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The Trouble with House Arrest

One problem with house arrest is that you never quite know who’s in-charge. Or what you’ve been charged with. Or how the situation will be resolved. Between prisoner and jailor, who has the greater power? Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Zhao Zhiyang in China, Habib  Bourgouiba in Tunisia, Sukarno in Indonesia, Mossadeq and Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montezeri in Iran, or the uniformed officials who handcuff them and watch their movements – in court, in the police van, in the house of detention? Habib Jalib, the great people’s poet from Pakistan, put it well, referring to the experience of being taken to court to face political trial and seeing the judge in his powdered wig, and stiff high-collared shirt, and uncomfortably hot black coat, “Tell me this: do they look like prisoners, or do we?” 

Two features of house arrest – the euphemisms that are employed and the uncertainty about the power equation – make the condition fairly untypical. Or typical: a metaphor for all of life?

Two features of writing about an autobiographical moment make it, in a similar way, unusual. Or, again, usual: common, everyday practice? First, the question of memory and the tricks the mind plays: was it thus then, or is this how I have come to see and remember it subsequently (Latin: re – ‘again’; memorari – ‘to be mindful of’, bring to mind)? Secondly, the question of how best to present oneself: or better, to construct oneself? For is it not in the telling that the self comes into view – for others and for ourselves?

What follows is my recollection of an experience of house arrest, when four close friends on a visit to Pakistan (two men and two women, two couples, a writer and three historians from India) became ‘state guests’ for a period of three days. Given what I have said about the process of memory, and all that is at stake in self-presentation, I make no pretense of recounting the story in full, but present it instead in a series of snapshots – which could easily be substituted by others.


Since ‘beginnings’ are always uncertain, let me start in the middle, at a point – or several points – picked almost at random.

There is irony in the story of the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42, from which a single British doctor is said to have returned as the sole surviving evacuee from Kabul, recalled as we sat sipping tea and eating locally baked wheat flour biscuits at the sprawling fortress-like mountain home of a prominent Khan’s extended family, just off the main road high up in the Khyber Pass. Our host told the story with practiced sophistication and a twinkle in his eye: the large contingent of British troops were cock-a-hoop about how they had got through to Kabul via the Bolan Pass and other dangerous terrain, a feat few adventurers had managed before, until they heard their ally, the newly installed Afghan ruler’s doubtful response: “You’ve reached here alright. What I’m concerned about is how you will get back.” We’d stopped for tea on our way back from the Afghan border, at the invitation of the Khan who knew our Pakistani hosts. Who would have thought that, forty minutes later, we would be stopped and held by local security forces for having entered the Khyber Pass without permission?

And incongruity in the pleasure we took in having ourselves photographed with a Kalashnikov in our hands when we stopped briefly at the highest point of the road through the Pass. The semi-automatic rifle belonged to our Afridi student guide, who like many other inhabitants of the region often carried arms on journeys to and fro. We took turns in slinging the weapon over our shoulders (not easy for two of us) and posing for a tourist memento, before we noticed an armed sentry looking down on us from a point 500 meters higher up on the mountain side – no doubt thinking that these must be ‘big’, well-connected folk to have themselves photographed here, in this manner, so openly.

Earlier, our local contacts in Peshawar had applied for, but been denied, permission for us to visit the Khyber Pass while we were in the city. One of them, a university professor, had fretted over the question of how he could deprive his honored guests the satisfaction of visiting an area they so wanted to see, and encouraged by our naïve enthusiasm and his past experience of having taken Indian visitors into the Pass, decided we should give it a try. We would go as far as the authorities permitted us to go. We looked as local as middle-class Pakistani visitors from Lahore or Karachi; there was little reason for anyone to think we were from anywhere else.

So, a little after noon that day, we made our way out of Peshawar into the Khyber district, heading west toward the Afghan border. Our Afridi companion, a student of the professor’s, jumped out of the car at one checkpoint after another, to have us waved through after a whispered exchange with the armed guards. “I am from —- [such-and-such, well-known Khan] family, and these are my honored guests”: or words to that effect, we guessed. And after each check post we crossed, our host the professor, his tension visibly easing, became emboldened to take us farther up the Pass, to the very border of Pakistan and Afghanistan if possible – why not?

