Peter Gilkes is a writer, artist and previously an operations and business manager based in Kuala Lumpur. He recently returned to Australia after working in SE Asia for nine years. He has had articles published with the Sydney Morning Herald and is now compiling a book of images and memories of travel from the last 30 years.
The Man with Shaking Hands
June 1980. Baluchistan. Pakistan.
My bus to the Iranian border slowed down and the driver steered off the highway and parked beneath the canopies of some welcome trees.
It was 11am, a roadside shop cum restaurant for drink and food and ablutions in the Kharan desert of Baluchistan. The scenery was arid. Flat sand plains in 35+ Celsius heat. The hills on the distant horizon were blocks of gold, ethereal in the hazy light, almost imagined.
The coach I travelled on was a landscape itself, a brilliant glistening beetle. Pakistani buses are crazy, colourful creations so distinct from the drab brick cities. The metal frame was adorned with lights and painted colour. There were blooming flowers and strutting peacocks bannered across the front cabin. Between and around the windows were swirling tendrils in rose and green. Lower down the bus fuselage were patterns of gold circles bordered by bright silver squares. Even the tyres were rimmed in fluorescent blues and orange. For the show of night, strings of coloured globes criss- crossed the roof and sides. Inside the cabin, above and around the driver’s windscreen were strips of multi-coloured mirror embroidery and little threads of swaying beads and sepia pictures of the Kaaba. The vehicle was an amulet on wheels, a talisman.
We stepped down from the bus to be met by the silence of the desert. The passengers soon filled the quiet as they entered the restaurant with their chatter in Urdu and Farsi and the seating fuss of the scrapping of wooden benches and chairs across cement, the kitchen clatter of pots and dishes, the wails of tired infants and the sudden scratchy sound of background radio music, now that customers were here.
This was an old route for travel. Thousands of travellers had come before, even Alexander the Great had travelled through Baluchistan. Alexander had entered India via the Khyber Pass but after many campaigns he led his tired armies on an epic journey back towards their Macedonian home via southern Baluchistan around 324 BCE – hear the smack of leather against flesh, the whinnying of horses, the grunting of camels, the shout of foreign tongues.
There were a few armed soldiers on the hill above the roadside halt, guarding the desolate desert highway. There had been a special carriage on my immediate train travel before the bus, an open roofless carriage set in the middle of the train with high armoured sides with firing slits and soldiers on watch for attack.
Though its population is small, Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan. Relations with the government in the capital Islamabad have always been bad. The Baluch are a proud tribal people with many grievances against the Pakistan government. Sudden violent flare ups of resentment have always been likely in this region.
I entered the roadside world, thinking of some tea or drink and wondering what food I could eat and let’s be careful not to get sick. As I looked around, and as I was looked at in turn, I saw a man who looked different from the rest, sitting just outside the main dining space.
He was perhaps 30 years old, gaunt and tall. I couldn’t place his culture, perhaps Mediterranean, seemingly not a Pakistani and probably not Iranian.
He wore a black business suit that was creased and stained. His skin was taunt across his cheekbones and his lined forehead glinted sweat yet he had a handsome well-rounded face except for some acne scars across the cheeks. He had a long narrow nose and milky green brown eyes that glowed and he was clean shaven with a thin black moustache carefully shaped to the edges of his dry pale lips. His black hair was a thick lustrous clump that he kept tussling and fidgeting with. He could have been a musician, a classical violinist I thought, or some thin gangster type but there was a dignity to him that spoke of responsibility and something earnest.
His white shirt needed a good wash but it was still a business shirt and his laced black shoes still had some patches of shine. I spotted him first because he stood out amongst the other people who were wearing local clothes in pale tones of brown and green and crème. Shalwar Kameez – long loose cotton shirts down to the knees and baggy trousers of the same colour – coupled with shawls and sandals. There were some other travellers in jeans and t shirts but most of the forty or so men and women and children at the roadside halt wore the practical, traditional dress.
His suit caught my eye, as he sat on a bench on the other side of the tea shop, keeping away from the bustle of my fellow bus passengers, resting in the half shadow beneath a tarpaulin stretched from the corrugated iron tea shop roof.
I took the wooden bench seat near him and watched him light his cigarette.
His two hands tried to move toward each other to light the cigarette. The matchbox in his right-hand palm gripped tight by his long thin forefinger and his thumb. The match held in his left hand like a needle or a wand.
His pale lips held the cigarette in place, pucking, as it slipped and slid in the waiting, a thin black line of moustache twitching up and down.
The hand holding the matchbox tried so hard to hold the cardboard box still, and his eyes watched the process so intently, but the box and the match would not meet.
The match and the box were held in hands that shook so much that after two minutes of trying to strike the match against the flint side of the box there was no success. He could not control his wildly shaking hands.
He seemed as surprised and perplexed as I was. His hands would simply not do his bidding, they shook desperately like the panicking wings of some trapped bird, refusing his will. He turned his eyes up at me and I leaned down taking the box and the match from his fingers and with one strike I lit the match and cupped the flame and he leant down and sucked in the fire and inhaled the magic smoke of the crackling tobacco.
I asked, “Why are you like this?”.
He stared at me, regarding me for a long time, a piercing regard, and then he began to explain in carefully pronounced English.
“We were in a car accident in Paris, near the Champs Elysees. One month ago. A big truck was out of control. It came across the traffic and hit our car. I was driving. My baby daughter was in the backseat, she was crushed and killed. My wife was decapitated. I was hardly injured”. He spoke so softly. He was so completely and utterly exhausted. He could have been talking to the whole planet.
I bought him a cooled bottle of Coca Cola, fished up from a dank well by a young boy, a clanging bucket of clinking bottles dripping wet brown water, and after the flipped rusty bottle top, the stain of rusty grime around the rim. I wiped the rim and he drank.
The cool sweet fizz and the blue tobacco smoke were a breakfast for travellers.
He sat beside a large battered silver metal trunk and he told me all he owned was inside, but each country’s customs inspectors took a little of what they fancied and it had become lighter and easier to lift, but it weighed heavier on his mind – I later thought to myself that perhaps soon all he would have left after the thieving would be an empty trunk and people would think he only carried it to put things in, not comprehending his loss.
He had a Portuguese passport. He’d worked in the Paris embassy. He had travelled across Europe and had come through Greece and Turkey and Iran to Pakistan. He was now heading to India. “I am going to Goa. I was born in Goa.I want to open a restaurant”. I lit another cigarette for him and smoked one too. He seemed a bit calmer and we talked some more.
But I was travelling in the other direction. My bus going west to the Iranian border blasted its air horn and I said goodbye and left him and went across the highway with the other passengers and we climbed back aboard and I took my place on the roof. I waved back to him and he waved and we were both gone – but he stayed restless in my memory – that awful image of his shaking hands.