Neelam Under the Bridge

By Sonya Rehman

Sitting beneath one of the pillars of the Cavalry Bridge in Lahore, Neelam is wrapped in a thick blanket too warm for April.

A few flies hover about her head. Towards her left, there’s a plastic sheet wrapped over her belongings: clothes, pots and pans, among other things.

There’s a rush of traffic, a stench of poverty, and a hubbub of activity under the bridge. So much activity that it’s easy to overlook Neelam, her kajol-ed feral eyes peering out of the blanket, looking listlessly at the day roll out before her.

Neelam (Photo: Sonya Rehman)

She’s from Faisalabad, she tells me. She moved to Lahore five years ago and lived hand to mouth; surviving on close to nothing. Her husband abandoned her, married another woman, and threw her out of the house. Her two daughters, both married, live in Faisalabad.

Neelam waves her hand and looks away angrily when I ask her why she didn’t ask her children for help. She didn’t want to be a burden, Neelam says. She has too much pride.

During my 40-minute interview with her: Neelam consistently breaks out into tears. You’ll help me won’t you, she says looking at me desperately. You’ll write about me and get the government to buy me a one marla plot, won’t you?

Her tears aren’t dramatic. She isn’t acting. Her expression is deadpan as tears slide down her tanned cheeks. It’s a look of resignation, one that every impoverished Pakistani wears.

She eats scraps, she tells me. Every now and then a passerby may buy her food on good days.

(Photo: Sonya Rehman)

Many years ago, outside a khokha in Gulberg, I vividly recall two little Pathan children – barely three years old – eating and sucking on chicken bones fished out of the garbage bin close by.

What future do the impoverished have in this country? Oftentimes at central locations in the city, you will notice make-shift tents housing a gypsy family living on the curb of a road. It’s pitiable. And what does every good-intentioned Pakistani do? Whiz by, roll down his/her car window and drop a few notes into ravenous hands. And that’s it. Our good deed for the day is done. We drive off.

There are conscientious Pakistanis out there doing their bit, but is it enough? The greatest flaw in charity work is that a majority of the times it’s one-off and not far-reaching. The lack of consistency brings one right back to square one.

The trouble in Pakistan is this: might is right. If you want it, you take it. If you like it, you rape it. Case in point: Mukhtaran Mai whose rapists now walk away from their crime, years later scot-free.

Pakistan today, is a country with immense potential – the greatest asset being its people. And perhaps the acknowledgement of that fact breaks my heart the most.

You must help me, Neelam says again. She’d trailed off mid-sentence earlier, and her wistfulness has been replaced with a hardened desperation again. I tell her I will. I give her some money. Not enough. She tells me she’ll pray for me. I leave feeling unfulfilled.



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