Friday September 29, 2023

Things of their own

September 19, 2022

The Memory Police, a novel by Yoko Ogawa, has an intriguing plot and narrative: it is set in a nameless island where things disappear, and people forget about them. A few people are, however, capable of recalling the lost items, but the state police is tasked to ensure that people completely forget about the disappeared objects.

It seems that the Sindh government has taken inspiration from the novel’s storyline. In August, its mismanagement caused the destruction of millions of homes and other assets. And now party leaders and government officials seem to be discouraging affectees from talking about their losses.

The literature on disaster reveals that women, children, the elderly, minorities and the inhabitants of disadvantaged pockets are more vulnerable, and it is understood that each stratum recalls disasters in different ways. Women always remember disasters through the things lost or destroyed.

I recently met women displaced by the recent floods and learnt that saving their belongings was not anyone’s top priority – the same thing happened during the previous disasters in the country. At the time of eviction, women’s things were either left behind or carelessly dumped or, in some cases, cheaply sold.

The short eviction notice given by Sindh government officials also increased the suffering of women; these warnings created panic, fear and urgency. Consequently, the residents of Warah (Qambar-Shahdadkot), Khairpur Nathan Shah and Faridabad (Dadu), Bhan Syedabad (Jamshoro), Jhuddo (Mirpurkhas) and other towns hastily packed and moved to safe places.

According to the Sindh Disaster Management Authority, the total number of affected people is 10,574,488. Presently, close to half a million people are living in refugee camps or other temporary places.

Displaced people can be divided into two groups: the first group comprises women who left their villages/towns when the Sindh government issued the warning, and the second group includes those who deserted their homes when flood water entered their villages. Women from both groups have stories of suffering, distress and agony to narrate – stories that mostly talk about destroyed houses and lost items.

I met a woman who was from a medium-sized town which is located at the shoulder of the Indus Highway. One day, officials announced an emergency and ordered eviction. Then questions about what should be taken and what should be left arose. She shared that her husband didn’t pack the things she had selected. She protested but her husband called her chosen things useless, and her stuff was left in the house. Her selection contained: sewing machine, dinner set and pillow covers with traditional needlework. She pleaded that at least the sewing machine should be taken. But it was declared a burden.

In the refugee camp she is currently living in, she longs for a sewing machine. It is so because she has memories associated with the machine – she stitched the first dress of her elder son and also sewed her daughters’ wedding dresses with it. Recalling those stories, she seemed broken and betrayed.

Another woman shared that before the eviction, she had made two sets of bundles. The first one contained things of daily use, and the other bag was filled with costly items and stored in the house. This was done on the assurance of government officials who had said that rainwater would not drown their town. Her family left the town and went to their ancestral village. But the flood followed them there as well. She packed her things again, but nearly half of it was lost during travelling on a small vehicle she boarded to travel towards the uncertain camp life.

Last week, she got the bad news that her town was under water. She now blames government officials for her loss because they had assured her that her city wouldn’t be drowned in water. At this time, her only possessions are some steel plates and a few clothes. She fondly recalls the ‘pengho/jhola’ (a traditional wooden swing) of her house. She has too many stories to tell about it – how she reared a buffalo calf, sold it and paid to the carpenter to make the swing. It was the only place where she used to console herself during the extremely difficult days of northern Sindh’s summer.

There were many women in the camp who were deeply grieved because they saw their houses getting collapsed, their belongings getting damaged, their animals dying and even their family members drowning in front of them.

I met a woman who came to the camp three weeks ago, and has been longing for her village since then. She mentioned a neem tree which was planted by her father. She left the village when flood water entered her home. The tree got uprooted and flood water carried away its trunk. She recalled with sadness in her eyes that her father used to joke that after his death his soul would come to see her and sit on the tree’s branch. Now, she has neither her father nor the neem tree.

Another woman in the camp lost her newly constructed one-room house with a verandah in the floods. Earlier this year, she mortgaged her gold – her rings, her daughter-in-law’s bangles, and her daughter’s necklace and earnings – at the National Bank of Pakistan to obtain a loan for house construction. She was worried that for a couple of years, they wouldn’t be in a position to repay loans and get back their gold. She was afraid that their gold would be sold off.

Almost every woman had a story to share. But because of time constraints, we shifted our conversation towards the next step: what should be done to cover their losses? They strongly suggested that no one should expect them to forget their ‘houses’ or ‘things’. They also wanted their loans to be written-off and the mortgaged gold returned. They further added that well-known construction companies should be engaged to construct their houses, and these women should have ownership of those houses. They also said that the government should provide houses to all married couples and their villages should be reconstructed and linked to services. Their last demand was that settlements in the katcha and other areas should be regularized.

I believe that our development experts will come up with lots of theoretical solutions, and most of them would seem excellent on paper, but would be ineffective on the ground. I think that for a woman, a house is neither a geometrical structure nor a market commodity. A woman thinks of a house as the safest place where life is nurtured and human relations are matured. Gradually, she turns that house into a home, and it becomes part of her personality.

The writer has a PhD in history from the University of Malaya. He is associated with Sohail University and the Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi.