It seems apt, my sickness here. It is in this city that I suffered multiple bouts of typhoid, measles, malaria, fever, bee stings. It is in this city that Dr. Moazzam of Jubilee said to me time and again, 'moon kholain, aaah....' Then he would look away abruptly, and shake his head. My dreading would start. Ten minutes later, the compounder of death would walk towards me with an injection, much like an executioner, and poke me. If this compounder is still alive, I would like to ask him to say sorry --even if he was following orders--even if he meant for me to get better--just for having that slightly amused, but usually disinterested, look on his face when he walked towards me, us, injection lined up in front of his face. My brother and I - we thought his face had started to look like a sui. Just as husbands and wives, owners and pets start to resemble each other, he had started to look like his instrument.
Every new season brings with it a new viral. And I here I am sweating though this one, and delirious. I've been through five days of lying on the floor, couch, bed, yoga mat, face down, face up, sitting up against the wall, waiting, sweating, waiting for this fever to go. My skin is damp. Air-conditioning feels like the breath of a reptile. My lower back aches and I try to go into bridge position to ease the ache - but I have no strength in my upper arms. My shoulder blades squeeze inwards like rubber. I dream of interactive acupuncture. When I am at 98 and normal, there is a heavy silence in my head, a silence of fatigue and illness.
The dreams come and go, and in these dreams, I am in college. I am at home, except my home will be demolished soon. My sister says she gets nostalgic about rooms and she wants to go have one last supper there. Except the walls are covered with curses, lines and lines of Urdu galiyaan, and we must run lest these escape and we find ourselves enmeshed. Who else but the steps in our family could have done it. How they hate us. Next to our home was Lalas. His house is gone and so are the juggis. I remember meeting an old woman there, and a child who asked me how old I was. A group of youngsters wearing padded bras were doing a Bollywood routine. They are all gone now. And now there is a single businessman on his cellphone, and his son who plays a lonesome game of hopscotch on the red tiles; distractedly, he spits his paan. I must find the evicted. I manically ask around. Some say I must build bit by bit, name by name, and start at Cantt Station. How many tragedies has oral history missed. And I begin the futile work of dreams, and it saps all my strength. I am cold. I have skipped several meals. How do you find someone you meet in a timeless dream who has been evicted? How do you relocate to them? Its the fever working itself to a frenzy- making the impossible seem doable.
I am pulled out of delirium by phone calls. My cell phone is next to me and in sickness, I seem to be answering all my calls and pretending to sound professional. A. who wants a recommendation catches on. She says, "Maam, take care of yourself." I am touched by this, perhaps, perfunctory courtesy, kind of like the gay Cambodian nurse in Santa Clara who asked me before he drew blood: "Feeling emotional today?" I was pregnant with M, and had been weeping profusely in the waiting room about someone's death, and he seemed like a messenger of sorts. Sa. calls to remind me of moot court. They are preparing for India and I know the only advice I will have for them is -- beat them on law, not on passion. He has a knack for understanding half sentences and partially expressed thoughts. Then R. I say to her, I am sick, I don't know how I will do this. Then I walk to my laptop and find the file in my email, and miraculously I go over it, and she doesn't even push me. This is what I like about students. Temporary, intimate connections built around intellectual purpose, and in this delirium the one thing that holds me up.
At college, I am walking in my campus. It seems so haunted now, except that I see my Bangladeshi friend, M, and she's wearing a headscarf. Her black curls flow out, and I ask her how she could still be in college. She says she's doing her post doc in Anthropology, and I walk through campus with her. It feels surreal and so familiar the landscape, it pains me to the core to have lost it all to memory. How young must we have been when we first got here. I dream sometimes, I still have one semester left, and I am filled with zeal.
This is the delirium of sickness. I dream about my reality -- about picking and dropping kids. Infinite loops of school ballet swimming friends birthdays play dates care love baths. I need a drink of water. In fact I have finished drinking a whole jug of ORS that magically appeared in my fridge by orders of S who is in the boondocks of country. I know it helps me to know it is he who remote controls my path to wellness, from two hundred miles away, and not my mother. My mother is just a child. When I was eight, I told my mother there was a man outside the gate on a motorcycle, and his private parts were outside his pant zip and he muttered something. She was so upset, she went red, and gave me instructions. After that, this recurring dream, in fevers, of a tiger chasing me, and me running, running from Sadiq Store, short cut through Lucky House, locking the gate shut just in the nick of time. Saved from hungry fangs, and breathless. That and the ticking, growing bomb.
I wake up in a sweat and make a mental note. "Must have life outside of kids." I tell S. "Our lives revolve around the kids." I must visit the Saraiki Belt now. If your aunt is dying in Karachi, you can not help her from Boston no matter how many laps you swim. I felt most at peace after I spent the whole night at the hospital, fell asleep on a folding chair by her bedside, and woke up with my head in the lap of a Baluch woman who was running her fingers through my hair maternally. I pulled away, embarrassed. (I have yelled slogans on Frat Row, and she thinks I am a child.) The woman on the bed across who shrieked in pain all day was grinning madly. My aunt sat in her wheelchair, picking at her hair. She was tiny and a mess. The priest did his rounds, and she sat up like a little girl in a confessional. God bless you my child, he said. Padre. She talked to him like someone who has faith in miracles. Later, we transferred her to Liaqaut. I was bouncing along in the back of an Edhi ambulance holding her dry feet trying to fill the treacherous air with optimism while her pale face peered at me through the coffin like sheets so clean. We are at this signal, I inform her; although, she never asked.
Its best to get away from the city now and meet thousand year old villagers and really try to understand why the issue is more complicated than a simple man caused ecological disaster, than simply 'feudalism.' To drink at the fountain of their wisdom.
Now I am counting the hours left for S to come back from his travels in Sindh. He is in Jacobabad, Sukkur, Dadu. I lose track. He tells me on the phone something about data. The children are dancing around me. They want me to play 'Zoo Zoo' and I tell them I will play when I am better. A begins to cry. R tells me Go to your room and lie down. I know its better that way. To be alone with your sickness. To twist and turn.
I even host someone in the midst, a documentary film-maker. I tell my guest, I am trying to understand RBOD. Twenty years ago, it seems, the government mismanaged the discharge of agricultural effluents from Upper Sindh and Baluchistan and diverted these to the Manchar Jheel. Over the course of twenty years it destroyed the indigenous community around the lake, Asia's largest. The water got poisoned with the discarded pesticide and salinity. The villagers have nothing to drink. The fish got depleted. They have little to catch and sell. The local women lost their cottage industry as the raw material, the bamboos they used to weave chatais, grew in the lake. The 650 different species of birds that migrated from Central Asia and Siberia come no more. The villagers buy water now, Rs. 20 a tank. They do not have gas. They buy wood to cook their food, and it seems like they have no income.
S and I are sitting in a community meeting. "Take a sip of our water," they offer me a steel cup. I pass it to S who takes a sip unflinchingly. I will not be shamed. I take a sip next hoping my cowardice would pass for deference. "It tastes okay," I say. "No it does not, says a village elder. It is salty. Our minds have been destroyed. We are all a little bit mad now. We do not even remember anything." I scan the crowd for signs of madness, and we laugh. Amidst the laughter the elder's son who looks a bit like Vivek Oberoi, surma in his eyes, says: "Eat fish here. Have a drink of water at Sehwan." More laughter. S doesn't laugh. He tells me he has met many communities and this is one of the most destitute because there isn't much to plant either without the water. NGOs come with timely gifts and tall promises, but the solution needs to be more holistic. WAPDA has installed a filtration plant, and some find reprieve.
Where will the effluents go? If not Manchar, they will clog the fields. If they clog the fields for miles around, the lands will not be cultivatable. If the lands becomes useless, the wadera will survive, but the haris will not. I am reading a report and it seems like Phase 2 was never implemented, I intervene. "Ideally", says the film-maker, "at ten times the cost these should have been redirected through the mountains."
