, Chandi stooped to dip water from one of the terracotta water pots. Empty. Both empty. She picked up the pots and headed towards the well.
A couple of hundred yards beyond the thorn brush wall lay the debris of what had once been a working Persian water wheel. The Punjabis, whose water came from a modern well in the village square, had long ago abandoned this one to Chandi’s tribe.
Chandi set one pot down, balanced the other on her hip, and reached for the rope to bring up the leather bucket full of water. The sound of a vehicle made her turn. She watched a Toyota Land Cruiser approach slowly along the dirt road that separated the two parts of the village. She dropped the rope and pulled the corner of her shawl over her face.
Just when she thought the Toyota would pass, it swerved to a stop in front of her and two men jumped out. Chandi stumbled back, dropped her water pot, and turned to flee. One of the men grabbed her roughly around the waist. The other tried to seize her feet but she twisted and kicked to get free. Her shawl flew off and her blouse tore. She screamed like a wounded jackal as she pounded the face of the man in front of her. He clamped his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams but Chandi bit down until she tasted blood. With a howl of pain he wrested his hand free and slapped her hard. The other grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked so hard her eyes watered. He caught her in a choke-hold, and dragged her into the Land Cruiser. With the salty taste of blood in her mouth and the smell of stale sweat in her nostrils she tried to spit out the tape they pressed over her mouth. The last thing she saw before the vehicle ground into gear and sped off was her younger brother running down the road towards her.
CHAPTER 1—FLIGHT TO PAKISTAN
Nov. 22nd – Karachi
Stepping onto Pakistani soil after an absence of 31 years awakened the demons I’d spent years stuffing into my subconscious. The late arrival of my jumbo from New York had set them sharpening their knives.
And here I was stuck in an endless lineup for customs while on the verge of missing my flight upcountry. I glanced around as I loosened my collar and fanned my shirt in an attempt to dry the sweat that trickled down my back.
Clusters of submachine gun-carrying Rangers guarded every exit.
When my turn finally came, the immigration officer examined my documents then looked up at me through the fly-speckled glass of his booth. “You are Joshua Radley?”
He waved my immigration form in one hand and my passport in the other. “Then, why is this form made out for Josh Radley but your passport says, Joshua H. Radley?”
I stifled a chuckle. “It’s just a nickname—short for Joshua—most people call me Josh. I use it without thinking.”
He arched his eyebrows. “Without thinking? Well you should think more carefully. I see you didn’t fill out the name of your father either. Why? Are you really who you say you are?”
My face began to heat up. I wanted to tell this petty bureaucrat where to go. What did it matter who my father was? Instead, I bit my lip and said, “Janab, an oversight. My father’s name is Lawrence Radley.”
He scowled at me for a few moments then winked. He motioned ever so slightly over his shoulder as he handed me my stamped passport. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of his supervisor, a heavily bearded man with the grim look of a religious zealot.
By the time I’d reached my gate, I was beginning to smell like a locker room. Fortunately, delay seemed the order of the day so I dashed into a washroom and, using a couple of packaged towelettes tried to freshen up.
Back out in the waiting room I saw that the flight had not yet been announced so I strode over to a bank of phones and called Stephanie. She answered on the fourth ring.
“Sweetheart, I’m already missing you,” I said.
“Me too. Are you calling from Karachi?”
“Yeah. This’ll have to be quick.”
I reminded her to set the timers when she left to join me and be sure to turn down the thermostat. She told me how excited Janice, our daughter, was about coming. I warned her about the grueling nature of the trip and suggested they take a sleeping pill during the flight.
“Mr. Grumman will meet you in Karachi;” I said. “He’ll help you get on the upcountry flight. I’ll meet you at the Nowshera airport.”
Maybe things would work out well after all. Didn’t they say absence makes the heart grow fonder?
I joined the back of the line forming for the flight to Nowshera and idly glanced around. Through the windows I could see troop carriers and armored Hummers patrolling the tarmac. The terminal looked like a building in a war zone.
