Nazia sits guarding the shoes of the worshippers at the shrine of Shah Dola. She places a palm on the head of anyone who comes up to her, giving benediction as they pass her money to put into the shrine’s collection box. Twenty-five year old Nazia lives with microcephaly—a genetic condition in which the skull circumference is several sizes smaller than is normal for the person’s age and sex and is generally associated with some level of mental incapacitation. In local parlance, a microcephalic like Nazia is known as “Shah Dolay ka chua” (Shah Dola’s rat)—an indelicate allusion to the physical symptoms of her condition, a small skull with a receding forehead, pronounced ears and teeth.
Chuas have had a famous association with the shrine of Shah Dola in the small town of Gujrat in Pakistan. According to legend, the holy man Shah Dola was able to cure infertility in women. The price was for the first-born to be given to him (or his shrine following his death), failing which all subsequent children would be born as chuas. There is varying opinion on whether and how the shrine of Shah Dola has or has not exploited microcephalic children, people’s religious sentiments and superstitious beliefs to bring resources to the shrine and its administrators. While it may well be that, over the centuries, Shah Dola’s shrine has provided sanctuary for children with microcephaly, accusations are widespread that shrine administrators intentionally deformed firstborns given to them by fertility-challenged couples by clamping the heads of the babies in metal caps, restricting their growth and thereby inducing microcephaly. The intentionally-deformed children, it is claimed, were then used or leased out for begging. It seems that this has not been substantiated through evidence, but enough pressure built up through these claims that the shrine was taken over by a government department that administers awqaf, the traditional Islamic charitable trust. The government refutes claims that there is or was any practice of intentional deforming of children or that the shrine has ever exploited microcephalics. Accusations are rife about criminally-organized “begging mafias” associated with the shrine and the collusion of government administrators with these gangs who traffic in people with deformities.
It is easy to see why such claims abound. Chuas are “high-value beggers”, able to solicit twice the amount in daily alms than a civil servant would earn in a day. Their high earning power as beggers is linked to the fact that the deformed have a special status in the minds of the Pakistani rural classes. They are seen as being closer to God, with privileged access to His ear. In one online documentary about the phenomenon, a “chua-master” (a person who “owns” a chua as a means of income) refers to the microcephalic child he begs with as “sain-ji” (a reverent way of addressing a guru) and “malang” (a roving spiritual mendicant). As he roams the streets with his chua, he exhorts people to “give him charity and say a prayer.” Giving to a chua increases your chances of being heard by God because the deformed are “God’s people” – those who are provided for solely in fortuitous ways, like the generosity of strangers. Giving charity to the deformed and associating with them is therefore a trade to attain closeness to God. There is also an element of fear and self-protection to this giving—because they are heard more closely by God, the deformed and the renunciate also have the power to plague you. If you repudiate them or turn your back on them, God in turn may well turn his back on you.
There is a widespread belief in rural Pakistani culture that “providence is written”; everyone comes into the world with an allocation of means and resources and a fortune already accorded by the will of God. That is why a new child in the family is rarely seen as stretching limited resources—it is believed that the child brings resources with them, because God provides for all. The deformed perform a function as God’s messengers; they are incarnate reminders to people about fortune and God’s will. In giving charity to the deformed the givers affirm their faith in providence by becoming instruments of it.