“No one will lend you money”
They would have to make a run for it, that was the only way. Just stop thinking, jump out of the vehicle and run, he told his brother. Otherwise, they were going back to the hell that had taken forever to escape.
And run for it they did, but they were chased and caught up with. At a busy road in Lahore, such a chase looked like a spectacle from a movie. A crowd gathered and it would not disperse without hearing the whole story.
He snatched money from my pocket and ran, one of the chasers pointed at Shareef Masih. A tall, lean man, Shareef stood looking at the crowd nervously through his dark eyes. His pale skin etched tightly across his cheekbones and his thin moustache emphasizing his sheepish expression.
Someone from the crowd refuted the attacker’s version. He had been seen trying to force Shareef and his brother into a vehicle and the brothers had managed to get away. No money had been snatched, the eye witness said clearly. As the chorus of their innocence spread through the crowd, the attackers had no option but to back off. Shareef Masih would live another day as a free man.
44 years old, Shareef had been running for a few months now. He had lived through a nightmare of hopelessness for 27 years. A nightmare that he had entered as a young newly-wed man and left as tanned, middle-aged father of six.
It all started with the wedding. After using all his means to settle every last account, 17 year old Shareef was 1400 rupees short of what he had borrowed for the wedding. A paltry sum for most people, but not for a Christian in Punjab, to whom no one was willing to lend money. When someone suggested that the local brick kiln owner handed out loans easily, Shareef all but ran to him. The money he had borrowed to buy a happy married life would enslave him for 27 years.
So it began, five members of a family would have to bake 2500 bricks a day. In a year Shareef, his parents, brother and wife would break even and go back home. Except they didn’t.
As they molded, baked and stacked bricks for as long as 18 hours a day, Shareef’s family would reach the end of the year only to learn that they now owed more money than before. The story would continue year upon year. Accommodating and feeding slaves requires spending money, the owner and Jamaadar (middleman) would tell him each time.
Over the next 27 years Shareef’s family would expand. Six children would open their eyes at the kiln. More molding, more baking and more stacking. Shareef’s frame would ge leaner and his skin would turn a dark, reddish brown, homage to color of the bricks he was trying to build his freedom with.
But everyday seemed to cement the slaves more firmly. Almost three decades gone, the 1400 rupees had ballooned to 300,000. Like a mountain that seems to get bigger and bigger as you try to draw closer. And Shareef understood that he was only a brick in the wall, there were 24 other families bonded to the same kiln.
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One day his patience snapped, as anyone’s would. He told the kiln owner that Rs. 800 for a thousand bricks was so low that his generations would toil away like he had and still be enslaved. Raise it to the minimum wage promised fixed by the government, he pleaded. Shareef had finally figured out that his continued enslavement wasn’t his fault, but it wasn’t going to end anytime soon either.
But if he had been hoping to broker a deal, it was as mistaken as his initial prospect of leaving the kiln within a year. The owner told him that he could leave anytime he wanted, as soon as he paid up the 3 lac rupees of course. But no one will lend you money, the owner told him. The owner’s response left him dumbfounded for a few moments. It had taken a long time for Shareef to convince himself that he was being exploited but he still considered himself indispensable. Being blatantly told that hiring Shareef was a favor to him knocked the wind out of him for a second.
Shareef decided that he would seek out another lender to purchase his freedom. He shrugged away the thoughts that he was willingly walking into the same trap a second time. The future will take care of itself, he thought, all that mattered was getting away from the kiln.
But Shareef seemed to have forgotten why he had come to the kiln in the first place, and the problem greeted him like an old friend. This time he had to fight against an influential kiln owner in addition to his religious and economic status. Anywhere he went, whatever guarantees he gave, there wasn’t a single rupee to be obtained as a loan. Shareef would learn later that the kiln owner had been warning people not to lend him money through the phone. Shareef stumbled back to the kiln, now worse off than before.
And this time, back to the kiln did not mean back to work. The owner insisted that Shareef’s services were not needed, he must return the 3 lacs and leave. If he chose to stay, he would not be given paid work.
For the next eight days, Shareef lived at one end of the brick kiln. No work, no 800 rupees for every 1000 bricks. A stalemate that emphasized to Shareef that he could not win this fight. In Shareef’s world you do not call the kiln a monster. If you do, the monster will show you how ruthless it can really be. Able bodied laborers are only given food if they work. Shareef spent the next eight days off green chilies that he salvaged from a nearby mosque.
It was during these days of starvation that Shareef thought about running for the first time. Life could not get worse, he thought. He quietly slipped away to BLLF in Lahore, who filed a petition for his freedom.
Shareef had barely digested the idea that he might be free and his body was slowly getting used to regular meals again. Then one day the small the phone that he kept with him rang with an unknown number. The panic stricken voice of his 16 year old son spoke from the other end. Shareef almost screamed out when another voice on the phone told him that his abducted son would be killed unless he returned with 3 lacs to the kiln.
The hope of freedom vanished faster than it had arrived. Court orders could not produce the child, Police insisted that the kiln owner had not abducted his son. It seemed to Shareef that the money lending days had come back. Wherever, he went to find help, he found the owner’s clout blocking his way.
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The court sessions were going nowhere. A lengthy legal discussion meant that Shareef could not be freed right away. Meanwhile, the owner and his cronies loomed like vultures at every hearing. With a son already abducted, anyday he would be shipped back to baking bricks or to starvation. Sahreef constantly felt drained of energy, he could not sustain the fight for long. Perhaps, he though, 27 years of enslavement really do make a slave out of you.
After another tedious court hearing Shareef and his brother started to make their way back to BLLF headquarters which housed them in temporary freedom. A little distance off a vehicle stopped and the men inside tried to force the brothers in. Shareef’s fears had materialized, they were being sent back.
But Shareef found that hope had not left him as he had expected it to. The decision that he took in the next split second would confirm he was a free man. He told his brother that they would have to run for it, that was the only way.