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IT IS ME, KHAMAVERAY, the Coal Miner

(Ayub Baloch)

People of my village were scared to go to Quetta, after the fatal accident that killed six mines workers, all from this village. When the dead bodies arrived, it haunted the village that echoed with ambulance sirens making every soul a picture of grief . I felt as if my dreams of being a coal miner also died away. My parents started opposing the idea of going with the Joriser, the headman who works like the middleman in recruiting Swati workers for the coal mines of Balochistan. It was quite disappointing for me as I had promised the Joriser my availability and accepted the initial amount, called Peshagi. Along with a friends I went to an elder who was our only hope requesting him to convince my parents. We needed money very badly as we were in the grip of extreme poverty. Despite howling Ambulances the fear of hunger persisted and frankly it pushed me to opt for coal mines, even against the wishes of my parents.

Leaving for Balochistan to work in coal mines was not new to us. A good number of villagers use to go for it. Those who return after working seem better off. Their families experience a slight lift in their standards. Initially my father himself floated the idea of my going which I learnt from the Imam of our village mosque. I thought it would be a good idea to approach the Imam for help. It worked. He convinced my father with religious argument that to go in search of Rizk-hilal is a commendable act. Beside that he quoted the parents of my colleagues who did not raise any objection. Over the evening meal, I smelt the change in attitudes and next day I was packing for the departure. The Joriser’s brother came to me with remaining sixty five thousand loan making my advance money seventy thousand. I gave the entire amount to my father and left the village with three thousand in my pocket to meet basic expenses.

I am totally illiterate but could read the tears in the eyes of my family. The gloomiest face was that of my wife who was holding my baby and could not say anything as traditions don’t recommend it. Gradually a detachment began. My seat in the wagon facilitated me to keep seeing my family even from across the river. I did not count but I had been saying goodbye to them a number of times, but in my heart. Then the eyes shifted from family to trees, mountains and the river. I am off my village for a long journey for the first time. I knew I would miss many things, even the birds of my village. But I was certain that I will make it. I am going out to be somebody and what I hate is to be a dead-body. I am confident that Allah will help me. Maybe, I cough a bit on my return as most mines workers often do when they retire. Frankly, I don’t mind it. Uncle Gul Badshah is coughing since many years. He gave me a tip that I will strictly follow, ‘ Drink Kahwa with Gud, it cleans the chest’. Certainly, I will do it, rather I will overdose myself with Kahwa, I like it. Homesickness, no problem, I have a remedy, the flute. I am a good at it. What I need is

a mountain top with some trees and a thick shade to return to, whenever I have free time.

It is almost a week now, we are still on way to Quetta. All the twenty seven co-travellers seem tired. There are two more buses following us with similar workers. All the twenty seven of us in this bus have now given up. There is hardly any laughter and instead of hurling jokes as the case initially was they whisper now in meek voices. Khanzada, the Jorisar, suddenly wake up from a bumpy sleep and started looking out in the dark to ascertain the place. And then shouted look there, those lights there, that is Quetta. With that every one cheered up . The driver turn on the music aloud and blew the horn just for fun. We whistled and clapped in return. But we did not enter the main city, when we approached it. The bus took a left turn and through a deserted exterior road bypassed Quetta. Gradually we were on a dark road heading to destination. The only lights were that of passing trucks probably carrying coal. Anyway that indicated that we had reached the mining area.

Parked near a water reservoir called Spin Karez we washed and got refreshed. The darkness started disappearing as the moon was coming up from beyond the mountains. The scene was superb. Getting started and landing in a large empty compound was what you may call the ” destination “. We will be briefed here about work and then would be split up in groups called ‘Jori’. That is the reason our headman is called Joriser. The next day we were assembled for a briefing chaired by the representative of the mine owner and then assigned us work in three of his mines. We were told the owner wish us well. It was the beginning of my employment and an end to Baba’s worries.

