Under Armed Guard in Lahore - Andrew Crofts

It was an unusual ghosting project because the main character was twelve years old and had recently been assassinated. The story could have been narrated by a second person, but he was in hiding somewhere in Europe and was not at all sure he wanted to raise his head above the parapet in this way.

The project had been sparked into life by a producer who wanted to make a film about the life of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy who had allegedly been sold by his parents to a carpet factory owner at the age of four. Six years later, the story went, he succeeded in escaping the clutches of his tyrannical master. A young boy alone in the world, surviving off foraged scraps, he stumbled across a Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) rally. The organisation took him under its wing, and he began working to spread the word to other enslaved children that they too could be free. He participated in raids on illegal factories and addressed international conventions. He was awarded the Reebok “Youth in Action” Award and a scholarship to study law in Boston. But before he could start to enjoy the results of his hard work, his life was cut short by a hail of bullets from the gun of an unknown sympathiser or employee of the carpet masters.  Ehsan Khan, who ran the BLLF, had been forced to leave the country or face a similar fate, or imprisonment, and was now hiding in Europe.

“I want to make a film of Iqbal’s life but I think there should be a book to go with it,” the producer told me over lunch at the Rib Room, a haunt of the international rich in the Jumeirah Carlton Tower Hotel in London’s Sloane Street. He was an imposing man, dressed completely in black, right down to his Gucci cowboy boots. “You need to come over to Lahore and see the village where he came from, the factory where he was enslaved and the place where they murdered him. You need to talk to his mother and to the people at BLLF. We will need to arrange for protection.”

At our next meeting in the Rib Room Ehsan Khan was also there, emerging unannounced from his hiding place for a few hours to talk about the project, preparing the way for our trip. After lunch Ehsan hurried away, vanishing into the crowds as I strolled with the producer to Harrods where he wanted to pick up some of his favourite cigars.

“I will make all the travel arrangements,” he said as we walked. “My brother-in-law is the chief of police in Lahore. He will provide us with the security we need.”

It was decided a friend and co-worker of Ehsan’s would come with us.

A week or two later we were ensconced in the Pearl-Continental Hotel in Lahore and news reached us over a sumptuous breakfast buffet, via the producer’s luxury Vertu mobile, that all the campaign staff of BLLF had been arrested and were being held somewhere where we could not get access to them.

“I have talked to my brother-in-law,” the producer said, “and he will see what he can do.”

Later that morning we were taking coffee with the brother-in-law in his office, overlooking the overgrown courtyard of the colonial style police station. The atmosphere in the office was relaxed as the two men seemed to gossip about friends and family, and perhaps talked a little about our plans for the coming week. Excluded by the language barrier, entirely reliant on them for everything, I settled down to await developments.

A shiny black Range Rover was found for us; the sheer size and splendour of it, I was assured, would be enough to intimidate anyone who might prefer not to see us in their village - and an armed guard was added to our entourage. There were reports that the imprisoned BLLF campaigners were being beaten somewhere in the bowels of the police station, which caused the producer consternation, but his brother-in-law merely shrugged to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of such inevitable injustice.

The streets of Lahore were hot and exciting, with a hint of threat in the stares that followed us wherever we went. Outside the city the Pakistani and Indian armies were lining their tanks up along either side of the border. In the villages the children and buffaloes splashed and wallowed in the red waters of the canals and rivers as the adults sat around watching the world in much the same way they must have been doing for centuries.

Everyone we came across wanted to tell us their side of the Iqbal story, playing up their own role in the drama, enjoying the break we were providing in their usual daily routines. Iqbal was both a local hero and already something of a mythical figure. It was becoming increasingly hard to tell the fantasies from the realities in everything we were being told.

The whole village seemed to be congregating in the school building where we went to meet more people who claimed they had known him. The crowd spilled out into the street, peering in through the door and windows at us. Overcome with emotion at one point, the producer made the mistake of opening his wallet to distribute largesse and the policeman had to insert himself and his rifle between us and the villagers as they pressed forward with their hands outstretched.  

In the evenings we paid visits to a number of the producer’s family members, and one of his mother’s servants joined us, falling asleep in the back of the car and snoring loudly as we continued to travel to the brick kilns and carpet factories where whole families still work in virtual slavery, and out into the desolate fields where our little hero was murdered, watched from a distance by suspicious eyes as flocks of crows circled noisily in the air above us.

Iqbal’s legend has all the elements of a classic fairy tale, a folk story that can be passed from mouth to mouth, growing and mutating as it goes. It was becoming almost impossible to see where the facts of the story might be but the fundamental truth about bonded child labour was becoming abundantly clear, just as it was in Europe and America in the days when children worked long hours in factories and mines and were sent up chimneys. The story of this one little boy who became a martyr made it more human and more understandable, just as Oliver Twist made Dickens’ message about the workhouses and orphanages of Victorian London more accessible and memorable. A drama teacher at an American school recently contacted me to ask if he could dramatise the book for a performance by his pupils, so maybe one day in the future Iqbal too will be the subject of a West End/Broadway musical.

Upon my return to England I read “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid, where the complex characters frequented the Pearl-Continental Hotel and the same caf├ęs and streets that I had been travelling through with the producer. I smelt again the dangers that mine every cross-cultural encounter in modern Pakistan, feeling grateful for whatever protection it was the producer’s brother-in-law gave us.


Susan Price said…
A saddening and frightening post, Andrew. Thank you.
Lydia Bennet said…
How utterly horrible. What a place and what a system of govt they must have. A story well worth telling. You don't mention the title of the book you wrote or how to get it though, some may want to read this for themselves.
Dennis Hamley said…
A sobering story, Andrew. I'd love to see the book.
Enid Richemont said…
What a heart-breaking and horrifying story. I'd love to see the book, too.

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