Spending an early morning with the masters of disguise

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn March 20, 2016

“My dear Watson, without the beggars of London, who let me remind you are amazing actors and expert at disguise, for me to operate would be virtually impossible”, said Sherlock Holmes as he pondered over a huge book on the narcotic plants of India.

It seems that the beggars of the sub-continent were of special fascination for writers like Sir Arthur Canon Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. Well my entire career as a journalist, starting while still a Third Year student, I have been friends with some of the most amazing beggars, criminals and tricksters that Lahore houses. This helped me communicate with dacoits like Ghaisa, who provided me with amazing exclusive stories. For the sake of this piece early last Thursday morning I set off with my brother Karim to witness a ‘disguising session’ by a few beggars of Lahore on the banks of the river, just off the Ring Road.

As a young journalist in the 1970s and 1980s I had often seen them at work in the lanes and streets outside the shrine of the seer Ali Hajveri, also known as Data Sahib. It was there that also operated a ‘School for Pickpockets’ run by the local police. They then had a printed ‘Qaida’ (Alphabet Book) which was reproduced in the daily ‘The Pakistan Times’ causing me a lot of trouble. The IG Police turned up. I was given a right dressing down by the Editor A.T. Chaudhary. Once the heavy hand of the law left, he called me in again, gave me a hug and said: “Great story, keep it up”.

But then a journalist lives for that momentary thrill of an ‘exclusive’. Neither age nor money can diminish that thrill. So it was that we sat on the dirt floor of a small room near the river as Kashi Anna (blind), Haji Goli, Musarrat Langri (lame) and Shaheen Bullan (terrier dog) prepared for their hard day’s work. Let me describe each beggar preparing for the day. Muhammad Kashif, or Kashi Anna, changed from his clean clothes into utter rags, put a strange glue-like grease on his upper eyelids, twisted one arm inwards with an amazing dexterity and started presenting his act as a blind man. His cries for help are enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine. It is an amazing act, and would make any actor proud. What a laugh everyone had.

Then Haji Goli got up and put ash in his already grizzly beard. He changed into dark dirty khaki clothes and started to pull out of a bag his make-up kit. He rubbed some dark grease on one wrist and in the middle gave a dab of shiny loud red ‘sandoor’ and brushed at the edges a white powder. Oh, the effect was electric. For a moment I thought the chap had wounded himself. Haji Goli joked: “This is enough to hit a century”. What he was saying was that it was effective enough to pull in a one hundred rupee note. Haji Goli’s younger sister is called Rani, who works as a domestic in houses all over the city and then, as if by magic, one night the house is burgled.

Then I saw Musarrat Langri twist her legs inwards, almost like one would manipulate ‘plasticene’. It was unbelievable the flexibility of her limbs. With appropriate make-up, dirty clothes, a ‘wound’ on her neck and she was ready to sit on a small hand-pushed cart to leave for work. Then came the master act.

Shaheen Bullan is a fierce young girl who can be aggressive when needed. Everyone laughed at a joke about how even the police avoid her. She put on some torn dirty clothes and had her fingertips made up as if suffering from some wound. It looked more like an infected set of fingers. Revolting. I am sure even Sherlock Holmes would be proud of such an amazing set of beggars.

Now came my fact collecting session. As I watched them and they talked, I was told they had to be ready by 8.00am for a minivan would come to drop them off at various points in the city. The same minivan picks them up ten hours later, where they pay their “minder” a hefty cut. “It goes right to the top”, they claimed. Each beggar has his own commission set for the police to ignore their existence. When a VVIP has to pass they change their venues and continue to operate unhindered.

Once they had left we returned to stop at two points. One to visit the old ‘Pickpocket’s School’ which I had exposed in my youth. The second was at a crossing on the Ring Road. At the first place I met an old friend, an old pickpocket whose fingers are no longer dexterous enough, and whose ‘exit’ speed no longer makes it safe to follow this ‘profession’. He told me that now the ‘training’ was done on computers at a few faraway centres. They learn their own secret language, like ‘latha’ means a victim might have over a thousand rupees, and ‘boskee’ means the wallet could have over ten thousand rupees. Sounds logical.

At the next Ring Road crossing I met Fayyaz Bibi who was carrying a small written board saying her ‘husband’ was sick and needed money for treatment. She had aged over the years and we conversed about the ‘old days’ and she brought me up to date about her entire clan. Her husband works as a beggar at another point and makes a reasonable ‘kill’. The children all beg and the ones married also work in the same trade.

As my newspaper beat was changed from ‘crime’ to ‘politics’, you might say not a quantum jump, I happened to cover the Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore. What surprised me was that the smartest of beggars were posted in a one-mile circle around the Punjab Assembly building. They reported any ‘problem’ or ‘threat’ to the nearest shopkeeper or policeman. Their expert eye was of invaluable help to the security agencies.

You might be wondering just who came up with this bizarre idea of using beggars to scan the entire area. I was told by a senior police officer serving then that it was Mr. Z.A. Bhutto’s idea. It seems the crafty leader had read his Sherlock Holmes well. He also told me that all of them were given double of their ‘lost income’ for duty performed.

Probably ZAB picked up the idea after reading the classic novel ‘Kim’, which is based in Lahore, who also undertook such a mission for the British. Beggars are beggars, no matter where, when and why. Superb actors, good friends, resourceful and a set of people who understand the human psyche best.


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