September Issue 2015
From Heroin to Poppadoms
Ghulam Hyder is easy to spot in a crowd of snack vendors jostling for space outside a school in a rural settlement in upper Sindh. His bellowing laugh, his great big straw basket over-filled with rice-flour fried poppadoms and indulgent play with his customers — school-kids — are all his trademarks. The last thing he appears to be is a former heroin smuggler.
Hyder, 60, grew up raising goats and working on farmland with his two brothers and his father. He recalls an impoverished childhood spent yearning for a nice meal or a small toy. He never saw his mother, who passed away in childbirth, and Hyder recalls constantly being bullied and harassed for being motherless because of which he gave up schooling after class 5.
When he got married and couldn’t provide those very things to his own children, regardless of how hard he worked, the frustration grew. He saw people all around him getting rich quickly after a few rounds of gambling with playing cards and decided to give it a try. When that failed, he resorted to robbing gold stores and even smuggling heroin abroad. Eventually, he ended up in jail and served a three-year term. When he was released, Hyder underwent a monumental change.
“I just hated myself,” he says, dressed in a faded, stained kurta. “While I was in prison, my wife was all alone at home with four small children running back and forth between home and jail. I decided if I gave up greed, the rest would happen on its own.”
Hyder is an example of how positive internal change can really improve lives, regardless of how much one earns. In a rural society deeply infected by a gambling addiction and the crimes the habit inspires, he has overcome the cycle of greed and in the process saved his family from utter ruin. Moreover, he has become a popular figure in his village — someone people look up to and admire.
After being released from jail, he became the local poppadom vendor. Known as ‘gheecha’ in Sindhi, the fried paapar made of rice-flour and sprinkled with spice is one of the most popular street snacks in rural areas.
It’s a family trade. His wife, a stoic, strong woman, and their two teenage daughters, wake up at dawn and fetch water from a hand-pump at a neighbour’s house and then put it to boil. Once the water begins to bubble, they add baking soda and sieved rice-flour which instantly turns into a tough, rubbery dough. That is removed from the stove and cooled and then the entire family sits down in the open courtyard before their two-room brick house to prepare the poppadoms. Hyder first pats the dough into small patties which his wife and daughters roll out into flat discs that are spread onto a charpai to dry in the sun for a few hours. When crows swoop down from the neem tree in his yard to grab a gheecha, Hyder laughs and doesn’t try to hush them away.
“I don’t mind,” he says. “It’s a blessing. Let them enjoy one too.”
Later, the poppadoms are deep-fried and piled into baskets and Hyder sets off on his 12-hour walking tour of five adjacent villages, selling to children, passers-by and residents. He begins his day by distributing a rupee each to five children and giving away a free poppadom for good luck. Children are often seen sitting on Hyder’s shoulders and pulling at his ajrak turban as he uses a recycled talcum powder jar to sprinkle spice onto the poppadom. His infectious laugh makes the children even happier and he always spares a moment to offer them a smile or a tickle. If he sees a sad-faced child eyeing him from a distance, he calls out and gives him a free gheecha along with a hug. Once Hyder’s son, a student of class 2, returns home from school, one basket is readied for him to head out in the local area to sell too.
The family produces and sells as many as 150 poppadoms a day for five rupees each, saving them enough to take care of their daily food requirements. Hyder’s wife also tries to save as much as she can to participate in savings committees that she uses to carry out small house repairs and take care of medical expenses.
“I have never experienced such contentment,” Hyder says. “I don’t feel the need for meat at lunch or hundreds of thousands of rupees any more. I enjoy my daal and love sitting at home after work.”
Hyder and his family are hoping for a loan of 15,000 to 20,000 rupees so that they can expand their business and put up a stand on the road where their elder son can sell poppadoms all day and add a few other snacks as well. That will help with household expenses and the childrens’ weddings.
“My only aim in life is to ensure my children know and understand the blunders I have made, and that they learn to be satisfied with a simple life,” Hyder says. “That way, they won’t suffer the way I did. Greed is the sure-fire way to suffering.”
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.
The writer is a journalist and founder of the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust.