In the beginning, there was water. Hot water. It sprang from the earth and flowed into two streams. Then came the lepers, thinking the streams had curative powers; bathing in their sulphur-rich water could rid them of their affliction. By 1896, some philanthropists had built a yellow sandstone building with Gothic arches, naming it after a Hindu sadhu: Hiranand. Next to the streams thus rose a leprosarium — a dormitory offering free food and residence to anyone who came seeking treatment.
As the facility expanded in the next decades, its Hindu, Muslim and Parsi donors knew that misery is a great equaliser; it does not spare or attack people on the basis of their colour, caste or creed. They, therefore, built a church and a mosque within the compound of the leprosarium right next to each other. There was already a Hindu temple just outside the building. The existence of these places of worship in close proximity to each other could also have been an acknowledgement of the mixed populations living in nearby localities since the 13th century when the area’s patron saint Haji Sakhi Sultan – better known as Haji Mangha or Mangho Pir – had first landed here.
Until the middle of the last century, lepers would come to Hiranand leprosarium for good. Nobody left the place alive, mostly due to the social stigmas attached to the disease. Their families, too, shifted to the place with them; some relatives of the patients built themselves temporary shelters on a hilltop overlooking the facility.
By the time a German volunteer, Dr Ruth Pfau, came to Karachi in 1960, bringing the treatment of leprosy with her, a few hundred people were already living in those shelters. Soon after her arrival, the leprosarium was converted into a hospital.
“At the time it was the only hospital in the whole region which today comprises Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says Abdul Salam, a local resident. The first inhabitants of the settlement on the hill were a diverse group of people: Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs from the western parts of British India, Pakhtuns from the northwest and Hazaras from Afghanistan. Salam’s father, Gul Akbar, was one of the first to arrive here after Pakistan had come into being. In 1956, he left his home in what is now Upper Dir district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to find a treatment for his leprosy. “When my father arrived, some 30 families were living on the hill. These included Urdu-speaking migrants, Baloch, Kashmiris, Pakhtuns, Afghans (mostly Shia Hazara), Hindus and Christians,” says Salam.
Among the people who came from Afghanistan was an Uzbek patient, Yaqoob Shah. He never built a house for himself and spent all his life in the hospital but somehow the entire makeshift settlement got named after him — Basti Yaqoob Shah. Nobody really knows why. This could be because Shah was a spiritual man respected by the adherents of all religions living in the vicinity; or perhaps because he was much loved for having taught people how to read the Quran and praying for them to be cured of small ailments.
Some worldly developments too helped the neighbourhood expand and turn into a proper residential area, complete with street names and house addresses. These were the construction of a couple of big industrial units just next to Basti Yaqoob Shah, offering much-needed job opportunities to the families of the lepers, as well as former patients living on the hill. “At the time Javidan Cement and Dadex were building two factories in Manghopir, providing residents jobs as construction workers,” says Salam. His father, too, worked as a labourer there.
The main reason why people kept coming to the basti, however, remained their search for treatment of leprosy — that is, until a few years ago when the disease’s spread was finally thwarted. Kabir, a resident of the neighbourhood, came here as a patient around 1975. His entire family, except his mother, was massacred in Dinajpur in what is now Bangladesh during the 1971 war. He spent the next two years in a prisoner of war camp in India, before coming to Pakistan and settling down in Sialkot. It was here that Kabir was diagnosed with leprosy. “I’ll never forget that moment,” he says as he recalls his arrival in Basti Yaqoob Shah. “I was 13 years old. My mother woke me up and we disembarked the tonga in front of [the hospital’s] towering archway.”
Babu Lal and his Sikh family, too, have been living in Basti Yaqoob Shah for generations. He works as in-charge of cleaning duties at the hospital. At his modest home, Guru Nanak’s image graces the wall. There are about 20 other Sikh families living in the area, he says.
Then there is romance that bloomed here. Ashraf Hasan, a Hazara from Balochistan, found the love of his life in the hospital and the two now have a home in the basti where they live with their five children.
