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.