Just over ten years ago now I moved to Pakistan to teach at an international boarding school called Murree Christian School (sadly, now closed). It was a wonderful experience, but I was aware early on in my time there that it would be quite possible live within a bubble of expats and not experience much of Pakistan itself.
I tried to ensure that this didn’t happen to me, one of the ways being to try to learn the Urdu language. Initially I spent a few hours a week on this, making slow but steady progress. Later, I signed up to study more intensively at the Murree Language School during my summer holidays.
I had four hours of lessons a day and a couple hours of non-lesson free time in between. Initially I used this time to study and review vocabulary. I quickly grew bored of this however, and decided that it would be more useful to use my free time to wander the Murree bazaars and put my language into practice. Whether it was more useful or not, I can’t say, but it was certainly more fun.
One day, as I walked back from a tea-shop in the bazaar, I bumped into a fruit wallah (vendor) on the side of the road. He looked up from his basket of fresh, seasonal fruit, and excitedly motioned for me to come speak to him. I quickly realised that he was mute.
Communicating through a mixture of mime and writing in a notebook, he told me that he remembered my family from when I was a young boy. He pointed at a house where we used to stay and said he remembered me and my older sister. I will never know if it was truly my family that he remembered or not, but I had indeed stayed in that house in Murree as a child, and I do have an older sister. I also did remember a man coming around to sell fresh fruit.
For the next month or so, I stopped to sit with the fruit wallah every day, sometimes for an hour or more. He gave me all the plums or apricots I wanted as he filled page after page of his notebook with Urdu handwriting. I would read – aloud – what he wrote, and he would either nod vigorously or shake his head to confirm what I read. If I could not work out a word, he would try writing with English letters, or call a passer-by to read or explain it to me.
I began to buy new notebooks for him as I felt bad for using his up. Most days, he wrote about his religious convictions. I learned that he was voluntarily mute, due to a vow he had made after a profound spiritual experience.
He spent hours trying to convince me of the benefits of Islam. There were some statements that he wrote over and over again. God is One. Idolatry is the most serious sin. Judgement is coming. Occasionally I tried to explain my Christian beliefs to him as well, but he was largely uninterested. Although I sometimes became tired of the repetitive nature of these conversations, the language practice and cultural insight offered kept me motivated. And I was never offended by his (unsuccessful) attempts to convert me. On the contrary, I was often moved that he cared enough to try to convince me of these things.
I met him once more some months later when I was back at school, teaching. I took him out for a cup of tea and he shared a bit about his life before moving once more to the topic of religion.
Understanding people takes time. In an age of social media bickering, where nuance is pushed aside by crassly simplified memes, I find myself craving conversations like I used to have with this Pakistani fruit wallah.