I have spent four years of life being reunited with Karachi. And, I may not be ready to write a novel about it, I have grown wiser, and older. I remember on those short visits back a very cynical chacha. Everyone has one; the type who tells you everything is bad, no body knows anything in Pakistan, no one is sincere, your social movement and ideals are wasted, and watch your back.
I used to smile and shake my head impatiently. Its the system thats broken, not the people. From my vantage point, on a brief visit back from a snowy, pretty place, life offered the luxury of critique, of hope -- that distance from ordinary people and real problems and people's real life resilience which is often ugly. We all have to start somewhere, I would say, and struggle is a necessary first step. I know about corruption, but you also must find the good in people.
I would attribute his cynicism to experience -- too many trips to the courts over property disputes; watching old Karachi, pre partition, turn into new Karachi, swell with multiple waves of migrants, and disappearing locals . He went from playing soccer with Sheedis and speaking Baluchi, testing remedies of herbs from old city markets -- to being driven out of business by unscrupulous competitors, experiencing hooliganism, fighting bureaucracy, and suffering Zia. Throw in '71 Prisoner of War. And now to a secluded home in Defence and spending old age, single, finding Mathira delightful, keeping up with news religiously, and falling off buses.
My chacha got off a moving bus recently because the conductor refused to stop. (Stopping means losing profits.) He complained for months of a pinched nerve and walked with a pronounced limp. I said to him, take a take a taxi if you must go to City Court. But I know its a ridiculous proposition. Parsimoniously speaking, a bus ride is Rs. 20 and a taxi ride at least Rs. 300 --and with repeated trips things add up.
Now when I visit, he asks me of my progress and my views. I am committed to idealism but with a sobriety and a slowness. He asks me why Tammy doesn't call me on her show anymore. And I reply, tersely, because I have nothing important to say. You spoke to Muneer Malik during the lawyers movement about working with him; so what happened to that. I don't know what happened. The wheels of justice turn slowly. I am no longer excited about telling the stories of early day activism - getting to know the movement and the NGOs, petty fights and political nuances and hot tempered purities of position. I do not engage in stupid boycotts of Pizza Hut. Grudgingly I even accept the Ladies and their sequins. Now, I tell him about some minor victory, half convinced of it myself - we stopped a builder from an illegal tower; we went to Sajawal and understand this problem of water, land and soil now - and his cynicism is gone and he is suddenly sharing knowledge and interested in conversation, and snaps madly if Tony, no longer a puppy, interrupts.
I took him to an orthopedic doctor who is also a relative, and he chided him; my uncle got a lump in his throat. Remember this line from the movie Earth. Why are you so mean if you can't stand it? He laughed with Hijras when they convinced him that applying more make up made them more "modern." He agrees that the Pakistan army committed atrocities in Bangladesh. Yet he/they/all of them - my entire father's side of the family would not let Shera drink from a cup because of his caste. I once poured water directly into his hands. He was a government sweeper who, despite a respiratory illness, swept streets and homes to retain his rights to pension funds. Post 1947, Karachi's gutters swelled and roads reeked as Hindu Dalits designated as sweepers migrated to India. The bureaucracy hurriedly placed immigration controls on them. It was beneath the new Urdu speaking community to lower their bodies into clogged gutters.
Shera is dead now. His son is a sweeper and we are still that people - a country run by land owning elite, military elite, business elites; powers that maintain control by exploiting the rest. Cruelly crushing people's spirits and perpetuating subjugation, destroying institutions, education, optimism. Debt traps that began decades ago still trap people as they rush to Karachi to seek part time employment and return to pick cotton. We really are that mean, and we can take it. So may as well get on with it.