Altaf Hussain runs a small flour shop in the heart of Saddar Bazaar, part of a town on the outskirts of Peshawar. I met Hussain quite by chance. It was in December exactly a year ago. I was there with a colleague for a couple of days, and we were roaming around the bazaar, where loose fabric in bright colours was sold alongside glittery glass bangles. Evening had fallen, and we were looking for a place to have tea. As I walked along the street, I noticed an elderly man walking towards me. He was dressed in a starched shalwar kameez, with a waistcoat and a heavy cane and black shiny shoes. As he stepped over a piece of cardboard on the street, his entire leg sank into a hole. He struggled to pull himself up with the cane, but the more he pushed the lower he seemed to sink. A group of men ran over and pulled him out. He grimaced, shaking his sewage-soaked leg, and without saying a word continued on his way. Now I could see that the entire street had holes in it, covered with flimsy pieces of cardboard. We proceeded carefully and finally found a tea stall at the end of the block, but there was no place to sit. The stench from the open hole still lingered in my nose, making me dizzy.
That was when Altaf Hussain offered us both a stool. His shop was next to the tea stall—a bare room raised above street level that opened out to the street. He sat cross-legged on the floor in the centre of three pale mounds. One with maida (refined flour), another with atta (whole wheat flour) and the third a mixture of the two. We chatted with him for hours, during which he told us he used to be a hockey player but had left the game after corruption had permeated the institution, much like it did in every place else in the country. I had given him my number when I was leaving, and he had called me the following day to find out if I had reached Karachi safely. My friend and I fondly remembered him as the Attay (flour) Wallah.
I live in New York now, and when I heard about the Tehrik-e-Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, my first instinct was to call Hussain. After a few tries I finally got through. We exchanged greetings and he said, “I have just returned from my nephew’s funeral. He was killed in the attack yesterday.” The line was bad, so I had to hang up and call Hussain again. While waiting to connect, I turned to my husband and told him what I had just heard. “What does it mean when you randomly call a person in Peshawar and find out he has lost a family member in the attack?” he asked. I had no answer.
“The whole of Peshawar is completely silent and desolate,” Hussain said when I called him back. He has six children of his own. His wife passed away a year ago. “The children all went to school like they do every morning,” he said. The older three had gone to school after leaving the younger three with their grandmother.
He was getting ready to go open his flour store when he received a frantic phone call from his sister. Her son Owais was a student at the Army Public School. She had heard about the attack on the news. Hussain was completely oblivious to what was going on. There was no electricity that morning in Saddar Bazaar, and no one in the neighborhood had been able to tune in to the news. Hussain dropped his mother and children off to be with his sister and then, accompanied by his brother, he set off to search for his nephew.