In the end we had gone all that way, loving every moment, delighting like schoolchildren at our little misdemeanor and our success in seeing places and mountains we had only read of in books. We stopped for late-evening tea at the Khan’s fortress home, on our way back.The men among us sat with the men. The two women were closeted in the women’s quarters, or zanana, where they were asked much about women’s lives in India and the United States, the opportunities that had now opened up for women in many parts of the world, and whether they could not perhaps take the young daughter of the house to the US and find an American husband for her! (She was studying for a BA at the university in Peshawar; she spoke of how stifled she felt at her confined circumstances and how she was shepherded to her classes in the university and back again but allowed to go anywhere else; “How lucky you are!” both she and her mother said to their unexpected women visitors.)

The sun was going down over the rough imposing mountains above the Khyber, when we began taking our leave from the Khan and his family. We stood for several minutes looking at the breathtaking landscape. I believe we took some photographs again. And one of us said, “Let me savor this moment. Who knows when we will get to see such natural beauty again?” Who would have guessed that we would spend the next three days and nights looking out at that rugged scenery, not very far from this spot, from another compound surrounded by mysterious hills, bathed in haunting sunsets? Who would have thought that, less than forty minutes later, as we climbed gently back through the valley on our return journey, long before we reached the highest point of the Pass again and began the descent into Peshawar, an unmarked military or police van would cut into our path to stop the car, and we’d find a score of armed security men surrounding us instantly? That was the end of our childish delight and light-headedness. In an instant, it became clear that all was not well, and that we needed to be completely honest about our visa status and our movements with those who would now question us, even if we did so with euphemisms and an undeclared but evident jockeying for advantage.

Then the interrogations began. There were perhaps ten of them. How many different state agencies did they represent, we asked ourselves later? Or non-state ones for that matter? (And which was worse?) The soft-spoken, courteous, somewhat discomfited gentleman, who took the chair at that first session? They called him ‘Tahsildar saheb’, the title of a revenue officer and local magistrate: he was apparently the head of the civil administration in the locality, with headquarters in the town in which they found us a ‘guest house’, and kept reassuring us all through that first evening that all they needed was to ask some questions, check on some details, get clearance from their superiors in Peshawar – and we’d be on our way. Unfortunately, others said over the next couple of days, it was a weekend (it was) and the higher officers were not accessible, so we’d have to wait: just a little longer, until they could check, and send us back to Peshawar to continue our travels.

The man in the uniform of the local police – or border security, or some other paramilitary force – who was quiet through most of the proceedings, joining in the expressions of consolation and the appreciative laughter once or twice, staring intently at us or into the middle distance the rest of the time? The tall, genial, elder, ‘Bade Mian’ (meaning just that, ‘elder’), who seemed most concerned that we should not be distressed – “Aap hamare mehman hain” (“You are our guests”), almost whispering, “please don’t worry” – and who flowered later in the evening over dinner, sharing light-hearted tales, asking if we had all we wanted, fussing over us, suggesting the visiting women were much too thin, they didn’t eat enough, we should all eat well and sleep well, for tomorrow we should be off?

The thin, bearded, sharp-eyed man (“yon Cassius hath a lean and hungry look”) – from some intelligence agency? the ISI? (was he the one in shackles or were we?) – who would come to be fixed in our minds in the image of a Bombay film villain, who asked most of the questions that evening and on the mornings and evenings to follow, and who seemed to take special delight in asking the same questions again and again: “You are our guests (Aap hamare mehman hain). Surely you are quite comfortable. We just have to check some things;” and on our saying, yes, but you’ve asked us about that so many times already, “That’s just the procedure. It is our routine. No problem. We will get clearance from Peshawar very soon, and you’ll be on your way, God willing”?