I lifted my digital camera to snap a couple of photos. Suddenly, a burly sergeant spun me around and demanded my camera. “No photograph of important installations. Manna.”
I lowered my camera and addressed him politely. “Janab-e-ali. No problem. I’m a journalist here to report on Pakistan’s archaeological heritage.”
I leafed through the junk in my wallet and extracted my press card. The sergeant shook his head and scowled. “No exceptions. Your camera.”
Unwilling to surrender my camera, I extracted the memory chip. Since it was a new chip with few images, I offered it to him. He took it, waving his finger in my face. “Western media. Very bad.”
I took a deep breath and fanned myself with my passport as I watched him walk away. A man in front of me in the line turned toward me and smiled. “Don’t worry, this state of emergency will soon be lifted. The police are bullies; they like to throw their weight around.”
A few minutes later we boarded a PIA turbo-prop for the flight north to Nowshera. From my spot by a window I glanced around, thankful the seat beside me was unoccupied. Quite a cross-section. A couple of men with their faces buried in newspapers: probably government officials. Two rows of army officers. A woman, fashionably dressed in a silk sari, trying in vain to get her three children to stay in their seats. A scattering of business men with briefcases. Two tall, bearded Sindhis wearing distinctive skullcaps covered with embroidered bits of mirror.
I settled back and turned to the Herald magazine the attendant had handed me. Long articles analyzed possible candidates to take Benezir Bhutto’s place in the next election, threats from suicide bombers, the turmoil on Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan and the inability of Musharraf to curb extremism. What impressed me most about the monthly magazine was its size, 150 pages, and the breadth of content ranging from poetry through book reviews and fashion into the changing role of women and the spread of technology.
I continued to leaf through the magazine until I found an article about Pakistan International Airways’ poor maintenance record. Uh. Oh. Evidently the European Union had suspended PIA’s landing privileges in Europe until they improved their aircraft maintenance procedures. Not good.
The last person to board was a turban-wearing tribal man in a billowing white shirt and white baggy pants—shalwar-qamiz—balancing a huge bundle tied up in a cotton sheet. He stopped, dumped the package on the empty seat beside me, pulled out his boarding pass, and smiled as he looked at the number. Opening the overhead compartment, he tried to stuff his bundle inside. A flight attendant strode down the aisle shaking her head. After a heated exchange, he threw up his hands and surrendered his bundle. He carefully put his turban in the overhead bin and took the seat next to me.
To say, he sat down, would not do him justice. He removed his hand-made, embroidered shoes and with his feet tucked under him perched on the seat in the lotus position with his arms crossed in front of him.
I stared at him out of the corner of my eye. How could he do that? He had to be at least fifty but as agile as a monkey. He sat like a Buddha on a lotus flower. Even the business man across from us stared with his mouth open.
Buddha-in-white turned towards me. His expressive eyes—a rich shade of chocolate brown—seemed to say that the whole world was mad. I couldn’t understand a word of the torrent he unleashed in some tribal language. Finally, he paused, and said, “Angrez—English? No speak.”
I smiled and replied in Urdu that I was a Canadian.
“Acha ji,” he said, although I doubt if he knew anything about Canada. He pointed to himself. “Mah, Raju.”
When he leaned over I noticed a heavy silver medallion hanging around his neck on a thick red string. It looked like it might be a Hindu god. I wondered if he was a member of one of the nomadic Hindu tribes left behind in Pakistan after the partition of India. I pointed to him. “Marwari?”
He nodded his head slightly, then looked around to see if anyone had overheard. The Marwaris I had known as a child growing up in the Nowshera area had been used as cheap labor by Muslim landlords.
Beyond smiling and gesturing we seemed to have come to a dead-end as far as communication was concerned. Who was Raju and what life or death issue had him on a flight from Karachi when Marwaris were almost invariably poor?
The overloaded plane lumbered down the runway. I could actually see the wings flexing up and down like a fat beetle trying to become airborne. A couple of the overhead bins flapped open. I turned from the window and stared at the space between my feet. That didn’t help. The whole plane seemed alive.
I took a deep breath, leaned back in my seat and tried to breathe normally. The business man across the aisle continued to read the Dawn newspaper as if he faced death every day. I was glad to see that Raju had put his feet on the floor and begun fingering his pendant.
With a bounce, the plane hobbled into the air. I took another breath and tried to forget that wags called PIA, Pakistan In’sh’allah Airlines. The moniker was taken from the phrase that concludes every statement by flight attendants about arrival times. “Allah willing we will arrive at …” My mind returned to the article I’d scanned, not that air travel really worried me. My nightmare hadn’t involved an airplane.
As the plane settled down into level flight, I continued leafing through the Herald until I came to an article on the abduction of women. The article documented the kidnapping of women and children in Baluchistan and outlying areas of the Punjab province, including Nowshera District. Case histories told of victims being sold into sexual slavery in the Middle East and Europe. Depressing.
I turned from the magazine to stare through my window at the changing landscape. Desolate patches of slate grey. A string of trucks on a black ribbon of highway. The sun glinting off the Indus River. The crumbling walls of an old fort. Clusters of palm trees marking mud-walled villages. A toy train chugging north on the Grand Trunk Railway.
Not long now. The lump in my stomach tightened. I clenched and unclenched my hands, swiveled my head from side to side, and practiced deep breathing. It wasn’t the flight but the destination that made me jittery.
Perverse, because scores of writers would stab their best friend to get the plum assignment that had dropped into my lap. Later today I’d be at the site of the archaeological scoop of the century: the excavation of one of the lost cities of Asia. Pattan Minara might become the Ankhor Wat of Pakistan.
And I’d be coming home. Then why had the very thought of returning set sirens wailing inside my head? I’d asked myself that question a thousand times. I ought to be euphoric about returning to the town where my parents served as missionaries and I’d spent my childhood. I had so many happy memories: eating pakordes, hot and spicy from a vendor in the bazaar, being wakened by the brassy tinkle as a string of camels ambling by our house…but…
Josh, you’re an idiot. This trip is a dream come true…and your financial salvation… If only your parting with Stephanie had been smoother. Were we doomed to fight . . . and then make up . . . only to plunge again into acrimony? I opened my wallet to her photo to try and connect with the woman I had loved . . . did love . . . would love forever.
“Ap ki bivi?”
Startled I turned toward Raju. “Mu’af karna—sorry?” My Urdu was coming back.
He pointed at the picture of Stephanie. “Bivi?”
I nodded yes and pointed to another picture, that of our daughter, Janice, and our son, Jonathan. “Meri beti or mera beta.”
Somewhere from the folds of his qamiz he pulled out a creased picture and offered it to me. Using signs and Urdu, he explained that the girl in the photo was his daughter and that she was to be married soon.
I learned he had been in Karachi to finalize arrangements for her wedding. He shook his head as he explained how expensive it was to arrange the wedding of a daughter. “Bahut rupeah”
I could understand now why he had taken the plane. It embellished his reputation. Even the poorest in Pakistan borrowed heavily for weddings and funerals lest they lose face in their village.
The flight attendant interrupted our attempt at conversation by announcing over the PA system our imminent arrival at Nowshera. I turned from Raju to gaze out the window. The desert began to give way to a patchwork of lush fields laced with canals.
Despite my misgivings about a rough landing, the turbo-prop touched down lightly and taxied to the small terminal building.
A swirl of dust and a blast of heat hit me as I joined others swarming down the stairs to the tarmac. My mouth fell open as I gazed at the ornate marble front of the terminal building—so out of place in this dusty provincial town. Gulf oil money at work. The Sheikh of Abu Dubai must still use the airport to ferry in his hunting parties.
Not much military presence here; just a couple of soldiers with submachine guns and two local policemen with old Enfield rifles. I looked around for the Chinese archaeologist who was to meet me.
An erect man with a military bearing waved as he came toward me. His baggy cotton shalwars billowed in the hot wind revealing black oxfords. His hand went to his sheepskin Jinnah Cap in a salute. Who could this be?