This blog is being moved to my brand new website sabaimtiaz.com. This won’t be updated from now on.
This line, from a recent Supreme Court order on voter verification, is all kinds of genius:
Karachi has a peculiar background, which includes a serious law & order situation
While I am puzzled at the ‘peculiar background’ bit – the words remind me of a matchmaker looking into a family’s lineage – what the line is more indicative of is is a failure to understand what is happening in the city.
I recently went to the Supreme Court’s Karachi registry to hear a bench of judges take on pretty much every high ranking officer there is in town – save for those who really run the city, the Tappis and Ibrahims and Khan saabs of the world – and the entire exercise left me with an acute pain in the legs [Really, courtrooms, is it so difficult to arrange seating for the press corps?] and rather bemused. The discussion seemed like it was happening where Karachi was being compared to a parallel, utopian universe, everything should be right, but much to the judges’ chagrin, it was not.
The failure to understand Karachi isn’t just because there is very little context in press reporting these days – no one has the time or patience, and Karachi journalists assume that everyone knows what they’re taking about – but also because there is little comprehension on just how vast the city is. I’ve lived here 17 years, in seven neighbourhoods, and there are parts of the city I’ve never been to and the ones I lived in have changed beyond recognition in the past two decades. So have the actors there, and they keep changing, and there are warring militias and influential groups everywhere.
Everything in Karachi gets branded a ‘law and order problem’, thrown into a convenient barrel of ‘security situation’ and ‘politicization’ and mixed up for good measure. As the wise Ramesh*, a man with whom many of Karachi’s privileged are familiar, says:
Aap news walay to sirf khabr ki talash mai hote hain. Shehr mai sab theek hai.
The state of ‘theek’ is precisely what the city is in. We are used to a certain number of deaths, a certain amount of violence, and a certain amount of uncertainty. But what is surprising is that even in all these years, the ideas, policies for and analyses of Karachi cling to the familiar wrapping of law and order.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
A journalist’s phone never stops ringing. Its an endless series of texts touting political statements, invitations to “urgent” press conferences where a minister will repeat the same thing he’s been saying for the past year, and the odd bit of gossip. Or someone offering a discount on bulls and goats for “media friends” [true story].
There’s also the delightful beep that isn’t call waiting. I once almost smashed my phone into the wall because the beeping and incessant call drops were enough to make one go insane. Its the oh-so-comfortable feeling that you’re bugged. [Thankfully, I'm never going to be important enough to have this be a daily feature and no one wants to hear an endless series of conversations with the few family members and friends I have about how I'll be late for breakfast/lunch/dinner/tea/birthdays/anniversaries/funerals]
So its rather comforting to know that the government is finally institutionalising the whole business. After all, the military’s been tapping phones since time immemorial. Why should the civilians be left behind?
The country has been saved. So has Islam. There is now no one calling for independence from this wretched state. No one has been picked up in the middle of the night. No one from any sect, religion or profession has been killed for the virtue of what they do and believe in. No one has been kidnapped, mugged, threatened, injured. No one has claimed moral superiority. There has been no massacre.
The state’s move to block cellphone services in Pakistan is perhaps not just one of the most misguided, unintelligent and inane moves there is, but is inhumane on a level I cannot even begin to fathom.
Imagine the plight of someone today trying to get in touch with family members to know if they are safe. Imagine someone who doesn’t have a landline trying to call the police, an ambulance service, a doctor – for assistance of any kind. And while those behind this decision may have the assurance of an army at their disposal, none of the citizens of this state rest at night knowing they are secure.
In the absence of a phone, they will leave their house. They will be mugged, violated of their dignity and possessions. They will be harassed by the hordes of men, but won’t be able to call someone to complain. They will approach the police, who will shrug it off. Even if the police tries to help, they’ll be told not to waste their time. VIP duty hai na sir. They will be detained, go missing, and won’t be able to be traced via a cell phone. They will be killed, and no one will know where they are.
This happens every day. Ask the wife who has no idea where her children’s father is. Ask the mourner whose loved ones were shot dead for their faith and then the attackers celebrated their death. Its available on YouTube, you know. Ask the father whose son’s body has appeared at his doorstep. Ask the young girl who lost her salary when someone pointed a gun at her and demanded it as if it was their birthright. This state – its military, its judiciary, its political parties, its clerics, its enablers – has systematically stripped its residents of the ability to even die and remain buried with dignity.
Goodnight. And good luck.
Resilience, I have often heard, is a quality of Karachiites. Resilient enough to brave ethnic warfare, militancy, street crime, the breakdown of the state’s machinery, political upheaval, power cuts, the ban on shisha and keeping a straight face when meeting Chand Nawab.
May God never curse another city with this.
On Monday afternoon I was greeted right at my doorstep by a gun-toting man and his accomplice. After one of them had waved the gun around, made a rather ominous noise with it and then reached into my cab to demand I hand over my bag and cell phone, they drove off. My last thought was of how they looked rather ridiculous with my fuchsia handbag stuffed between them on the motorcycle.
And then I began to panic. It was a textbook response: hands shaking, stuttering, couldn’t breathe.
And then I wondered. Resilience? Really?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been robbed, and if I have the misfortune to live in this city for any longer, it probably won’t be the last. The great part about the ‘resilience’ of Karachiites is that they’ve seen much worse, and have had one, or several guns, directed at them before.
But on Monday afternoon, as I panicked about what I needed to get blocked first – SIM? cell phone? debit card? – I looked at some of the responses on Twitter to my update about being mugged.
One fine person wondered if I had “too much bling”, another thought it wasn’t right to “curse” and about two dozen wanted to know “where” it happened. (Even if it was on the moon, people, it was still a mugging.) Another thought I had finally been exposed to crime – as if being shot at and temporarily losing partial hearing in one ear wasn’t enough.