Or the several people standing around behind them: junior officials, assistants, lackeys, bringing in tea for us (“You are honored guests”), ready to call in others who were required, or fetch any files the officials wanted (they didn’t call for any), or run out for anything else….

They questioned the four of us for five hours that first evening, calling us in one by one. The others sat in the car outside, in the gathering gloom, then spreading darkness, and the increasing, biting cold of the Frontier evening. But they allowed the men to be with their partners as each of the two women was ‘interviewed’ (sending one of the men out only for a minute at one point, to ask the woman, “Is he really your husband?” as if to say, “How come?!!”)

When did you arrive in Pakistan? By what route? Where did you stay? Where did you go from there? When? What time? Where are you staying in Peshawar? Why that hotel? Who did you meet? How do you know them? What did you do? What time? Where were you this morning? How far up the Pass did you go? How did you come? Where did you stop? What time did you leave there? And – when my wife responded in amazingly accurate detail to all these questions, which had left me floundering, ‘uh-uh-ing’, guessing and saying “I think”, “I would say, about…”, “I’m not sure” – they turn to me to say, “How is it that your wife knows everything, and you remember nothing!” To which I say, “Because she’s an Assistant Professor; I’m a full Professor: she needs to know!”

Jockeying for position. Showing our power – and ‘unconcern’. Since we’re innocent and well-connected. We simply made a mistake, we shouldn’t have driven into the Khyber Pass without the necessary permission, but we so wanted to see it. We’ll know never to do something so obviously stupid ever again. (“And dangerous.” “Yes, and dangerous.” “For who knows what political and criminal forces lurk in these difficult border regions, and you know you are our responsibility: you are our guests.”)

At the end of that interminable session, as it seemed to us, the thin, bearded man (Cassius) asked my partner whether everything had been alright so far, had we been properly treated, were we comfortable? And at her response that everything was alright, insofar as it could be: “Well, you’ll be our guests tonight!” Someone else said, “It’s too late now to drive over the mountains. We’ll send you back to Peshawar tomorrow.” But it was Cassius’s words that stuck: you’ll be our guests tonight. The panic was understandable. Back in the car, she broke down and wept uncontrollably, we clasped each other’s hands, tightly, as she whispered, “Promise! Whatever happens, you won’t leave me alone with them.”

Later, much later, after we’d related the story of the eight armed guards – armed with Kalashnikovs! – who kept watch on us night and day, in three shifts of eight hours each, told it in our individual (and collective) versions many a time, to one another and to many other friends, one of us said that he’d decided in his mind that if the guards ever tried to do anything to any one of us, he’d grab one of their semi-automatic weapons and use it to kill all of us and then himself. The effect of watching too many Bollywood films. (I forget now what happened to the guards in this dream sequence, but I do remember one of us asking, when the script was recited aloud, why the self-appointed hero should kill the others first before killing himself!)

Apart from the bearded interrogator, and people who now seemed like his underlings, and an incredibly beautiful cook, who appeared periodically with tea and rice and naan and vegetables, and anything else we asked for (toothbrushes and paste; a sheet to cover up the window of the room where we slept, since we were the first occupants of the house, and the four beds and one table, and the wooden chauki and the couple of chairs in the little verandah outside the room, was the only furniture, and there was no hope of curtains), and – let us not forget, the young sweeper lad (about whom more in a minute), the guards were our only other human contact.

After a leisurely and, to be quite honest, tasty dinner (was it the relief after hours of interrogation, or the fact that we hadn’t eaten for hours and it was past 10 p.m.?), enlivened by Bade Mian’s continuous chatter and his urging us to “have at least another helping”, we were put into this newly painted and very dusty (just swept for the first time) little room, perhaps 8 foot by 10, with four narrow single beds, a desk and chair, and an attached bathroom. A mattress, a sheet and a quilt on each bed. They brought us hot water in buckets, and we washed and lay down. Two couples, holding each other tight, lying quietly, very quietly, on two of the beds – as we heard the guards (how many? we didn’t know then) pacing up and down outside. The light streamed in through the window (we had no sheet that first night) to wake us early that morning: or to get those of us who had managed to doze a little to jump up, in hope of some news from Peshawar. Before we’d washed and brushed our teeth, the bed tea had arrived, then the hot water for baths, then breakfast – bananas, eggs, toast, more tea (jugs of tea – as at a teetotallers’ banquet!) “Can I get you anything else? No? More tea? Bread? Another banana?” We were honored guests.