Aah those Sindh mountains we saw driving through the desert - where the University of Sindh appears like an oasis, and the Indus River, a diminishing gift. Dreams should always land up in desert mountains, and drained to the sea. So majestic and serene; their heat could suffocate. We see the historic city of Bhubak. We wet our feet in Sindhu. We stop at the tomb of Shabaz Qalander at Sehwan. I like that Sufis blended religions to appeal to their followers' tastes, but this is just a racket now. Hundreds lie in the stench of the shrine waiting for biryanis to be handed out. After seeing a community gaunt from water starvation, this display of generosity (and gluttony) is vile. It does not feel spiritual. We quickly give fifty rupee notes to faqirs who pray for us and handle us as like veteran hustlers. There is no god to be found here. No need to pray so hard. There are people living without water and on cracked earth, while the duffers will have their golf courses. We all are a little bit mad. Years ago, as children, we visited Haleji Lake. Those were the good days for that lake too, and I remember meeting a family. We gave them saunf and talked to them for hours; they seemed very poor. The father said his daughter was pulled by a crocodile while she washed clothes by the edge. His face still haunts me. That croc is an endangered species too.
Friday, July 8, 2011
Last night at 4 am, my daughter held her ear and cried for two hours. I tried everything - Q tips, Dimetapp, warm presses, vapor rub, cuddles, debating the emergency room. Finally she slept, and so did I. My 3 year old woke up and heard us talking. He said, "You will go with her to the doctors, and leave me alone." His voice was big - deep and funny in his sleepy state. I assured him that he would be coming too; but I really did not want to race to a hospital in the pre-light hours of the morning with two babies while feeling sick and feverish myself. I could take Sharif, but he's so dainty. I took her to the clinic today, and the waiting area had some sick people and relatives whose eyes were glued to the TV screen. A man was being shot.
The city lost 60 or more people in the last two days in sectarian violence. One was a six year old girl. Thirteen were commuters on the W25, 1D and Mashallah coach. Three were shot in front of Makki Masjid at Garden Road, my commute all my life as a school girl.
My daughter has an ear infection she got from the swimming pool. The ENT specialist said that only God was the guarantor - no pool in Karachi is clean.
I do not live in Qasba Colony, Orangi Town or Kati Pahari. In 48 hours, people here have been to hell and back, and its not uncommon.
When serious (not everyday) violence happens in parts of Karachi, we see it manifest itself in areas this side of teen talvar in long queues at the petrol pumps and traffic jams, frenzied tweets and status updates. Four years ago when I was part of a group formed in solidarity with the lawyers, we acted hopeful. Society rose up in outrage after May 12th. People came out. People spoke of de-weaponization. People wrote statements expressing grief, and demanding the government take action. People thought change was possible. Students wanted time to discuss the events, and teachers desired to know how sweet minds internalized such grit. We even visited pashtuns evicted in a spate of violence in a far flung part of Landhi. We spoke to a speechless widow. We saw dead rabbits. We met endlessly hotels that hosted sleazy business and us - and sadly, we ordered tea only.
Rewind some more. Security forces kill 30 in Kurram Agency. This just yesterday.
There was a time when we actively opposed the drones, the operations that lead to displacement and destruction of innocents. What the hell are doing now being so complacent? Were we naive then? Or is that we just got used to it, and got busy with stuff that careers are made of. Is it that now activism must suit us - instead of us understanding the need of the day.
I wrote the following note on November 30, 2008.
I was sitting in a meeting at the labor party office discussing the war on FATA and the ethnic hatred brewing against Pashtuns in Karachi. Sherbaz got a text that there was firing in Benares. He suggested we break up the meeting, as people might have trouble getting home. However, we were having an intense discussion; how the war started in Waziristan, and is now in Bajour, and spilling into Mahmound, the shift from ground warfare to aerial bombardment, about the need to develop a third voice in the war on FATA - a voice that unequivocally condemns the bombing, and presents an analysis of the international players and their interests.So we went onto 7 pm. Its true that people living in defence and clifton have a different sense of security and immunity.
On the fifth floor we met sign makers assembling huge PPP signs requesting people to the join the Karachi division of the party. On this particular one, Asif Zardari' grin, and glossy skin were visible and despicable.
We were driving back on Drigh Road when S texted me asking where we were. I texted him back saying, "Regent Plaza." He said there was firing at Zainab Market a couple of miles away. It didn't make me fearful- the miles were insulation -- but I did register the urgency and the need to get home fast. Before getting on the Sindh Club Road, a commondo popped out of a police van. His gun dangled dangerously. He performed some protocol and then ushered a few cars in. We followed. It was already a city on the edge. It was already palpable.
