I Should Have Honor
Light of the World
Long before I was born, my mother lived in a small village in the heart of the vast rugged mountains of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province. Everywhere you looked, there were dry, tall mountains, dotted with wild shrubs and pink flowers. Many tribes call this land home, including mine, the Brahui, who have been part of it for nearly five thousand years. Balochistan, though mostly dry and barren, is a vast, colorful, and largely unpopulated land with a beautiful coast that boasts one of the greatest natural ports in the world, one coveted by many governments through history. Vast blue sky envelops valleys, villages, and towns. The people are shepherds, farmers, homesteaders, and local entrepreneurs. They cling to their traditions with their hearts and to their honor with pride.
Noor Jehan means “light of the world.” True to her name, my mother grew to be an indigenous girl with a big heart and a spirit full of wonder, faith, and immense love for her tribe. She was the third of nine children, and like many children in her village, she became an adult at a very young age. Most children are given only the first two years for infancy, then three years to learn to be responsible. Around the age of seven or eight, children get busy helping their parents with daily chores, taking care of other, younger siblings, and, in the case of boys, sometimes even earning income for the family. Taking on adult responsibilities makes the majority of children look like adults. Oftentimes they are betrothed to be married at the first trace of puberty.
For my mother, that transition from childhood to adulthood was not easy. As a free spirit, she found it hard not to run around with the wind. But responsibilities soon started to tie her down. By the age of three, she was helping her mother in the house. By the time she was eight, she was practically managing the home on her own. Every morning when my bhalla ama (literally “big mother,” grandmother) crossed the small stream that flowed near their mud haveli (the traditional family compound) to the vegetable fields to help my grandfather plant new seeds or harvest, it was my mother who swept the kitchen and washed the dishes while squatting on the dirt floor. She dunked a rag into the ashes from the previous night’s wood and scrubbed every pot and steel plate until her little arms ached. She rinsed the dishes in a clean bowl of water, then placed them in a metal basket to dry, eventually lining up the clean pots and pans neatly on the wooden shelf that my bhalla aba (grandfather) had built from a tree he once chopped. Then she swept the dirt floor with a hand broom made of dried date leaves, crouching to brush the compacted earth as if shooing away a mouse, until the dirt floor lay perfectly smooth and flawless. Finally, after she completed all these chores, she picked up her younger sister Lal Bibi (Diamond), just a toddler at the time, and walked to the fields to meet her mother so she could nurse the baby.
Although Noor Jehan was an obedient child, she was also adventurous and sometimes impatient. Unhappy with her endless chores, she tried to finish them as quickly as possible so she could run off to the trees and find her friends. Sometimes she had to bathe the baby before taking her to nurse with her mother, and if the baby cried too hard, she would secretly pinch her on the arm to make her stop. Life was hard for everyone, and it was never too early to learn that.
Despite the hardships, Noor Jehan had an infectious humor, boundless positivity, and a sense of possibility. She wanted to run. She wanted to do things that made her feel free. While other girls in the village played with dolls and performed weddings with them, my mother climbed up the old pomegranate tree in the yard of the mud haveli. When the wind blew dirt and the soft scent of the fresh spring water, she would climb higher and pretend to be on top of the world, the fragrant breeze licking her little face.
She played fitu (hopscotch) with her friends, making marks on the ground and jumping in them without touching the lines. As the sun set every night, she sat with her siblings and parents listening to the stories of wild animals that her father or uncle had encountered, wonder filling every part of her, and stars filling the sky over her head.
Then one summer day when my mother was nine years old, everything changed forever.
It was an early morning like all the others. The sun peeked slowly over the tip of the mountains, and the sky was its brightest blue with feathery clouds sleepily drifting through. A donkey cart stopped near the haveli. Like most donkey carts in Pakistan, this one was a simple platform over two wheels with a harness for one donkey. The driver sat crossed-legged at the reins holding a switch. The cart was old and worn, with the odd wobble, yet was versatile enough to carry any load. It worked hard like everything else. The donkey was in about the same condition. The cart came to an unceremonious stop at the gate, and Mohim Khan, my maternal grandfather, climbed down, beaming with joy.
