Hazaras – my neighbours in Quetta

In 1968 the most famous person who lived on Toghi road, a hundred yards from our mathematical expression, was General Mohammed Musa, Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan army from 1958 to 1969. He was a Hazara and the neighbourhood was almost entirely made up of the Hazara community. There were a few non-Hazara families living there and we were one such family.
As a six-year-old boy my first impression of my new neighbours was rather negative. Most of the children my age did not seem to go to school, they looked a bit Chinese, they spoke a language that I could not understand and cuss words flowed easily from their tongue.
They seemed free spirited, rough and tough; real street children, who I did not understand and feared. For these children and young adults any non-Hazara was deemed to be a Punjabi. Sometimes, a gang of children would follow us chanting “Punjabi, Punjabi….” in a good-natured way.
Somehow they had heard about the British phenomenon of the 1960s, the “teddy boys” and for them anyone not wearing shalwar kameez was a ‘teddy boy’ or a ‘teddy girl.’ Even my mother who wore a sari sometime heard ‘teddy girl’ shouted behind her back as she went out of the house for shopping.
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SO WAS ONCE MY BEAUTIFUL OLD QUETTA

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by  Vaqar Ahmed

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If you go down on Toghi road in Quetta, away from the town centre, past Delite Cinema, past the quilt shop (that also sells kites), past “Friends Kiryana” and finally Tataa’s and Karbalai’s shop, and turn left just before the road ends, you will find a house with the enigmatic address [6-10/12 (15)]/24] Toghi Road, Quetta. No one has been able to decipher the house number. This is our house, where we lived happily for eight years.

A Dawn file photo of Quetta.

Or at least this was the way it was when we left Quetta for good in 1968.

In 1968 the most famous person who lived on Toghi road, a hundred yards from our mathematical expression, was General Mohammed Musa, Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan army from 1958 to 1969. He was a Hazara and the neighbourhood was almost entirely made up of the Hazara community. There were a few non-Hazara families living there and we were one such family.

As a six-year-old boy my first impression of my new neighbours was rather negative. Most of the children my age did not seem to go to school, they looked a bit Chinese, they spoke a language that I could not understand and cuss words flowed easily from their tongue.

They seemed free spirited, rough and tough; real street children, who I did not understand and feared. For these children and young adults any non-Hazara was deemed to be a Punjabi. Sometimes, a gang of children would follow us chanting “Punjabi, Punjabi….” in a good-natured way.

Somehow they had heard about the British phenomenon of the 1960s, the “teddy boys” and for them anyone not wearing shalwar kameez was a ‘teddy boy’ or a ‘teddy girl.’ Even my mother who wore a sari sometime heard ‘teddy girl’ shouted behind her back as she went out of the house for shopping.

Our initial impression rapidly changed as we settled down in the new neighbourhood. Our first direct interaction with the community took place when a miss-hit cricket ball went flying into the neighbouring plot that belonged to an old man who we simply called Burhay Sahib” (old gentleman). The plot had a boundary wall with a rickety gate that was locked. I fearfully went and knocked at the old man’s door (he lived just a few houses away). When Burhay Sahib appeared I very respectfully stated the problem.

Without a word he pulled out the key from his pocket and gave it to me. I went and retrieved the ball and returned the key. This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. The cricket ball flew into his plot with annoying regularity, sometime more than once a day, but Burhay Sahib would give us the key without a murmur of complaint or a hint of frown on his old brow.

Burhay Sahib had many goats and my mother would give us the green pea peels in a bucket to give to Burhay Sahib. He always accepted these peace offerings with a gentle smile on his face.

Our neighbours were genuinely kind and caring people. Once our car broke down in the morning when we had to be transported to the school for the annual examination. Panic ensued in the house. Finally, my father walked over to Burhay Sahib’s son’s house and told him our problem. The son, Mohammad Ali, promptly went inside and fetched the key to his car. Burhay Sahib also arrived at the scene.

My father explained that the school was not too far away and he would bring the car back soon. Visibly upset, Burhay Sahib spluttered out, “tum kiyoon is ki parwah karta hey, tum issko London ley key jao!” (Why do you worry about this, you can take the car to London if you so wish!).

The author (second from left) with his siblings in Quetta, 1965.

My siblings and I had one special privilege living in close proximity of the army chief. When there was a marriage in the community, an army band would turn up and play day in and day out. The greatest show took place when the daughter of General Musa wedded the improbably named Flight Lt. Sharbat Ali Changezi (who went on to win a medal in the 1965 war). Since this was such a high-profile marriage, the celebrations continued for a week.

For the first three days the very popular Baloch regiment band entertained us, then the highlight of the spectacle happened on the fourth day. The Baloch regiment band was playing to a wide-eyed audience when a military truck drove up and out came another band who quickly assembled and started playing and marching with such alacrity that the Baloch band that was ruling the roost so far was completely over-shadowed. The Punjab regiment band was led by a tall alert bandmaster, sporting a handlebar moustache, strutting about like a prized cock. Quickly, a competition ensued with the bands trying to outshine each other entirely to the advantage of the spell bound children.

The other times when there was a special atmosphere in the neighbourhood was during Muharram. Everyday, processions, large and small marched on the streets. We know most of the participants and would worry about them hurting themselves too much. Me and my five siblings (although we are Sunnis) were so fascinated by the electrifying atmosphere created by the chanting, chest-beating processions of mourners that we formed our own little procession in the courtyard of our house and went around beating our chests and reciting the tragic story of Karbala in Darri! I don’t recall any rioting or fights during Muharram in all the years we lived in Quetta.

This wonderful chapter of my life closed when my father decided to move to Rawalpindi after 12 years in Quetta. He loaded our life belongings, his wife and five children into a Volkswagen Beetle. All the residents of the street gathered around the car. They were all sad; some were crying. 

Burhay Sahib’s back seemed even more bent than it was usually and I could see tears in his eyes. There were embraces and shouts of Khuda Hafiz. The car moved forward. I saw through the rear window that not a person moved and then I lost sight of them as it turned at the end of the street.

I never went back to the city of my childhood. To visit it now would be too painful. I read about killings of the Hazaras, some taking place on Toghi road. Some of the kids that I said goodbye to that day in 1968 may have been the victims. I would never know. I mourn them all. I hope they are in a better place than this killing field they thought was their homeland.

The author is an engineer turned part-time journalist who likes to hangout at unfashionable places like shrines, railway stations and bus stops.
Related Posts: 

1. I am Hazara 2. Haunted by the homeland 3. Born Pakistani, he died a Hazara

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  1. […] 1.Hazaras – my neighbours in Quetta 2. I am Hazara 3. Haunted by the homeland 4. Born Pakistani, he died a Hazara […]


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