Confined to a tiny room, and a small 10 foot by 4 foot verandah outside. There was a small courtyard, perhaps 15 yards by 2, beyond the verandah, open to the sky, with a door leading out of the house at the other end of the yard, through which the cook and the guards and the interrogators came and went. The guards stood around, or sat where they could find a place for their few steel chairs, in the courtyard and the verandah. How much of this space was theirs, how much ours? We sat out in the verandah as soon as breakfast was done. Sat and waited. We began to walk up and down in the open yard, two at a time: there wasn’t room for more. A man and a woman; another man and woman; the two women; the men. It felt good to stretch one’s legs, up and down, up and down again, even if the length of the walk was shorter than what one might manage on a large aircraft. And we could see the sky, a deserted hill climbing high over the courtyard wall, and hear occasional sounds from a bazaar not far away, and the sound of the azaan, calling the faithful to prayer.

Our right to walk freely, at least within these walls. The guards were a little ill at ease, at the constant movement, our getting up and sitting down, the ladies with the men, the combinations changing, the whispered conversations, even shared jokes and laughter. (What was the relationship among these four anyway? they may have wondered. They seemed so familiar with one another, so self-assured and caring, so equal.) But they kept their peace. They were young peasant lads, easily discomfited by the challenges posed by the unusual presence and behavior of these sahibs – albeit sahibs under house arrest – people who clearly had privilege, and money, and power. Even more by the memsahibs, who refused to cover their heads even for a police photo, and who spoke to the guards just as openly, and firmly, as the two older, grey-haired sahibs.

The guards had orders to watch us all the time when we were not inside our room. When we came out onto the verandah, one of them drew up a steel chair to park himself, and his beret and rifle, two yards from us, the better to scrutinize what we were doing. We took that for a minute, then told him quietly to move away. There was no need for him to sit right in our faces, and the disrespect to the women was especially uncalled for. They kept their distance after that, sitting or walking around as far from us as possible, mainly in the shadow of the courtyard wall.   

Young, under-employed farmers with little formal schooling, taking whatever jobs they could find. As they got to know us a little over the next few days, sometimes shaking their heads in sympathy at the plight of such well-meaning, well-dressed, presumably innocent people, they also began talking to us, in occasional, brief exchanges, asking about opportunities for people like them – in India, in the USA. Would it be possible for them to go there? What was required? How did one get a visa? And, even, to our surprise, was it true that there were no longer any Muslims left in India, as Pakistan TV had reported?

We talked to them about cricket, at least two of us, as we established other areas of common ground, and continued with our show of bravado and unconcern. We’d got caught in a mess-up, but it was a question of time before things were sorted out, and we went on our way. They assented, silently. We talked about the great fast bowlers that Pakistan had produced, and the legendary Imran Khan, a native of this region, who had gone to Oxford at the same time as me. We asked them what facilities the local schools had for sports. For cricket? and hockey? And how many years had they gone to school? And how many members of their families had left home to seek their fortunes elsewhere? And how often they went to Peshawar? Had they seen Lahore, or Karachi, or Islamabad? And Bombay films? and their favorite Indian movie stars?

Questions about jobs, and poverty, and travel, and life in distant lands, were put to us in turn by the unfortunate sweeper who was dragged out of his home late that first evening, under threat of police punishment, to come and sweep the dusty, newly-constructed, never-before-lived-in, police guest-house where we were put up. He returned every morning to sweep the room and the verandah, and wipe the furniture: which meant sweeping up the dust a little, or re-arranging it, for the honored guests. A young man from a local Christian community, he muttered under his breath about the police’s rough dealings, and added with resignation, “The British came, only to leave us behind and go away.” 

