A hard fact of life in Pakistan is the way some people are regarded as not having any real value as humans. Many poor people hire themselves out as labourers to very wealthy and powerful landlords. In truth it is not individuals so much as families that are hired as bonded surfs.
The labouring family can expect to be loaned a plot of land to work for the landlord. In return, the family must provide half of the seed for sowing, half of the fertilizer, all of the water, (which is expensive) and all of the labour. In return the family are entitled to as much as a quarter of the produce of the land. They are often too poor to afford the seed or the fertilizer and so must take a loan from their landlord to buy it from his store. The family must also feed and clothe themselves until the crops come in, so they take out even more loans which must be paid back at harvest time. It is not uncommon to find at harvest time that a family ends up owing the landlord more than they have earned.
This state of affairs will continue until one of two things happens. The landlord may decide to recoup his loss by transferring his workers to another landlord, or a brick kiln or a road gang owner, to work off their debt. If that happens the debt could last several generations. The alternative is when the family do what is known as a Chandi Jana, a moonlight flit, and run away. Some flee to another province, others to a city, searching for a new life. Those who end up in the towns and cities often became sweepers, the untouchables.
They sweep the streets and clean the toilets of public and private buildings. It is a thankless and dirty job. It may pay better than farming, but there is a high price to pay. It is the stigma of being an untouchable, an outcast, unclean. No longer able to mix socially with anyone who is not a sweeper, they are segragated physically as well as emotionally. They are not allowed to eat or drink at a hotel and sometimes they are not even allowed to use a simple public village pump or stand pipe unless someone condescends to turn on the tap for them provided they use their own cup or hand to drink from.
Many of the Punjabi labourers run away to the southern province of Sindh, where I worked in the parish of St. Joseph, Matli. Most of the Christians who lived in the towns of the parish were sweepers.
Part of my work was to travel around the parish searching out and visiting the Punjabi Christians whereever they could be found. This would often involve long and difficult journeys across the dusty, hot land, in an old rag-top jeep.
Once while visiting a small group of Christians who worked as sweepers in a sugar mill, I overheard something that caught my interest. They were talking about a rumour of a group of families who were supposed to have run away from the Punjab years ago and had never been heard of since. I asked Master George, who was with me, to find out more.
Over the next few days he put out a question on the so called ‘Grapevine’. He asked if there were any Christians who were living in the area that we were not aware of. Within a week, we got word that in a small town on the banks of the Indus, called Mirpur Bathoro, there were Christian families. I had never heard of the place, so I looked it up on my old map. I eventually found a dot and the name. It was some 60 or 70 klms. away. That meant we would have to spend a night or two somewhere.
After making arrangements in the parish centre to look after the many other things I was supposed to be responsible for, we set off early one morning. As the sun rose, so did the heat. The unpaved road was dusty, rough and slow going. It was nearly midday when we came in sight of Mirpur Bathoro. I was stunned. This was more than a dot on a map. It was enormous. It sprawled across the horizon, a dirty smear under a haze of grey hot smog.
I looked at Master George and shook my head. I could not imagine any way we could possibly find a few families in such a large town. Master George shrugged it off with a smile. If there are any Christians there, we will find them, he said. We drove into the town slowly. It was a busy, bustling place. There did not seem to be a paved road but the dirt track was fairly well kept and we were soon in what I took to be the central market place.
There were camels, donkeys, goats and every kind of bird. There were stalls on wheels, shops, people peddling their wares carried on their heads or strapped to their backs. I was enthralled. We seemed to be the only motorised vehicle in the place, judging by the attention we attracted.
Master George suddenly told me to stop. He climbed out of the jeep, stretched himself and dusted himself down, then strode away to the nearest shop. I got out and shook the dust out of my clothes and cleaned the windscreen as a small crowd of curious children gathered round the jeep. A few moments later George reappeared with a small boy in tow. He was beaming from ear to ear. Almost gloating he said he had found them, and the little boy would show us the way, for a fee.
The little boy squeezed himself between Master George and myself in the jeep and gave instructions of where we should go. His language was Sindhi but I could just about follow what he said by the way he pointed and waved his hands. Mind that donkey, turn here, look out — the old man! Turn there, look out, a camel! Careful, a vegetable stall is coming. A dog! get the dog! Aw, missed it! The boy was having the time of his life, commanding the jeep driven by an Engrazi Sahib an english gent!.
As we drove towards the far side of town, the sky seemed to get darker and another sound filled the air, not to mention the smell. There was a kind of a droning noise mixed with shrill screams. Then I realized what it was. The air was filled with large black birds, vultures, kites, crows, all swirling and fighting. Suddenly there were no more buildings and we came into the open, if I could really call it that. We had arrived at the town dump. A dirty, hazy, smoky pall hung over the place. It stank of only God knows what. I had to catch my breath but gagged on the stench. The boy pointed to a high mud wall over to one side. Masihi — Christians! he shouted, scrambled out of the Jeep, and was gone.
We drove up and found a gap in the wall, parked and walked closer. It is not the normal practice in Pakistan to enter any village or compound without announcing yourself and waiting for an invitation. Master George called out, and a few moments later a bent wheezing old man appeared in the gap and hobbled slowly towards us.
He looked at us with suspicion. Then in a rough growl asked ‘Who are you?’ Master George answered, saying that I was the new parish priest of Matli and he my catechist helper. ‘Never heard of you!’ he said. I spoke up and said that until a few days ago we hadn’t heard of him either. ‘Is he really a priest?’ the old man said, addressing George. ‘A Catholic priest,’ said George. The old man coughed and spat on the ground, scowled at me and mumbled ‘You had better come in then’.
We followed him into the compound, which was surprisingly tidy but shoddy and very primitive. A group of four or five mud houses stood in a semi-circle. In the centre was a stand pipe dribbling water, surrounded by a dozen or more scruffy, unkempt, grubby, children. I cought a glimpse of a couple of women as they vanished indoors.
We were shown into a small cube-like house. It was clean and furnished only with one charpoi, a string bed. The walls were decorated with pictures of a religious nature, some Hindu, some Muslim, and a few Christian. A bright red cross was painted over the lintel of the door. There were streamers of coloured paper hanging from the rafters. Evidently this was a special place.
When I had sat myself at the head of the bed in the customary way, I asked the old man if they were really Catholic Christians here. He grunted something I missed, and turned to Master George. ‘Is he really a Catholic Priest?’ he asked again. ‘Ask him yourself,’ George merely said. ‘I don’t speak English!’ the old man said. He was deliberately insulting me. Even though he was a Punjabi, and had only used his own language, I knew that I spoke Urdu well enough for him to understand. I forced a smile and said that I could understand enough of his Punjabi, if he would try to understand my Urdu.
I spoke slowly and carefully, explaining where I came from and why I was there. I said that we had heard that there were Catholics in the town and so we had come to visit.
The old man hunkered down in a corner, though for a while, and then turned to me. ‘Do you know the meaning of the fifteen stations?’ he asked. I was a little taken back by his question. I answered that there are fourteen stations of the cross. They relate to the last journey of Our Lord Jesus as he went to be crucified, and then I named them. As I finished I realized that we do use a fifteenth. ‘The Fifteenth,’ I said, ‘is the altar of the Mass, where we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.’
‘Hmm.’ Scratching his stubbly chin, he fixed his eye on me and asked, ‘What are the Fifteen Tens?’ This was a phrase I had not heard before. Sensing victory, he added, ‘If you are a Catholic you should know.’ I thought for a moment, then understood. ‘Yes. They are the fifteen decades of the Rosary.’ ‘Good’, he said. ‘Tell me, who is Our Lady?’ ‘Mary,’ I answered, ‘the Mother Of Jesus.’ ‘Who else is she mother of?’ ‘She is the Mother of God and our Mother.’ ‘Who is the Head of the Church?’ ‘The pope, John Paul II.’ There were a few more questions of that kind, then finally he stood up slowly. He took my hand and said ‘Perhaps you really are a priest.’ That was the most difficult and intense examination I had ever undergone. Even in the seminary, nothing was quite so hard, or as I was to realize quite so important.
He called for someone to bring tea. Then he introduced himself to me as Emmanuel Bhatti. He and his family had run away from the Punjab more that ten years earlier. He had been in terrible debt and was in danger of being sold with his family to pay it off. They had eventually arrived at Mirpur Bathoro, thinking it was just about as far away as they could get from their old landlord. They lost contact with their relations at home, and they were afraid of letting anyone know where they were.