Of all the people I dealt with to get everything sorted, the police were the most helpful. “Bandeyan nu maar hi deinge,” offered the man filing the initial complaint. “Why not see the course of justice through?”
“The court will set them free.”
“So what happened?”
“Well I was robbed..”
“My bag was taken away..”
“So it was a snatching!” the police officer crowed. “A snatching and a robbery are two different things.”
The other officer – who asked my father where we were from because I have apparently picked up Sindhi mannerisms and he was confused at how to ethnically profile me – bragged about how the cops had shot a couple of robbers a few days ago.
“So that’s what happened that night*?”
I saw the man they had shot, being dragged into a police van. The crowd watched, the rickshaw I was in slowed down and the cops crowded around their targets. “Our men were there you know. They robbed one couple, then another, then a third.”
He filed the FIR, I came home and became another statistic.
*Refers to the power blackout in Karachi’s South district last weekend. The only light on the street was from the house that had switched on all the exterior lights, in a bizarre, ‘look how much power we have’ moment.
April 14, 1950. The New York Times, on the choice of Karachi as the capital of Pakistan:
“… So Karachi was projected into unexpected fame. It still is midway between its tranquil past and bustling future. Housing is short in the extreme. Thousands of refugee craftsmen do their weaving and spinning beside shacks that not even a “Hooverville” tramp in the days of the American depression would inhabit.
There are far more bicycles, rickshaws and rubber-tired carts drawn by ambling camels with tinkling bells around their knees than automobiles. Buzzards wheel overheard mournfully searching platforms where the Parsees, most of whom have gone to Bombay, used to expose their dead.
Minor birds and crows chatter among bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers in the prosperous residential area. Sindis in long white coats, Baluchis with turbans and fierce brown-faced Punjabi officials from the north wander through the baking streets past temporary hutments where most Government offices still are installed.
But despite squabbles with India over their joint heritage, the festering Kashmir quarrel, suspicions of Afghanistan, commercial and financial disputes with New Delhi and a budget rendered totally lopsided by budget requirements. Pakistan has made remarkable progress and like the mushroom city of Karachi, exudes confidence.”
Watching Shanghai today brought it with a sense of familiarity: this is a story I’ve seen before, felt before. By the end of the film, I felt like I had seen the past two years of work flash by.
Target killers? Check. Reluctant police officers? Check. State complicity? Check. Urban sprawl and threats of forced resettlement? Check.
Combine Shanghai with one of the best books I read last year – Siddharta Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned – and its your guide to what is exactly wrong with Karachi.
While Islamabad – and the Islamabad-centric news media filled with egotistic talking heads – is obsessed with yet another issue that has little to no practical consequence for the hundreds of millions of people in Pakistan, the state has happily abdicated its responsibility in every area in Karachi. I’m sure you didn’t notice. There was no tender issued.
Here you go: security – contracted out to private guards, chowkidars and strongmen and that family member who scrounged around for a weapons license, religion – handed to the neighbourhood imam and the head of the religious-political party of each sect, health – run by private clinics and hospitals, rescue services – Edhi and Chhipa, water – the tanker owners, development – the AKDN, housing – private developers, planning – paper-pushing advisors, justice and dispute resolution – the neighbourhood vigilantes, the well-connected politico, the SHO, riots – party workers, strongmen and a group of people fed a plate of biryani.
Everything in this city is a golden egg, an opportunity to scam someone out of more money, to help one group at the cost of another. The city is heralded as the country’s financial capital, but it is really the country’s opportunist capital. The city is flogged again and again – for money, for gaining political mileage, for showing who is in control after all. Land? Who lived there before? Who cares? They can be shuttled off somewhere. Rape? What does it matter? She must be lying. So must be her medico-legal officer. Riots? Let’s kill a few more people.
“Dekho halaat phir kharab honge. Yeh election tak baar baar hota rahe ga taake logon ko lage ke sheher control se baahir hai.”
Arey mangta hai humein chanda bhi
Humein sooraj bhi
Bolo kya do ge?
Dhandha ye agar chanda nahi, donation sahi
Bolo kya do ge?
“The extortion slip featured a drawing of a bullet and said that the doctor’s life would be priced at Rs38, which is the cost of a bullet.”
“Mai to chai bechta hoon. Mai maheenay ke chaar sau rupay kahan se doon?”
Like that moment in Shanghai when Emraan Hashmi starts dancing in glorious abandon – a day’s work done and does it matter that the man he’s dancing with is going to be the reason he’ll be running through the streets with a CPU, banging at a bureaucrat’s door for justice (who has just been mocked for trying to pull off a Robin Hood act) – Karachi dances this tune everyday. It isn’t that those who are elected don’t care, there’s a reason there has been development, whether that was done with a holistic view is another question altogether. But the fact is that they don’t need to care. They can easily just get by.
And that is what Karachi is surviving on. Everyone is getting by, but the dance is turning angrier with each day. Those who loved a ruling political dynasty now smear black paint over their faces on posters they once proudly kissed and look over into a reporter’s notebook to make sure they’ve listed their list of complaints: kutta, haramzada, beghairat, humein bech daala. Hai hai. And those who would never speak ill of the powerful now openly blame them for their lives being in ruins. But it doesn’t matter. They will soon be coddled, told that what happened was a mistake, that they tried their best, and be given more Robin Hood-like characters to look up to.
Who doesn’t love a target killing year? Or a dengue year? Or a floods year? After all, this is nothing but an opportunity to plant a big flag and say ‘we helped, don’t you remember, now vote for us.’
Who doesn’t love an election year. Naach magan, kaat mutton, roz humein khana.