Hot August afternoon in Sukkur. We’re flat on the sand on the left bank of the Sindhu, shifting our position every quarter hour to keep well within the shade of the new bridge (not the “classic” one you see in the photo).
The glowering sun hangs low in the sky, moving behind the arches of the bridge, perfectly set up by the massive expanse of the great Sindhu. It should have been one of those mystical, life-changing moments. But it was too hot, too humid, and we’d hardly slept in the last 24 hours, having visited Sehwan during the night/morning and then taken a series of local buses to get here. The next bus for Lahore would leave in 3 or 4 hours and we had taken shelter here, unwilling to go wandering round Sukkur’s town centre looking for shelter from the dangerous sun.
A few boat-people notice us, don’t seem to be very happy about our presence – funny-looking city boy, white girl in shalwar kameez, icebox and rucksacks. I seem to remember that I didn’t exactly smile back, that I tried hard to hide my apprehension. Maybe it’s simply the fact that we’re clearly too fatigued to pose any immediate danger to them that reassures them enough not to start harassing us.
Savage-looking dogs gallop down the embankment, two, three. Hunting dogs, I think. Long muzzles, long, curling canines, tongues lolling. I half raise myself up on to my elbows, fighting down the bile. It would hardly do to show my mate how the dogs scared me! One of them comes sniffing up to us, but not too close, the others continue on down to the water, but maintain an unsettling proximity. I sense one of them somewhere behind us. My friend is blissfully unaware of any danger, reaches out to the dog that approaches us. I wonder if there is any connection between their appearance and the boat-people’s uneasiness.
A shout and there’s a man striding down the embankment, calling out to the dogs, shooing them away, establishing his authority, taking centre-stage. Comes up to us after a while, annoyed and menacing. He doesn’t like trespassers, that’s for sure. There’s nowhere to run, I know no martial arts, carry no weapon, wouldn’t know what to do with one even if I had it, don’t speak Sindhi or Balochi, don’t know anyone in Sukkur. I don’t remember if I thought about phones in that moment, but I do remember now that they were almost out of battery power. I’m with a white girl, we’re lying on our backs on open ground, as if we were enacting some strange sun-bathing ritual with our clothes on, vulnerable as it gets. The MAN is definitely here because the boat-people must have signalled to him somehow.
The only thing to do is to spring to my feet, suppress the apprehensive smile of appeasement, suppress the urge to turn on my heels and run like mad, or alternatively, to move in front of my friend and protect her with my body, and instead, to take a half-step forward and offer him my hand, say assalaam-o-alaikum and do my best impression of a “man of the world”. Whatever he expected, I guess it wasn’t this. The whole situation was probably unique in his experience anyway, so his natural caution was on high alert. Luckily for us. He was forced to say wa-alaikum-us-salaam, and that brought down the temperature immediately. Contact, recognition, despite a ton of questions on both sides. And fear.
We got to talking: who? where from? what were we doing here? He speaks Urdu fluently. But my friend is unable to participate due to the language barrier and leaves me to it. I try to remain as open as possible with the guy. He seems to accept my answers – he’s probably got an extremely effective BS detector. He starts talking about himself, tells me that he’s done all kinds of work in his life, that, at the moment, he breeds dogs for fights. He has many clients, rich folk from Karachi, even from the UAE. I don’t need to feign interest: as long as he’s there, it’s best to keep him talking and I know this is a unique encounter, a window into a life light years away from my cocooned existence.
He boasts, talks about dogs, about his influence in the area, his contacts. At some point, he refers to the boat-people as matchsticks. I pretend to be confused, somehow needing him to be more explicit. He gesticulates towards them, says they’re light as matchsticks, they have nothing to hold on to. He flicks his fingers as an expert carom player would – like matchsticks, gone. He tells me he’s done all kinds of work in his life, that he’s not a nice man. I play along, so as not to appear afraid. He tells me he’s killed and kidnapped people, that being partly Baloch, he has contacts on the other side of the river and knows how to fight. I struggle to keep the mask in place, nodding along, taking advantage of the sun being in my eyes to screw them up, to shade my face, to casually look away if the mask threatened to slip. Neutral, taking in the information as if it were the most natural thing to learn there in that moment, far from home, on the banks of the Sindhu. Eventually he can’t help asking where my friend comes from, whether her family is rich. I explain that she’s from a working-class background, that that might actually be considered rich if one converted directly into rupees, but over there, given their prices, they have a simple lifestyle. He nods slowly, absorbing the information, while I desperately hope that “honesty is the best policy” wasn’t going to get us killed or worse, that he recognises that kidnapping her/us would not be the jackpot he may have initially thought he’d hit. I gather from things he says and leaves unsaid that his current situation is some sort of arrangement with the local authorities and the boat-people: he protects the matchsticks from the corrupt local officials and they must be paying him some kind of tribute.
And yet he’s got his code. One day, one of his Sindhi clients from Karachi came to him with a job. Killing, not kidnapping. Our friend said, sure, who, where, when. He’s told to come down to Karachi for more details. Once there, he’s taken for a walk in the streets with people from his client’s group. They point out a man, he kills him. Then another, gone, shot. And another. But eventually it’s too much for the MAN: he’s a hired killer, sure, but this is not honourable, he doesn’t kill at random. He realises that all the people he was being asked to kill looked like Muhajirs . Genocide was just not on. Instinctively, he rebels, pulls back, tells them that that was enough and heads back up-country. Apparently, there are no reprisals – or maybe just nothing he considers worth mentioning.
He notices that I keep looking at the boats with yearning and asks us if we’d like to go for a ride in one. I can’t resist, but I check with my friend. She’s as eager as me, bored as she is, half-listening to our unintelligible chatter. He orders an ancient boat-woman to pull up to the shore and helps us aboard. The boat-woman avoids eye-contact, seems to want to keep her distance as if we were bad news. The MAN orders her to take us out on the water. And this old woman digs the oars into the sand and pushes off. She keeps us going with regular, rhythmic rowing, actually making progress against the current, while I pretend that this is somehow not an atrocity. The way of the world. The MAN tells us about corruption at the local market, about how prices are fixed, about his fights with the mafia that controls the market. After a round that’s much longer than it should be, we head back to the shore, again helped back on to solid ground by the MAN. He encourages us to climb back up the embankment and be on our way to the bus station – the riverbank was not the safest place to hang out. I’m only too happy to oblige and my friend, sensing some of my anxiety, agrees that it’s best to get out of there. The sun is much lower in the sky, the temperature just a little less punishing.
As we struggle up the steep slope to the road, awkwardly carrying the heavy icebox between us, I tell my mate that our recent guide was a hardened criminal. She can’t believe that I actually took her on a boat ride with such a character, but recognises quickly enough that to refuse would have been to show fear, which might have had terrible consequences.
 the name for the community descended from migrants from India after Partition, generally Urdu-speaking