Work and humanity

This picture  of a labourer in Rawalpindi (1990) has always reminded me of the Kashmir labourer in one of the stories of Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s searing collection of Partition tales, Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders).


Looting was going on a fever pitch. The activity became more heated when fires broke out in every direction.

 One fellow picked up a harmonium and was going about singing:


            Oh my love, when you went away

            Such pain, such strife;

            Who is mine in this life?


A young boy ran off stashing a pile of papads in the apron of his shirt.  He stumbled and a bundle of papads fell out.

 When he bent down to pick them up a man carrying a sewing machine on his head said to the boy, “Let them be son, let them be.  They’ll roast by themselves.”

 Somewhere in the bazar a full sack fell over with a thud.  A man ran up and slit open the belly of the sack with his knife.  Instead of guts, pure white sugar spilled out.  People gathered around and began filling their shirt aprons.  One  man was without a shirt.  He quickly opened his dhoti and began to fill it with fistfuls of sugar.

 “Out of the way! Move it!”  A tonga loaded with freshly painted cabinets passed through.

A bolt of muslin fluttered out of a window of a tall building and a tongue of flame gently licked at it… By the time it reached the street it was a heap of ashes.

“Honk! Honk!…Honk! Honk!” A car’s horn sounded and over it were heard the screams of two women.

A dozen or so men dragged an iron safe outside and began to pry it open with their lathis.

Picking up several tins of ‘Cow and Gate’ milk in both hands, and supporting them with his chin, a man emerged from a shop and slowly headed out into the bazar.

Someone shouted, “Come on! Come on! Get your bottle of lemonade—the hot weather’s here.” A man with a car tire around his neck took two bottles and went on without even thanking him.

Someone else shouted, “Call the Fire Department! Otherwise all this stuff will be burned.”  No one paid any attention to this sound advice.

In this way, the bazar remained active. The fires breaking out continued to add to the frenzy. Much later, shots rang out and bullets began to fly.

The police found the market empty. From around a corner, enveloped in smoke, the shadowy figure of a man appeared.  The police sepoys dashed after him blowing their whistles.  The shadowy figure quickly slipped into the smoky haze. The police sepoys chased after him.

When they emerged from the smoke, the police sepoys saw a Kashmiri laborer fleeing with a heavy sack on his back.  The blew their whistles until they were hoarse but the Kashmiri laborer didn’t stop.  The load he carried was no ordinary burden—the sack was enormous. But he ran as if there was nothing on his back at all.

The sepoys became winded.  One of them, his patience exhausted, drew his pistol and took aim. The bullet hit the Kashmiri laborer in the leg.  The sack fell from his back. Panicking, he looked back and saw the sepoys slowly gaining on him. He examined the blood flowing from his calf; but with a jerk, he picked up the sack and, throwing it on his back, began to run again.

The sepoys muttered, “Let ‘im go. To hell with him.”

Suddenly, the limping Kashmiri stumbled and fell. The sack came down on top of him.

The sepoys grabbed him and took him away along with the sack.

On the way, the Kashmiri laborer said repeatedly, “Your Honor, why you arrest me?…I am poor man… I taking only one bag of rice…for eating at home…You no right to shoot me.”

But no one listened to a word he said.

At the police station too, the Kashmiri laborer tried hard to clear himself.  ‘Your Honor, other people they take big, fancy things…I only take one sack of rice…Your Honor, I very poor man…Every day I eat only boiled rice.”

Tired and defeated, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his dirty cap and gazed wistfully at the sack of rice.  With outstretched hands, he pleaded with the police sergeant, “OK, your Honor, you keep the sack…just pay me my wages…four annas.

(Sa’adat Hasan Manto)

I could go on an on about Manto, one of the Urdu language’s great writers, but will leave that for another time.  Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders) is a cracking and innovative piece of literature that deals with the chaos, madness and cruel depravity that marked the Partition of India and creation of Pakistan. But always, no matter how dark the situation, a celebration of humanity and of the ordinary man was one of Manto’s eternal themes.

Like most photographers, I’m in awe of the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, who has devoted a significant part of his career to documenting ‘work’ and working people. 

One of my recurring subjects especially when I’m in India and Pakistan is working people and I attach a few images I think have come off ok.

Butcher (qasai), Aabpaara Market, Islambad. 1988

Wheelwright, Rawalpindi. 1988

Snuff seller. Aabpaara Market, Islamabad. 1988


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