When I was asked to write about Balochistan, I agreed without thinking. What sort of Pakistani English-language writer would pass up such an opportunity for virtue signalling? Within minutes I had a plan for the 700 words requested. My piece would be about how 785 out of every 100,000 mothers die giving birth in Balochistan compared to 272 in the rest of Pakistan. I was already a couple of hundred words in it when my own baby demanded my attention.
By the time I came back to it, my original idea of mock press releases from the army’s public relations arm and the Prime Minister’s Office celebrating the dead women as martyrs fallen to Indian strains of malnutrition, haemorrhage, anaemia and high blood pressure, seemed equally lifeless. It was doing exactly the same thing I was accusing the military and the government of doing, rendering the dead women invisible by making it all about the men. Into the recycle bin went the draft, even the good lines, like the one about child bearing child and the kind of missing person a dead mother creates.
For my next approach, I tried numbers. This would be a short, staccato construction, bombast punching empiricism along the lines of … “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has a 46 billion dollar investment. The Balochistan Maternal and Child Health Policy has a 135 million dollar shortfall. Pakistan has raised special units of thousands of men for the corridor-related security.
Most of the 7,200 regularised Lady Health Visitors in Balochistan refuse to serve in remote areas. Workers will have completed the Gwadar-Khuzdar Road by December 2016. X number of pregnant women will have died on the road to Quetta. Energy projects in Balochistan will be complete in X-Y years. The average Baloch woman has 6-8 children. Correct interpretation of the Quran will be taught to all adolescents in the schools the Chinese are bringing. The average Baloch girl has her first child at 16.”
I was getting into the rhythm of it when my older two sons came home from school. By the time the day with its ahimsa settling of internecine squabbles was done, The Other Famished Road had gone the way of the first draft, decomposing under the hot sun into the meaningless wordplay from which it was constructed, like an Ahsan Iqbal briefing.
Meaninglessness was the heart of it. Was I struggling to give meaning to meaningless death? It was easier with dead men. You could pretend they died for something. Nationhood. God. Money. Dead heroes, dead spies, dead patriots, or dead anti-nationals. The dead women were just dead women. What had they died for? Nobody carried their names on placards outside Pakistani embassies in other countries, or read about them in glossy magazine print. There was a throwaway explanation in one report about the women outside a health clinic. They refused to give their names or speak of what afflicted them. Tribal custom. In another, I read about Bushra, 15, who bled to death.
The purdah of custom covered other details too. In a story by a white man for a famous foreign paper, and a brown man for another, I read about drills and bullets and electrocution and eyes in Balochistan. In smaller stories in local back pages about infant and maternal mortality, there were only statistics and acronyms. In the kingdoms of men there are not enough cents per word for the gore of lady parts. Or paisas.
I was back to where I had started from, the idea of “What if you speak of us as we speak of you?” But those eleven words contained the entire story. There was nothing I could add to it. All I could offer as prologue was simple, direct, speech.
Gala celebrations at Gwadar were televised the other night. There was a pop song about riding waves and there were men wherever you looked. Hamid Mir, who once got shot right after doing a television talk show on Balochistan, was there. Men continued to pat or stab each other on the back for business deals while women and girls continued to die giving birth.
Narendra Modi did not break Balochistan, and Xi Jinping cannot fix it.
This article was published as part of a special editorial project '2016 In Broad Strokes' for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is the author of several books including Survival Tips for Lunatics.
The artist is chairman of the department of fine arts at the University of Balochistan.