Saturday December 02, 2023

Rawalpindi’s really miserable underclass

August 10, 2018

After a couple of travels around Rawalpindi one becomes aware of a desperately poor underclass. There is no welfare state so beggars tap at your window at traffic lights, pleading with you to help them eat. I wanted to learn more about those who live in such abject conditions.

“As the wagon I was boarding stopped at Sawan Adda a child walked up to me, made the usual claims of being hungry for days. I offered to buy him food, and he was glad. But then looked over his shoulder, shuddered in fear, and started crying. “What’s wrong kid? Don’t want to eat?” “He’ll beat me if you don’t give me cash, said the kid” “Who?” “I can't tell you, he’ll beat me for that too”. When our wagon reached Jinnah Park traffic light signal turns red and cars come to a halt.

Soon, as the number of cars at the signal increases, it is “begging time” for seven-year-old Nazia and her twelve-year-old elder sister Farah. A street beggar, Nazia appears with biscuits spread over a broken platter scratching her tiny nose while Farah sells stalks of fragrant flowers hanging from her shoulder and beats on the car window to attract the driver’s attention. The two daily get ready for begging routine in the middle of the road, even as their uninterested audience look on. Nazia twirls the broken platter around, runs towards the halted cars while Farah displays the flowers for the people inside the cars. The action lasts until the signal turns green, and the cars start moving.

The two return to the roadside and wait for the signal to turn red again. “A few kind commuters give us some coins, others don’t give anything at all,” says Farah. The workplace, for these two girls, is every busy traffic signal from Kutcheri to Airport Link Road. Every morning, the two sisters, along with their mother and relatives, catch a wagon to this area from Sawan Adda. Once here, they spread across the signal, each choosing one side of the road. After the day is done, they return to Sawan Adda with their meagre collections.

“Every day we reach at this spot by 11 in the morning, and catch the wagon at six in the evening,” says Farah. Every coin they earn -- which comes up to about Rs70 to 80 in a day -- goes towards helping their family. Their mother, who goes by the name Baji, says, “At times, people shout at them when they ask for a rupee. Begging is our family profession. The signal has turned red again and the two girls hurriedly prepare for the next act.