Farming has been a part of the life of my family in Pakistan as long as I have known them. Close to a quarter century. They were always ‘small’ farmers, parcels of land from whence the family in the wider sense sustained itself, made a small profit over and above basic needs — and gradually it has shrunk. Father-in-law parcelled out to his children, my wife getting her share which she decided to sell very quickly and turn into the house we now live in in Bahawalpur. What was left over went into buying a corner plot in our home village and building a simple place where we could stay when we visited and provide accommodation for family gatherings. Neither the missus nor I saw much of a future in small landowning.
Family members got older, less able to sustain the cripplingly hardwork on the land. They rented their plots out. And then sold them. The last hold-out was my brother-in-law, a good farmer who wrung every rupee he could from the soil — which was becoming ever more saline as the years passed and yields dropped. And last week he sold all his land and bought an almost-complete house on the south side of Bahawalpur. It will get finished off over the next year and one of my nieces, her son and husband will move in and make a new beginning.
The government vocational training college in the city offers a six-month beautician-and-hairdressing course with a certificate at the end that has real value. It enables the holder to set up a from-home business without having to go through a lengthy and costly process of registration. My canny niece has done her homework. There is no similar salon in the area the new house is located, a mixed Christian-Muslim community that is harmonious and on the up socio-economically. Word of mouth is already spreading that a new business is to open up. She will not get rich fast but she will earn a living. She will partner with a woman friend and the two will jointly share the cost of setting up. Some help will come from the family as it transitions from rural to urban.
Why bother to tell this simple tale? Because it is a story being repeated in countless households across Punjab that I know of and probably in the provinces I am less familiar with as well. Villages are depopulating and efforts to rejuvenate them have come too late and are too little. The hugely successful solar-powered potable water projects that have popped up in hundreds of villages have at a stroke reduced infant and maternal mortality — but fewer babies are being born in the village; and the proposed mother-and-child health centre is not viable or sustainable because there are not going to be enough mothers and children to make up a healthy clientele.
My home village of the last 23 years is perceptibly fading away, a little more crumbled at the edges every time I visit. The generation that was getting on in years when I first knew them is now old and infirm, twilight people and will have disappeared within a decade. The newly urbanised generation below them is going to be supported by hairdressers, manicurists, medical reps and a flock of educated and well paid professionally trained nurses that find ready jobs in an expanding local healthcare system. Their children — only one or two at most — will be going to the schools that are now thick on the ground and staffed by teachers that seem to have at least some grasp of how to impart the rudiments of wisdom.
The family is shape-shifting almost as I look at them. With very few exceptions, most of the women are in the workplace. And if they are not then they are in-training in anticipation of joining a workforce. Are they happier than when they passed their early years in a sort-of rural innocence? Perhaps. But they want more. And more costs more. Quite a lot more. And another brick silently sheds mass and cohesion in a village in south Punjab.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2017.