All Shapes and Sizes

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On Pakistan’s ‘rat children’
Growing up, one witnesses a number of interesting characters. Sakina was one of those. She used to live very close to where I did; the only difference was she lived on the streets while I didn’t. It was easy to point her out in a crowd. There was something very distinct about her appearance: her head was uniquely small in proportion to her body. During the afternoon, an old man would escort her to different areas to beg. She would return only in the evening and spend the night injecting heroin into her system. Needless to say, I was quite afraid of her. Although I saw her nearly every day, especially in the evening, I could never muster the courage to go talk to her. Nobody else did either, nor did anyone happen to know who Sakina was or where was she from.

One day, she wasn’t at her usual location. Even though it didn’t disrupt my life in any significant way, I often wondered where she had gone. A week later, I found out she had died of drug overdose. Apparently, she didn’t “matter anymore”. People had begun to talk about her for a change. We were told she was a chuhi (a female rat) and belonged to the city of Gujrat. In Arabic, Sakina means ‘serenity’. And come to think of it, she was indeed serene. Maybe it was the heroin. Maybe not.

But back to where she came from. On the banks of the river Chenab is a small city called Gujrat, where the fabled King Porus once ruled. Today, the place is known for three things: high-quality furniture, electrical fans and Syed Kabiruddin Shah Daula.  The Sufi saint lived in Gujrat a couple of centuries ago and was a disciple of Shah Saidan Sarmast, a faqir of the Suhrawardiyya order of Sufism.

An engineer by profession, he did a lot of social development in the area by building bridges across the Chenab. Legend has it that women who were barren would get pregnant if they prayed to Shah Daula. Parents who had healthy babies never came back to the shrine, but if they noticed their children had physical or mental disabilities, they’d come back to ‘return’ their gifts. A strange and intriguing set-up.

For centuries, it was the only shrine in the world where parents offered up their children. After all, Shah Daula himself would take care of the children who were left outside his house. The saint dedicated his life to feeding and taking care of little abandoned souls at his modest home. While none of these kids were normal, all of them shared one commonality: they usually had small heads disproportionate to their bodies. One thing is for sure—they were loved by their guardian. Shah Daula would take them wherever he went. Because of their rodent-like appearance, people in the neighbourhood started calling them Shah Daula ke chuhe (Shah Daula’s rat children).

On my journey to the shrine, I didn’t see any chuhas on the streets, as the legend went. I didn’t see any chuha at the shrine, either—except Nazia.

Around four decades ago, a young girl was left at the shrine by her presumably disgruntled parents. The caretakers of the shrine adopted her and she has lived there since. When I went to meet her, I couldn’t help wonder how a person with an unusually sized head would feel in a society full of ‘normal’ people.

Nazia had a tiny head, too. Sitting in front of a gas heater, wrapped in a black shawl, she came across a desolate figure. Gujrat was remarkably cold the evening we met. I couldn’t help notice that she resembled Sakina strongly; perhaps a healthier version of her. At that moment, the two women marked two different decades of my life. I used to be secretly scared of Sakina but I wasn’t experiencing any such emotion with Nazia. On the contrary, I felt a connection with her, ironically, because of Sakina.

I walked up to the heater and warmed my hands. I didn’t have any lines in my head to break the ice. Or the chilly air for that matter. Looking at me balancing my self on my haunches, she trembled for a few seconds before bursting out in fits of laughter. It turned out she couldn’t speak and there was no way I could have facilitated a conversation with her.

I learnt that she was about 40 years old but blessed with a mental age of no more than three. However, there were a few encouraging factors about her existence. Unlike thousands of her fellow chuhas in Pakistan, she didn’t beg for a living. Also unlike others suffering from her condition, she was adopted by a generous family who treated her like one of their own children.

It was then that my cynical self learnt that not everybody had given up on those who don’t look like us. Or talk like us. Or are different in some way.

After Shah Daula’s demise, four generations succeeding him made sure they took care of children like Sakina and Nazia. They were simply following a benevolent tradition, but it wasn’t to last long. There came a point when the organisation running the shrine started requesting parents not to leave their offspring on the steps because they were under threat by kidnappers. Clearly, things aren’t what they used to be during the time of Shah Daula.

Perhaps this explains the atmosphere of the three-day festival that takes place annually in Gujrat in honor of the Sufi saint. During the festival, thousands of parents bring their children to pray at the shrine. After the festival ends, families go back to where they came from and no children are left behind. Nowadays, it’s a common practice among shopkeepers to sell cutouts of silver paper in different human body shapes, which worshippers can offer at the shrine.

According to a popular theory, children kidnapped from villages are forced to wear iron-caps that keep their heads from growing. Later, they are sold to people who use them to gain sympathy and collect considerable alms. Fortunately, nobody I met claimed to have ever witnessed such a mishap in action. Medical doctors I spoke to also dismiss this folklore as absolutely baseless. Their argument is plausible: if a head doesn’t grow physically because of an external barrier, it can result in death.

That said, children born with small heads are often kidnapped from villages and are later forced to beg in the streets. There are thousands, if not more, of such beggars all over Pakistan. In scientific terms, they suffer from microcephaly, a condition in which a person’s skull is smaller than normal for their age and sex. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder with which a child is born—it doesn’t strike suddenly after birth. If the skull doesn’t grow, it occupies the brain’s space instead. This is why most microcephalics aren’t able to communicate, and, as a result, are stuck with the mental stage of a kid who never grew up.

Experts claim that children like Sakina and Nazia are a result of recessive mutation. Marriages between cousins, a common custom across Asia, augur genetic mutation. In a country where around 66 per cent of marriages are between first cousins, genetic disorders are bound to be common. A shrine can’t cure that.

Regardless, even to this day, women from all over the world visit Shah Daula’s shrine with a prayer on their lips. Their petitions don’t always restrict themselves to fertility. Today, devotees suffering from hepatitis, arthritis and cancer all seek refuge at the shrine. Locals say that it works. And by ‘it’, they mean faith. Some of them even claim they’ve seen thousands of people healed without medication.

I met a shopkeeper in Gujrat who spoke zealously about an incident where another shopkeeper sold a small rock for a hundred rupees, claiming it was sacred! It’s a make-believe world where all shapes and sizes mingle. While some feed on their belief in a shrine, others scavenge on the business that visitors generate. If Picasso was right and everything one can imagine is real, then we must imagine a world where Shah Daula lived.