Death Rules Life In Karachi

It was a day trip to Karachi to attend a memorial reference and a poetry reading in the honour of Parveen Rehman, the director of the Orangi Pilot Project, who was murdered on March 13 this year. For those less than 24 hours I spent in the city of my birth, I met many people but the only topic of discussion around me was death in its various forms – lethal torture, murder, sniping, sporadic firing, target killing, bomb blasts – inflicted upon the citizens.
The flight from Islamabad took off an hour later than scheduled after we had boarded on time. The passengers sweltered while waiting in the aircraft. The captain, with a nominal hint of sarcasm, told us that it was not PIA’s fault this time around; neither was it a technical fault or weather conditions. (The absence of proper air conditioning in the closed compartment of its airplane was PIA’s fault though.) The aircraft was held back because it was asked to wait for a VIP who arrived after the scheduled time of departure.
Nowhere in the world would this happen. Imagine 400-odd people waiting and the flight schedule of an international airliner being disturbed for one man in the government. His name was not announced by the captain but the person sitting next to me claimed that it was the federal minister for interior. Whether it was him or not, what is more important in the present circumstances, however, is that the minister actually succeeds in contributing towards bringing peace to the city he was supposedly travelling to. For the moment, the ruling party seems to have no policy on Karachi.
A car with small rounded dents on the backseat door, apparently caused by the brushing of pellets, picked me up. I was later told by the driver that he was caught in a minor crossfire some days ago in Baldia Town. On his way to the airport from Gulshan-e-Iqbal that day, perhaps less than 30 minutes ago before he met me, he had witnessed two men on a motorbike stop a car, fire upon the passengers and kill two of them. The bikers ran away in front of everyone – in broad daylight.
The driver of the car I was in was a middle-aged man with a peppered five o’ clock shadow. His parents came from Swat but he was a born Karachiite who had been driving in the city for thirty years. He lived in Banaras Colony – a predominantly Pakhtun neighbourhood – with his wife, brother and four children. He told me, “Two days ago, a rickshaw driver from my neighbourhood was shot in the head, hacked into six pieces and found in a gunny bag. He was 25 and had gotten married two months back. He was not associated with any group or party. We are used to this now. I have transported bodies from the Kati Pahari area that connects Orangi Town with North Nazimabad to morgues in hospitals and Edhi centres last year. There were women and children also who got shot or small children who died due to unavailability of milk or food. This was due to massive gunfire in the area that continued for days.”
On my way to the auditorium where the event for Parveen was organised, I stopped over briefly at my brother’s place to say hello to my sister-in-law. After the usual exchange of pleasantries she said, “Do you remember the woman who came to help us out with house work when you were here last?” Before I could answer she continued, “Her younger brother was a vegetable vendor. He was made to disembark from a bus and was then shot and killed along with six other men. When she and her husband, who is a construction labourer, were going to the hospital to receive his body in a rented Suzuki pickup, they were fired upon by unknown men. Her husband got multiple bullet wounds in his leg and has been bedridden for six months. But she says they are lucky that she was not hit and her husband survived.”
At the memorial meeting organised for Parveen Rehman, Parveen’s colleagues, architects, authors and intellectuals including Arif Hasan, Ajmal Kamal and Zahida Hina spoke. Then there were poems read by a small group of poets present on the occasion with Fahmida Riaz presiding over. Even those speakers who would end their remarks on a positive note lamented and cried about the state of affairs. They did not only speak about Parveen’s murder but talked at length about the rampant killing of innocent women, men and children in the city and the country. The poems were mostly requiems and elegies. Some that had a hint of optimism were also interwoven with expressions of fear, insecurity, death and existential crisis being experienced collectively. Later in the evening, Arif Hasan mentioned that six of his friends, associates or acquaintances had been wounded by gunfire or killed over the last one year.
When speaking of Karachi, we discuss its sociology, the political choices made by the state establishment over the past few decades, the issues of identity, ethnic tensions, sectarian target killing, ethnic or religious militancy and violence. We worry about the commercial and economic hub of the country. We are concerned about the price hike in the rest of Pakistan if things come to a halt in its primate city. But we speak little about the true human suffering in Karachi that political parties, mafias, criminal gangs, militant outfits, et al have brought upon innocent citizens.
We have reduced people to body counts. What is happening to the thousands of families, friends and communities of those killed or maimed is seldom anyone’s business. Death in Karachi is truly egalitarian. It does not discriminate on the basis of faith, caste, colour, creed, sex or age. The absence of a response to this situation by the state of Pakistan is criminal when it comes to the insensitivity to the continued suffering of people. The absence of a coherent policy in this respect is also suicidal for the whole nation.
Tailpiece: My last week’s column gathered a lot of flak from Khan Sahib’s PTI and his supporters. It is their right to disagree and I particularly respect those who counter-argue by correcting me or by giving out a different interpretation of the same fact. However, I am also used to hate mail from some PTI enthusiasts. One PTI office-bearer even wrote an article quoting ‘facts’ about me because the gentleman only searched the internet to find false information about his subject.
This time around, there were three letters published in this newspaper about my last column. Most significant, of course, is a long letter from Dr Shireen Mazari, the central information secretary of the PTI. While reading it I was reminded of a press conference Dr Mazari held in September 2012 when she had decided to leave the party. Have the issues she had raised just a few months back been resolved? I don’t see that. I don’t want to burden her with any new questions about her leader. Or about the KP information minister’s or an MPA’s statements about terrorism and the Taliban after her letter was published. She already has a hard job to do. People are wondering who from the first-ever PTI CM’s family is left who is not in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly? After three women from his family got reserved seats in KP, his son-in-law has been awarded the PTI ticket for by-election in NA-5, Nowshera.