Hasan arrived here as a patient in 1977. After receiving treatment for a few months, he was declared free of the disease but was given a job in the hospital’s records department. Hard at work one day, he came into contact with a surprise visitor. “I looked up and saw this beautiful girl from my community. I wondered why she was here. She seemed fine and had a glowing face,” he reminisces about his first encounter with his future wife. “Later, I discovered that leprosy had attacked her toes and finger tips.” The two became close to each other over the course of a few interactions. “It was just one of those moments when we were talking that I asked her to marry me,” says Hasan smiling and looking away.
When asked why he and his wife decided to stay in Basti Yaqoob Shah after their treatment had been over, he bangs his walking stick on the floor as if in protest. As a former leprosy patient, he is conscious of the social stigma that the disease still attracts. Only a neighbourhood where people don’t see him as different will he find it easy to live, he seems to suggest. People from Hasan’s ethnic group now comprise the majority of approximately 15,000 inhabitants of Basti Yaqoob Shah. Their predominance, indeed, has led to the renaming of the neighbourhood as Hazara Town.
Yet, some still seek safety in its diversity or whatever is left of it. Among them is Shehzad Masih, one of the newest residents of Basti Yaqoob Shah. A shy teenager with a handsome face, he was living with his family in Lahore’s Youhanabad area until a terrorist attack on a church and subsequent rioting there led to many deaths a couple of months ago. “I was in the church when the blasts happened. It was not safe in Lahore anymore,” he says. His aunt, a middle-aged woman named Margret, explains: “We do not entangle ourselves in religious conflict, so we decided to shift to Basti Yaqoob Shah.”
They are praying in a church which shares a wall with a mosque — this has been so since the late 19th century. And it doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, even though the neighbourhood is encircled by areas of Karachi which are infested by religious and sectarian militants. Until recently, many localities on and around Manghopir hills were under control of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Even now, armed and deadly encounters between militants and law enforcement agencies are quite frequent in these parts.
While elsewhere in Pakistan, it is impossible to imagine a Shia Hazara boy frolicking on the hills right next to where Taliban activities are rampant, Basti Yaqoob Shah is still seen as an island of harmony by its dwellers. Mohsin Ali, a teenager who has played in Brazil as a member of Pakistan’s street children football team in 2014, says his prominent Hazara features and affiliation to Shia Islam never make him feel discriminated against or scared in his own basti. “When I returned home after the World Cup, people from all the communities were proud of me,” he says.
Of late, there have been a few complaints among the smaller communities living here, though the source of these complaints is the government, not fellow residents. The small Sikh and Hindu communities which share a place of worship are unhappy that they cannot regularly pray because of the lack of maintenance at their Mahgeshwar Mahdev Mandir.
Their temple is a small building with fading beauty. By some accounts, it was originally built before the construction of the leprosarium. The paint is peeling off the walls and parts of the building are falling apart. Lal explains the reason: there is no one to take care of the temple after its last official caretaker, Shankar, was killed elsewhere in the city (the police say his death had to do with his black magic practice having gone wrong). Since then, the municipal authorities have been refusing to appoint a new caretaker. They instead ask the local Sikhs and Hindus to appoint a caretaker on their own, paying his salary from their own pockets. “We are poor people; we cannot afford this,” says a Hindu resident of the area.
As far as the inhabitants are concerned, they have never allowed such grievances to spoil their inter-communal harmony. “No religious, sectarian or communal clash has ever taken place here,” says Salam. Others readily agree. “This place has been a symbol of religious and sectarian harmony for more than a century now,” says Noor Islam, also a resident. Hindus stop their plays and religious music as soon as the call for prayers is made from the mosque and the Muslims never object to singing in the church during Sunday mass, he adds.
The local explanation for such extraordinary bonhomie is simple. “Basti Yaqub Shah is a saint’s town,” says Laal, with a paan-stained smile. “This is not an ordinary place.”
The writers are staffers at the Herald. Zehra Nawab tweets at @zehra_nawab