The tea came, and I was introduced to some of the other men and women who processed in and out of the tiny room. The men shook my hand, while the women bowed their heads for a blessing. Then the children filed in for a similar blessing.
Emmanuel took up his story again. ‘We are always afraid of being found and taken back to the north. That is why I was not very polite with you. I wanted to know for sure you were genuine and that we could trust you.’ He explained that they had not seen a priest or been to Mass for more than ten years. ‘Several people have been to see us, claiming to be pastors of various religions, but they were imposters, they could not, or would not answer my questions. So we threw them out. You are the first real priest we have ever seen here, and now we welcome you.’
We talked together for a while about how we would like them to be part of the parish. explaining that there were many others in the parish who shared their situation, and we would do everything we could to help them. At one stage I invited Emmanuel and the other families there to come to Matli for the Easter celebrations which were coming up shortly. ‘Easter?’ he said. ‘We have just celebrated it here a few days ago.’ He showed me an old calendar, years out of date. They had kept it for the picture of Christ on it.
The sound of a commotion outside stopped all conversation. Two large armed men suddenly appeared in the doorway. They came in and stood with their weapons at the ready and said something in Sindhi. A third man appeared. He was dressed all in white, and was obviously an aristocrat, or thought he was, by the way he projected authority.
The stranger looked around the room for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust to the light. He saw me, smiled, and asked very politely in English, ‘Are you the Catholic Father?’ For a second I was stunned, then got to my feet and said that I was. ‘Who are you?’ I asked. ‘Forgive me, Father,’ he said. ‘My name is Quaresh, and I am the City Manager. These people,’ he indicated the Christians, ‘are employed by me. When I heard that the Catholic Father had come to visit them, I thought that I too must pay my respects to you.’
I asked him to sit. As he did so he waved to his guards to go outside. They moved silently and swiftly. More tea was ordered, but Mr. Quaresh declined. I started to ask him how he knew we had come to Mirpur Bathoro. He waved a hand and said ‘I know everything in the city, and besides your man had asked questions at the main store which is owned by my relation. First we must discuss something important. Did you bring any other men with you today, other Engrazi?’ ‘No, Master George and I came alone from Matli,’ I replied. ‘Ah. So you know nothing of two young men who also came today?’ he said. ‘No,’ I repeated. Mr. Quaresh explained that a couple of youths had just been arrested, in order to save their lives. They were preaching in the market and handing out leaflets. No one could really understand what they were saying, but people believed that they were condemning Islam and the Qurran. Some of the Molvis had found leaflets with Qurranic verses lying in the dust. They became very angry and started a riot.
‘The police have taken the two young men into safekeeping,’ Mr. Quaresh continued. ‘Father, if you have any influence with those men, please explain to them how dangerous it is for them to try and evangelise here.’ I said that I would go and try. Mr. Quaresh would not come with me but said he would stay in the compound with his guards in case the riot came to attack the Christians.
It was with a heavily thumping heart that I arrived at the police station accompanied by Master George and one of the Christian sweepers. A police major greeted me rather coldly. He explained that the riot was over and that the people understood that the two puggle, two idiots, had nothing to do with the local Christians. ‘The two nadaan, stupid young men, have been sent back to Karachi, with an armed escort, where they will be immediately deported back to America,’ he said. I sympathised with him for the trouble and thanked the Major for his understanding and help.
On returning to the compound by the rubbish tip, I found the City Manager still sitting in the little room. He was genuinely pleased that everything had been resolved and had turned out peacefully.
Mr. Quaresh had ordered bottles of soft drinks to be bought, while he and I talked a little while longer. He went to great lengths to assure me that ‘Our Christians’ were well looked after and given respect. More than sweepers of other towns, these people were recognized as being believers. He then told me that his interest in them was personal, since he had been educated by missionaries in Rawalpindi. And he always had a hope of helping the church in some way in return for the kindness he had been given as a boy.
Before he left us, he promised to look into allocating the Christians better land on which to build their homes. He then said to me with a kind of a wry smile, ‘It would be wonderful if you could build a school and a Church here. It would be of benefit to the city.’
The next day on my way home, I reflected on the whole adventure: how it had all started with a rumour on the grapevine, how five families had been reunited with their Church, how a dozen children had been baptised the previous evening among wonderful celebrations.
How wonderful and exciting is this God of ours who said I am the Vine!