All this while, along with the changing guards and the unchanging khansama (or cook), other officials came and went, asking us more questions, even as they re-assured us and told us they were still trying to get in touch with higher officials, still waiting for clearance, and then we’d be on our way. “Aap hamare mehman hain. You are honored guests. You must treat this like your home.”(And on the second day, one of us used that opening to tell them about how her grandparents did in fact come from a neighboring district, how they’d moved along with thousands of other refugees when the land was split up into India and Pakistan in 1947, and how nostalgically they remembered the land of their birth and childhood.) “You are our daughter-in-law then! It is our duty and honor to serve you. If there anything at all you’d like, you must not hesitate to tell us.” (Freedom! Permission to leave! To get back to Peshawar, to shave and to change into clean clothes…. And to get back to India.)

On one occasion, it was the Tahsildar, with two junior officials in tow. On another, a distinguished-looking older official, with the gravitas of a neuro-surgeon, whom we’d never seen before and never saw again. Late on the second afternoon, Bade Mian appeared to check on our welfare, and assure us of the need to be carefree and well-fed: was he an official, or just an elder of the community, respected by all?

On the third morning, the uniformed police sergeant (?) brought in our Peshawari host, the professor in whose car we’d traveled. He and his student had been thrown in the clink, and been badly roughed up, while we were kept in the police guest house. It took him two nights and a day before he was able to convince them that he had important contacts in Peshawar and beyond, in the civil administration as well as the army and the intelligence services, and that they should at least allow him to make a phone call. He was on his way to Peshawar now, he told us, to meet with some of those high officials, and “God willing”, he would be back in the evening with good news and permission for us to leave. Unshaved and disheveled, and very much the worse for wear, he appeared badly shaken. He was remorseful beyond measure. To our acute embarrassment, he took the blame for everything that had happened, and for getting us into this terrible jam, although – truth to tell – we had perhaps been more enthusiastic than him about making the trip to the Khyber, with or without permission. He apologized profusely, distressingly – adding to our own distress and feelings of guilt – even as he kept repeating, “All will be well, God willing.”

I pondered on that phrase, “God willing”, throughout those days, even after it became clear that it was simply a manner of speaking, the idiom of Pakistani Urdu, a politeness and a speech prop – not unlike the British “It’s perking up, isn’t it?”, which could mean anything. I had my doubts about whether even such a pro-active and personalized God as the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries might want would have the time to concern herself with such petty matters as some middle-ranking bureaucrats in Peshawar checking on the bona fides of some unknown Indian intellectuals.

But, to return to our visitors: most of the time, it was the bearded interrogator who came, with one or two underlings, who changed but still looked the same. The questions were endless, repetitive, and tedious. Where do you live? What work do you do? When did you get married? How many children do you have? Who are the others in your family? Where do they live? When did you get to —-? From where? How? What was the date? And the time? Where did you stay? Whom did you meet? Who else do you know there? Which places did you visit? Did you stop en route? Where? What time?

One day, they asked if they could take our photographs. Mug shots. One by one. Just routine. Part of the procedure, to help get clearance quickly. Nothing to worry about. (Could we have said No?)

Another day, he asked each of us to name “two friends”. Two friends? Anywhere? In any country? How do you respond to that? My mind raced through several possibilities. Whom would it be best to name, someone who wouldn’t be put in danger by our mentioning him or her, someone who had influence and might be able to intercede with higher authorities if the need arose? It wouldn’t do to name Pakistani friends in Lahore or Islamabad, I thought, since that might only put them under suspicion. Would it help to name someone in government service – say, an Indian, or Pakistani, or British, or Australian diplomat? Or a journalist or columnist, who might raise a stink if push came to shove? (People we knew occupied all kinds of distinguished positions in government and the media.) In the end, I decided on an academic colleague in Delhi, an active member of the Indo-Pakistan cultural exchange and friendship initiative launched by social and political workers, professionals and journalists from the two countries, who had been to Pakistan several times, had many contacts there, and many more among senior bureaucrats in the Government of India; and a European American woman colleague at my university in the USA, who had never been to the subcontinent, who was as ‘American’ as any popular prejudice would have someone being, and who would be as far from Pakistani suspicions of involvement in wrong-doing as anyone could possibly be!