When you enter City Karachi, you are put in an infinite loop. This is not a highway constructed by the honorable ex mayor. Its a tube lit rite of passage; its an escalator leading you up to a movie theater in the skies; its a little bit like Hotel California, except without the soft edges and bends, and certainly no champagne, just depleting mangroves. You should snap a heel. You should run against the stream. You should scream over the English of all the silly barristers. On the way, they inject you with something -- something that makes you accept the grim reality, and even enjoy it in pockets. Life is so stunning here. Cafe Pyala tweets mocking the English used in Alliance Francaise promos.
There are so many outlets for social activism that you barely even notice that the scenery crumbles now and then, and builds itself up again, weakly. New teenagers who join you along the way are already more acclimated than you are. They are not cynical; most just accept and live with big hearts, and focus only on their true loves -- Ipods, laptops, and pretty faces.
It seems easier now to take one issue and figure out a small change; its simpler if you deal with mini revolutions and set the stage for better times. A building near a school. The construction of an LNG terminal near Port Qasim. Diamond Bar City on islands. Standing with the peasants of Manchar Jheel rendered without a livelihood by the disastrous RBOD. The KESC union strike.
But even then. Each death should be mourned, investigated; people should be arrested but not tortured and brought to trial. Families of the dead should be compensated by the perpetrators. Bahut ho gaya. We detest this innocent loss of life. We condemn the perpetrators of this violence. We call for all who own weapons in Karachi to surrender them. We demand that fascist parties amend their agendas and modus operandi. We want peace and economic justice. Change is coming. And the only way to tap that energy is to think back to 2008 where hope was ample, and enthusiasm was plenty. Because really, this city wants nothing but wellness.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Now only in Paris would all this new beauty take its true form.
If Daniyal Mueenuddin's depiction of the master-servant relationship is through compassion and romance, Aravind Adiga through mistrust and injustice that finds ways to crack at the surface, then Shehryar Fazli's "Invitation," can be described as transactional and tense, yet unchanging.
I like the part of the book that it is Karachi Noir. I like the descriptions of cabarets, the love stories of its dancers, the constant hash and opium references, the solid doses of 1970 seedy club culture and the velvety parties thrown by the Brigadier, the protagonist's experience of the cult of Zulfiqar Bhutto. This is the ghost of the Karachi we inherited, and in researching and writing about it, Fazli has given it shape. He has pieced together the many bits we were carrying -- sensual leg shows in pictures from prohibited drawers and old magazines, in images of the casino near the current McDonalds at Seaview.
But, what I didn't like was that Fazli leaves the political too epic to be tampered with. His main character, Shahbaz, operates apolitically as if in a trance, without taking a firm stance on anything. From the start, we are told Shahbaz did not join in the political protests in France of May 1968. His father is a film-maker who participated in the botched Rawalpindi conspiracy. The protagonist thinks and feels, but does not believe in street power. He has his father's conviction-less exile to back it up. His father was in it for the love of Faiz's (his co-conspirator) art. Shahbaz comes to Karachi from Paris to reclaim on orchard in Sindh that his Mona Phuppi is threatening to sell -- already a dispiriting tale of an ex-revolutionary. A group of Haris are squatting on the land. Shahbaz is conflicted. While on the one had he feels that they have a right to stay and should even kill him as he is the one trespassing, he does something quite the opposite. He bribes a police officer, and later elicits help from two Jamaatis, and has the Haris forcibly removed. Doesn't matter that he has a supposed fondness for two Hari boys who live in the orchard, one of whom he nicknamed Little Chief -- Shahbaz has drawing room politics and cabaret hall guilt, and its never enough to challenge power or relinquish it.
