When the Programme Coordinator, arrived from a tour of the other leprosy clinics scattered around Hazara Jat he brought with him the money to buy a vehicle for Hussain – a second hand Russian jeep. Rather foolishly I’d assumed Hussain, understanding the precarious financing of the project, would accept, with disappointment perhaps, this was a reasonable way forward. Hussain however, on the subject of a vehicle for his clinic, was beyond reason.
An Afghan sulk beats a Scottish humph any day and Hussain was an expert. I couldn’t complain about lack of exercise as he, on numerous sulky occasions, asked me to accompany him on scrambles up and down the mountain – to ‘discuss things’. Incapable of participating in a conversation while puffing up a mountain, I would be forced to listen to Hussain’s latest round of complaints, mentally trying to prepare diplomatic, reasonable arguments for when we finally stopped.
An appeal to Hussain’s concern for his patients was often successful. It was encouraging that, no matter how bad his mood was, he never allowed himself to be anything other than professional in his medical work. Even on the occasions when he was not on speaking terms with me he always showed tremendous care and concern for the welfare of his patients. The day Hussain realised the cash for his vehicle would not buy a Toyota our route crossed an almost perpendicular cliff face. Creeping cautiously in his wake, I wondered, for a moment, if he was trying to terrorise me into agreeing to somehow find the money for his coveted Toyota. But he was totally oblivious to his surroundings and to any danger we might be in.
By the time we had reached the safety of a plateau I was too angry to attempt further reasoning. ‘Stop behaving like a baby. You’ve been told you can buy a Russian jeep now and we can ask for money for a new vehicle in next year’s budget. What’s the point in going on and on it?
‘You keep telling me your only concern is to do your work properly but I don’t believe that any more. You want a flashy vehicle to show off in, driving round the bazaar, visiting your family, your friends, showing what a big person you are!’
His face registered total shock and I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to throw me or himself off the mountain, or simply burst into tears. Speechlessly, avoiding the precipitous route by which we had come up, he led the way back down the mountain. Miraculously, by the time we reached the clinic he had regained his good humour and accepted that for this year at least, there would be no Toyota for his clinic.
It was astonishing how he could sulk for days, being thoroughly obnoxious then suddenly flash a big happy smile to show it was all over. He assumed everyone around him would instantly forget and forgive the horrors of his black mood and barbed tongue. This time, I was not so easily placated. It was wearying, struggling to get through every day trying to avoid being snapped at by a child monster. I demanded to know why he persisted in taking his anger out on me.
He fell silent for a few moments before replying, ‘You know my mother and father both died when I was very small. My sister-in-law looked after us but she was horrible to me and even worse with my little brother, who was only a baby. I had to protect him or she would beat him for any little thing he did wrong, even if he passed stool when he was too small to help it. I had to do all the work, fetching water, looking after the sheep and goats. I did not mind the work, everyone must work, but my sister-in-law was always angry with me and beating me for no reason. When I remembered my mother I would cry.
‘Now, after years of being alone I feel that I have a mother again and if I can’t say everything that is in my heart or show my feelings to my mother who else is there? It’s not that I am angry with you; I just get in a bad mood because I am angry with other things and I want you to understand how upset I am. Sometimes I don’t know how to explain things.’
His voice broke and I realised again how very young he was. I thought of how it must have been for that small boy growing up, never able to cry in his mother’s arms, never receiving or giving a loving kiss or hug, never given approval, having to keep his emotions buried deep inside him.
It was emotional blackmail of the first order – and I was suckered.
Fortunately life at the clinic was not all angst and emotional trauma. My birthday was a happy occasion. I was allowed to sleep late and Hussain brought me coffee in bed. The others trooped in bearing cards and gifts. The grand finale was when Hussain bore in an enormous cake with an iced birthday message piped in lurid colours across the top. The baker had never before been asked to create such a thing but the finished product was a visual masterpiece which had been hidden for the last two days in the depths of the kitchen.
It tasted absolutely vile. I noticed, as I finally swallowed the last nasty mouthful of my slice, no-one else was keen to have second helpings. I think Baqul took the remainder home for the children.