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The “Untouchables” of Pakistan

“Baji Slamalaikum!” shouted Sughrah, in a distinct rural Panjabi accent, from across the street as she hastily collected garbage from the house adjacent to ours, just like every other morning of every other day of the year.  Who was to know that this would be our last encounter?  Sughrah was an older Christian lady whose fate remained undeterred by the change of religion as her community remained socially outcast despite being in a Muslim country.  Most of the garbage collectors in our country belong to this socially shunned and outcast social stratum.  Historically, the vast majority of the Christian community in Pakistan included converts from the shudra caste (the lowest caste in the Hindu Hierarchical social class system) to Christianity. The philanthropist missionaries preached and implemented as an egalitarian form of their religion, and most of the shudra caste in India was welcomed to join the Christian community. These underprivileged and socially outcast people were more than happy to be part of such a religious community in pursuit of uplifting their status in society as equal members.  The Christian missionaries in pre-partition India played a commendable role in not only accepting these socially shunned people as equals but also in exerting much efforts to educate and uplift these people.  All this came to an abrupt standstill, as Pakistan came into being; these shudras with their new-found religion became the untouchables within a new religion in a new land with new rules to their “untouchability”.

When my family moved to Pakistan from America I was only seven years old but found the disdain and repulsion in the eyes of our neighbors towards the christian garbage collectors quite offensive and unwarranted.  Even the architecture of the houses constructed in those days ensured that each bathroom would have a back door entrance so these garbage collecting/bathroom cleaning ladies would not disgrace the purity of their homes by entering them.  Lord behold, the idea of a Muslim cleaning his own filth was not only unthought-of but was considered prohibited.  The mindset hasn’t radically changed, which is becoming more apparent as our Waste Management systems have collapsed due to lack of ownership and effort on behalf of the Municipality services owned and managed by a Muslim State.  Waste Management in Pakistan is a very important issue that needs to be addressed, but not today!

Today I write in awe of a woman whose frail body carried the burden of the world.  Sughra was a widow with only a daughter and a son and an air of hope about her that kept her going like the wheel on her wheelbarrow. Though she spent her entire day working, collecting the filth from all the bungalows in God knows how many neighborhoods, she would always manage to muster up a smile that would put the moon to shame and shout out from the bottom of her heart “Baji Slamalaikum!” in her strong Panjabi ascent.  These words would always play such havoc in my mind and in my heart; though I would always reply with the customary response to her greetings but deep inside my religiously biased, dogmatized and stigmatized brain the wheels of guilt would start their work reminding me that this specific greeting can only be bestowed upon a fellow Muslim.  Every time I saw her I couldn’t help but feel guilt at my indifference to the unrelenting social and religious injustice that has not only allowed this imported caste system to prevail but has appallingly nurtured it as well.

I have yet to meet as strong a woman as Sughrah, whose only son bowed by the social and economic stress succumbed to drug abuse as an escape to the reality of his existence.  Despite her old age, Sughrah worked day in and day out pushing her wheelbarrow in front of her and puffing on a cigarette like it was her last one; it seemed to be her only friend that kept her sanity going, probably the only warmth that she received from the chilling indifference of the world that she lived in.  I will miss her detailed accounts of family weddings, Christmas and Easter celebrations and the sparkle in her eyes as she was telling me about the dress she planned to wear to her niece’s wedding.  Her smile, her energy, her vigor, her generosity and bigheartedness to smile and greet me with such warmth despite my indifference to her state of life, has left its mark on my heart.

Today I was deeply saddened by the news of her death; she was on her way to dispose of the heaping piles of garbage in her wheelbarrow and was hit by a speeding car as she was crossing the road.  She gave her life in the line of duty; she kept our neighborhood clean for us at an insanely minimal cost and most likely she herself lived in a slum-like neighborhood with hardly any of the basic necessities of life.   I pray that she has found peace! I pray that my Lord has received her with the warmth of love that she so deserved but the world could not afford to give her.  I pray that paradise is not only inhabited by those who call themselves Muslim, but will include all those who actually have the faith to submit their wills to the creator and are content with their fate that their Lord has decreed upon them!  After all in the eyes of the creator we are all equal!

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