When it came to my wife’s turn – I’d insisted on standing by, against Cassius’s wishes, and he demurred, even though this round of questioning took place in the courtyard, in view of the rest of us – she blanked out at the question about “two friends”. “Who are my friends?” she said, turning towards me. It was just that kind of moment.

There was an unreal quality about the whole encounter. For we weren’t criminals. We had done no wrong (as we said to ourselves and to them repeatedly – adding, in our exchanges with them, that we had made a terrible mistake, and we would obviously not make the same kind of mistake ever again.) We were privileged, professorial (three professors and a writer!), obviously well-respected. Cassius and his associates even asked us what we thought about the Kashmir issue, and what would be our prescription for a peaceful solution of the problem: “tell us, Professor sahib.” A casual, unscripted part of an unlikely interaction, or another ‘trick’ question, we wondered, another easy one to stumble over: another moment we had to be careful in handling.

One of those mornings, out in the courtyard, pacing up and down, up and down, thinking momentarily of Nehru, and Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mandela. (Had they felt like this, as they exercised in a yard and looked out on a solitary tree and a small square of the sky?) Yet wondering, in the next moment, who would know anything about our arrest, or ever find out if we simply disappeared, and rotted away in some remote prison or camp?

One of those mornings, one of us noticed two little spots moving on the treeless hill outside the compound. We gathered excitedly to look at the tiny figures, and distinguished a little boy and a dog making their way up through the rocks and scraggy plants, taking in the beautiful mountain air and the world, as they made their way – home? to the market? to people they knew in a neighboring village? We looked at them until the spots disappeared, although it was hard to tell when exactly that happened, as with the red ball of the sun, setting over the horizon, which appears to return and linger even when you think it has gone. How wondrous the scene was! That tiny sign of life, and freedom, and a world beyond.

If we get out of this alright, one of us said half way through our days in the guest-house, I won’t regret a moment of it: it’ll have been more than worthwhile! It was all a little unreal.

By the third day, our mood was turning distinctly more pessimistic. Not that we felt differently: about our guilt (or innocence), our privileged backgrounds, our contacts and our ability to explain ourselves. Nor that we had decided we were especially important people, prisoners of note, whom they could use for some great political purpose. But what, we said to ourselves, almost in a whisper, not really wishing to articulate the thought, what if we’d got caught in some unknown cross-fire, and become hostages in a battle, say, for some long hoped-for exchange of political prisoners? Or pawns in some even more mundane plot, the advancement of some minor official’s monotonous career, or a local bigwig’s political ambitions? 

We were frustrated and tired – by the repeated promises of “just a little longer,” “we’re just awaiting clearance from the higher-ups,” “there’s been a snag in communications, but we’ve now sent our report by hand, through a special courier, in our own vehicle,” “we should have word back from them very soon, God willing, and you’ll be on your way….”

We were increasingly irritable. Small arguments broke out. The couples fell into two camps occasionally, talking among themselves, calming each other, and bickering. “You shouldn’t say things like that, even in jest. It brings bad luck.” “Speak more softly; they can hear us.” “That’s just not in good taste.” “Right! But it’s alright if you and he tell jokes….”  

Aap hamare mehman hain (You are our guests),” they’d offered ad nauseum. “Why are you so eager to leave?” “Are you uncomfortable?”

No, we’d said repeatedly. Then, at some stage in the proceedings, without consultation among ourselves, we had amended that response. No, not physically. You have done everything to look after us, and respond to our needs. But mentally, psychologically, we are in pain. This is not the best way to arrive as guests anywhere. We’ll come back again – at a time of our choosing, of our own free will.

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