I am standing out of the compound with colleagues where the old cook of the camp is introducing us to the area from the hill top. There were roaring trucks, machinery and generators all around. I remember him telling us jokingly ” first let us talk of life ” and then said “there up on the top is a spring, we get water from there. That white building is Dispensary, you will be lucky if you find a medical helper there. That is a primary school and beside that is a small shopping place for daily needs such as sugar, tea, oil, vegetables etc”. Now a bit of caution, he added, “beware of snakes and reptiles, those are very venomous”. The location was like my village but without trees and of course, without a river, yet manageable.

Next day only ten of us were in the Mining Rescue Station for a basic course full of dos and donts. In fact for me any risk was worth trying, I had burnt my boats. I met a gentleman there who had lost a leg in one of the coal carriage overturns. He also was giving very useful tips to the new comers. It was he who disclosed to us privately that we were heading towards death-traps. He also shared a number of incidents where workers lost their life just because of inspection failures. Another gentleman from Bunair told us that laws were there but who have the courage to go against influential owners. ” you come from so far because locals don’t want to work under such conditions. They will unionise and creat a hell for the employers forcing them to follow laws. Therefore, they prefer migrant workers, you and me, who have no strong say. The worst control agent is Joriser who twists your arm if you talk of rights.”

The first day, better I say, the first night of my career as a coal miner was full of curiosity. We walked through a tunnel that gradually lost its width and started narrowing with a ceiling supported with iron arches and wooden Plats. In the middle of the pathway there was a trolly-track like a narrow railway line. we curved and bent ourselves to avoid a head crash with the low ceiling. The path was slippery due to water seepage and humid too. My head was a bit uncomfortable with helmet that needed adjustment after each crash with the low roof. It had a lamp leading me. Then came a place where my heart really trembled, it was the mouth of the dark pit where the senior coal miner shouted “caution, caution “. Then he explained how to hold ourselves against the wet crude stairs to get underground. The hanging side-rope was the real life line. It was very dark but then the lamps far down there indicated that life was possible in there, even against all odds. Visibility was marred by the dust caused by digging workers. The atmosphere was suffocating and very terrifying. Flameproof Lamps were the only piece of hope that would lead you to safety in the presence of dangerous gas. The rescue people also told us that. We were allocated a place on the right of the deep pit to go ahead with excavating. The rest was a life, if you call it a life at all, of dangerous repetition and endurance.

As the reality unfolded, my dreams got shattered. Be it the life on the ground, I mean in the camp, or the working underground, it was always nerve cracking. I can’t portray it better than but through an example. It was something like, as if someone stepped over my flute and crushed all its melodies. No, no, but it was me, the then youthful Khamaveray who chose it. Yes. It was me who burnt his boats. On each tough turn, I used to recall the sirens of Ambulances rolling on my village tracks but then I swiftly shrugged it off saying ” that is not me “.

Yes, it is me, Khamaveray, but now old. Years have passed. I cough, nothing works, Gud-Kahva was nothing but a myth. The dispensary is helpless.

Doctor tells me that coal dust has housed in my lungs. I have to share with you a lot. But no, I would be unjust to keep you further. Nor I have the stamina for it. Well, I may say, I am still in debt. It has shackled me up to soul. I remember once I worked out the repayment and when convinced that I had paid the debt loaned by the Joriser, i thought I should be free now. I managed to escape without informing anyone, even the closest of my friends. When I got down the bus in Swat, the Joriser was already waiting for me on the bus stop. Say it was an attempt to breath free, in vain.

A group of young men has come from our neighbouring village recently to do coal. What I can do for them except wishing them better conditions of work, more humane and fair, compared to my times. The worst of regret, may I share it with you? I don’t have anymore the healthy supportive lungs to play soothing flute tunes for them to help decrease their home-sickness. What a pity, I am sick. I can only cough for them, just to make them realise to keep the “exit” in mind, work hard but be bold to demand what is your due.

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