Bhalla Aba was—and still is—a tall, thin man with a shorn head and a large toothless smile. Lore has it that he used to be very handsome, with great powers of influence and persuasion. Even in poverty he wore pure cotton dresses that were soaked in rice starch to make them stiff, adding to his distinguished, sharp look. “Sharam Naz,” he called out to his wife, a hint of decision in his voice. Then he called out to my mother who paused while scooping some water from the bucket where she was washing her siblings before breakfast. “Come now! We’re all going to Sindh.”
“Sindh! Really?” my mother exclaimed in happy surprise. She and her siblings had heard about Sindh in stories told over chai or at bedtime on the charpoys, the woven wooden cots that they dragged from a corner every night to sleep under the naked sky, sandwiched warmly between rilis (traditional quilts). Never had they dreamed of going there. She saw the uncles and aunts who lived there only when they came to visit in Balochistan. So going all the way down to that foreign land was the biggest mistai (good news) she had ever heard!
My mother excitedly washed the faces of her brothers and sisters, full of joy. She collected the bedrolls that they would spread each night on the charpoys (a task her mother usually did), and she collected cow dung and wood to make fire for the breakfast chai. Bhalla Ama and Bhalla Aba spoke in hushed tones in a dark room in a corner of the haveli.
My grandfather had paid a visit to his four brothers in the village of Gandakho, in the district of Larkana, Sindh, which borders Balochistan. The same district of the great family of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto, who would both lead the country as popular prime ministers. Bhalla Aba’s brothers lived there with their families working as day laborers in the fields of landlords. My grandfather once lived among his brothers, but after the great floods that hit Sindh in 1973, he fled to Balochistan and bought the land where their mud haveli stands today. It was a wise decision, because more floods plagued the province after he moved. Many families lost everything, but his brothers refused to give up the lives they had created, believing their chances of earning more income were greater in Sindh than in Balochistan, where the land is more rocky and dry. People in Balochistan live mainly on wage labor, shopkeeping, or herding sheep rather than agriculture.
My grandfather would occasionally get on the bus and make the eleven-hour journey through the mountains on Wangu Road to visit his brothers. This time he had just returned from a trip there, during which he discovered that his youngest brother had fallen in love with a girl he had seen at a wedding. She was also Brahui but a member of the Jattak clan. He and his brothers were members of the Mengal clan. Marriages between different clans were not common, but they were also not impossible. It was, and still is, common for clans that don’t mix often to swap girls for marriage. To make up for the lack of trust, a daughter from the groom’s clan will be married to a son in the bride’s clan. If one clan harmed the bride, the exchange bride would have to face the consequences. About 30 percent of all marriages in Pakistan are these exchange marriages, commonly known as wata sata.
My grandfather had accompanied his brothers to go ask for the hand of the girl his youngest brother had seen at the wedding. When they did, her father had demanded a badli—an exchange. This was hard as all the brothers were young, with no children or no daughters. Then my grandfather thought of his four daughters, who were still very young. He loved them dearly, but for a brother one must give his life! He put forward the offer of my mother, the eldest of his girls, as the badli. My uncle’s bride and my mother acted as a kind of collateral for each other. It was a moment of great pride and honor for all the men. The sacrifice that Bhalla Aba was offering was like giving one of his limbs. It made his brothers proud. None of them considered the consequences to the lives that they were trading like livestock, because these lives were their only sources of wealth, their only valuable possessions. To trade them showed not only their power but also their generosity.
So while Bhalla Aba’s brother was going to be happily marrying a woman of his choosing, my nine-year-old mother was to be offered to three different men in the Jattak family, starting with the eldest, Liaqat, who was about thirty at that time. Liaqat refused immediately, having heard of my mother’s frail thin body, saying she was too ugly. The second son to whom she was offered (age twenty-eight) already had several children who were the same age as my mother. He refused her as well with the same words, adding that he could find a second wife anytime he wanted. And so the decision was made for Noor Jehan to be given to the second-to-last son in the family, Sikander, who at the time was only thirteen and the only one among them striving for an education.