KARACHI: “Big money, big tomb. Small money, small tomb. No money no tomb.”
Ali Dino Mallah, the caretaker of the Chawkandi tombs on the outskirts of Karachi, uttered these words in a thick Sindhi accent in an attempt to share the few sentences of English that he had mastered over the decades. I met him in December last year, a week before he died.
Sporting an ajrak wrapped as a turban and an oversized waistcoat worn over a sweater and shalwar kameez, Ali Dino appeared much older than what I remembered of him from our last meeting more than two years ago.
He walked around the ornately carved graves inside the Chawkandi cemetery, shooing away potential vandals with his walking stick. He would stop frequently to catch his breath and take out the tiniest possible water bottle from a gigantic but otherwise empty pocket to take measured sips, a habit he said he had learnt by observing foreigners who visited the cemetery.
“I have a pacemaker in my heart you see,” he explained. “Do you want me to request people to help with your treatment or write about it?” I had asked after he told me that his family had spent thousands on his treatment even at the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD), a government-run facility that supposedly treats the poor free of charge. “Don’t waste words writing about my illness. I don’t have much time left,” he told me, before urging me to write about what really mattered to him. “Write about these tombs. Please. Maybe someone will read it and expedite the restoration.”
Even if his faith in the restoration work was far-fetched, Ali Dino was right when he said he did not have much time left. He died on December 29 on his way to the hospital sitting behind a relative on a motorcycle. “He was the heart of Chawkandi. I have nothing left now,” wept his widow, Rehmat Bibi. The family, comprising his widow and six children, continues to live in the small quarters adjacent to the graveyard and are in need of financial help. “He was like an angel and died an easy death. Like an angel was taken away.”
The old caretaker of the tombs hailed from Khairpur district in Sindh and was a common man. This is a common man’s obituary. And the obituary of a historic, priceless heritage site of the province of Sindh that is crumbling away.
Intricately carved sandstone tombs that are masterpieces of funerary art and rich in symbolism are now mostly half broken. Blocks and bits of these tombs have been stolen by vandals over the years, and now grace the drawing rooms of affluent art collectors in Pakistan and abroad, Ali Dino had shared.
“The commissioner [Shoaib Siddiqui] had promised me that tankers would be removed from this area, security walls would be erected around the graveyard and pickets would be established,” Ali Dino recalled his conversation with the commissioner before he got distracted by the camera. “Listen, take my photo with these oil tankers in the background. And choose an angle smartly. If there is harsh sunlight in the background, the photograph will not come out well,” he said.
After more than 30 years of service as a guide and caretaker of these tombs, Ali Dino had posed with thousands of visitors to know that the play of shadow and light was key to good photography, without ever holding a decent camera in his hands. Many of these visitors were high-ranking government officials and bureaucrats who had given hope to the old man that one day, this spectacular heritage site would get the attention it deserves. Soon after we met, the commissioner of Karachi was transferred from the post. Perhaps, his replacement will be able to remove the gravel, sand, trucks and tankers, unwanted encroachments, and put a stop to illegal burial in the centuries-old graveyard.
Ali Dino, the man who spent his life trying to safeguard our heritage and tell us tales hidden in the carvings on those tombs, was buried in the same graveyard, among the very tombs he spent his life looking after. The restoration and protection of Chawkandi tombs should be considered a dying man’s last wish. If fulfilled, he will rest in peace.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2016.