In the backdrop of this personal dilemma are the events leading up to the debacle of 1971 in East Pakistan. Shahbaz comes to rely upon his Bengali driver, Ghulam Hussain, who provides him liquor made from the bark of the acacia tree. While the Pakistani army and Jamaat-i-Islami commit atrocities in the soon to be Bangladesh, Shahbaz unintentionally sets in motion a series of events which culminate in his driver's arrest and torture on charges of selling an illegal substance. The real reason is that he is suspected to be a member of the Mukti Bahini, and Shahbaz's real motive maybe an attempt, albeit treacherous, to show loyalty to the Brigadier for his hospitality. Shahbaz entices him with immigration to Paris when he knows its impossible - a deceit that plagues his mind, almost too exaggeratedly. Later when he finds Ghulam's beaten-up frame in the back of a lock-up, he has to release all his anger; Shahbaz beats up and nearly kills the Brigadier's servant who may have unwittingly said something. This is how gentleman fight their battles. And aptly, years later when Shahbaz sees the brigadier in Paris he hands him a never used bottle of whisky with the Chief-of-army-Staff label (stolen from Ghulam Hussain.)
In this book we see a bleak prediction of Pakistan as a military hegemony, as a state that crushes the rights of the poor. And it came true. While the author through his main character condemns the army actions of 1971, and oppressive land ownership, there is also a definite acceptance of destiny, hierarchy, and decadence. The narrator, forever, fails to take any positive action and thus never really becomes likable or even human. All his dilemmas are mental. In contrast, the brutality that unfolds is real and violent -- the evictions in Mirpurkhas, and the killings in Dacca which are described flippantly as "birth pangs" by his Brigadier host. The main character's actions are a betrayal to his own (sterile) morality - just as people constantly hum "Hum Dekhain Gai," without really meaning for it to evolve to revolution -- and never ever being close to social change, Shahbaz, too, retreats from personal growth. He sees qawalis at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and then moves on to never find his long lost childhood abode in Old Clifton.
As a reviewer points out, "Fazli fares worst when it comes to evoking the urgency and intrigue of the times he is writing about. The weight and charge of history never fuels the plot in a convincing or exciting way."
He dreams: "Of myself deep in the orchard, and the grounds feel crunch, brittle shells under my feet that like skulls that send a hill through me every time I hear them rupture. From somewhere there is the sound of singing, of women or little boys. And when the Pir's men come, with guns and machettes and blood in their eyes, the squatters scramble immediately for safety or exit as if they knew this was coming, they'd waited for it for years."
Tell that to the Okara peasants.
He ultimately and inevitably sides with his class interests as a landlord. And because of this he must conspire with the police, the army, and lower class people capable of fast thuggery, enjoy the double land shares the Islamic law accords him This alliance is what the communists would call the "ruling elite." But what keeps the book going - is the author's description of Shahbaz's descent to status-quo, of how he seeks refuge in power. I remember a game, Grim Fandango, with the same film noir mood -- a man in the land of the dead where recently dead people journey to the ninth underworld. Here is the protagonist's second experience of bribery:
The first time feels supreme, above the law, on the inside where the wheels of government spin, the honoured access of the crook. The second time one realizes that one is neck-deep in a charade, weak, low on the ladder, still far from catching up to that man who took one's Ayatal-kursi in a Parisian toilet years ago. The second time, an empty act, bribery losing its splendour and becoming corruption for its own sake. This one hurt the soul.
Fazli may have gone a bit too strong on the sexy, but it seemed important enough for the mood. At one point, Malika, the Egyptian cabaret dancer who performs at the Brigadier's hotel on contract, attracts an older woman who touches her lower back. She prays before sleeping with Shahbaz who finds it exhibitionist. You'd hate for a fundoo to stumble on that part. She considers sex to be a "serious affair." "Her towels, her clothes, her sheets smelled and she left things crudely exposed...It was possible that this exposure, this indecency, was a project in itself, a statement of principle."
You never know whether it is more perversion or feminism that inspires him.
Since Shahbaz can't offer Malika a more glamorous future, like in films, he backs off. He can't be with a woman who is poly-amorous. When she isn't forthright about her relationship with Brigadier Alamgir, Shahbaz leaves. "She was energized, smiling, open-mouthed like a school girl. She'd fuck with my head all night if I let her. I stopped the game there and left her."
A nicely written book for some Karachi-ites and even if it is not revolutionary, it is exciting in parts. It makes you feel righteous about a getting back massage in Karachi, without worrying too much about how ridiculous it really is. But the project would have been more worthwhile if it had more city history for the addicted-- and was more than pretty white boys with problems.