I puffed my way into the compound where the clinic In-charge, Hassan and his wife, Zohra met me. Hassan whisked the menfolk off to the guest room and I joined Zohra and her three children for a welcoming breakfast in the family room. It was utter bliss to sit on a soft mattress with clean plump cushions to lean on.
Hassan popped his head in to tell me Sayed was leaving and I went outside to say goodbye, thanking him profusely for delivering me safely. He grinned amiably through his black beard, waved in farewell, and hurried down the mountainside, no doubt anxious to make up for lost time.
There was already a queue of women and children waiting to consult Zohra, and she left to attend to her patients while I took a much needed bath in the luxury of a bathroom, warmed by a wood burning stove which also heated the water. And, oh joy, the latrine outside had a proper door with a bolt! Later, relishing the luxury of lounging against soft cushions, instead of being battered and bruised in a jolting Komaz, I wondered briefly where Khudadad was. I hadn’t seen him since we got here.
From time to time Zohra would emerge from the clinic to feed the babies. We had met before, albeit briefly in Karachi, before the couple came to open the clinic in Sheikh Ali so were not entirely strangers.
As well as her own six month old plump, jolly Shaheed, there was Sadiq, a two month old emaciated bundle of skin and bones, whom she had admitted for intensive feeding. He was one of twins and his mother, herself weakened by several successive pregnancies had insufficient breast milk. The youngest of her three older children was only eighteen months, and Zohra, understanding the exhausted mother’s workload in the house, and in the fields, knew she had no chance to take the rest she so desperately needed to recover her strength. Knowing, also, how much extra time would be required to bottle feed both babies, Zohra suggested that she leave Sadiq, the smaller of the two. She would feed him until he was strong enough to be less at risk, before sending him home to take his chances with his brother. Sadiq’s grandmother agreed to stay with Zohra and help care for her grandson.
The grandmother was horrified at some of the things Zohra suggested, such as leaving the baby unswaddled, so that he could wave his arms and kick to develop his muscles – though poor little Sadiq was too weak to do much kicking. He could squirm, though thoroughly alarming grandma who was unused to a baby’s natural wriggling when not tightly swaddled. Terrified she would drop him, the poor woman, already deeply distressed about her grandchild’s condition, was struggling to cope with a seemingly unending assault on all her dearly held beliefs, handed down by generations of mothers, on child care.
She was shocked when Zohra suggested cutting the baby’s very long, dirty fingernails and even after Zohra explained that it was to prevent Sadiq scratching himself and possibly infecting the scratch she remained sceptical. Everyone knew that it was bad luck, and sure to bring down the evil eye, to cut a baby’s fingernails. Zohra wanted to bath the baby but said, ‘I think this would be too much for grandma to accept. No-one bathes babies here and I fear that if he does die, she would blame me. For now, I just wipe the important bits with cotton wool and warm water. When I make up his bottle she watches like a hawk – not to learn, as I first hoped, but to check I remember to put sugar in.’
Towards evening, Hassan returned. I had already explained I needed to move on as soon as possible, to the clinic in Lal. He told me his jeep had been sent to Pakistan for repairs and would not be available for at least another ten days. ‘Would it be possible to find a truck going that way – even if only to Bamiyan?’ I asked.
Hassan shrugged, ‘It might be difficult to find someone to take you. Better you wait for the jeep and I can take you.’ My concern must have shown as he added, ‘I will try. Don’t worry.’
I understood that Hassan’s reassurance was nothing more than “telling the guest what she wants to hear”. Bamiyan was only a few hours travel, and I didn’t think it could be so difficult to find people travelling to the capital of the region. I refrained from saying any more but I was worried – there was a lot of work to be done in Lal, and time was short.
As we ate our evening meal, I ventured to ask Hassan about Khudadad’s whereabouts. He had not appeared for dinner.
‘Oh, he is in the guest room. He cannot come into this room because of the women. Someone is looking after him. Don’t worry.’ As the only women in the room were Zohra and me, I could only assume that Hassan did not want Khudadad to see or talk to his wife. I dropped the subject, resolving to meet Khudadad next day.
A bed was prepared for me – clean blankets and soft mattress – on the floor of Zohra’s clinic. And I wouldn’t have to climb into that truck at 4 am.