I was driving down one of the Shariah-e-Fugly streets of Karachi the other day when we stopped at a traffic light outside some of the larger hotels. Having recovered from the shock of actually having stopped at a traffic light in Karachi (“When you stop, they will come”), my eye wandered around the old buildings and new eyesores around me. Thrillingly, it chanced upon a couple talking to each other under the shade of a tree. He was touching her elbow; she was staring at the pavement demurely. They looked like a Klimt painting in dusty colors. Awww, I thought to myself, Clandestine Love Affair. They’ve probably run away from home, former members of rival gangs that are even now chasing the couple through the dangerous streets of our largest city. Perhaps she is Shia and he an MQM worker? Oooo, wait! She’s probably a Baloch and he’s a Sindhi Hindu! Or maybe…
“She’s being abducted,” my friend said in a deadpan tone. “Done deal.”
“No, she’s not,” another added. “She’s a prostitute. He’s taking her home.”
“Nahin yaar,” a third insisted. “She’s probably going to rob him!”
“You’re all sick and will have lives with no romance or dignity in them,” I intoned superiorly, but seeing the couple recede in our rearview mirror I had to admit that they could have been doing anything. I’m on my next-to-last-day in Karachi, which upon some thought is probably how lots of people living here feel. Over the last three weeks I’ve been noticing several things about the coastal city of crime, the second most important of which is: Perception is Everything.
Other than the ongoing “law and order sitch” (wonderful term Karachiites use for mass murder etc.), I sense that much of the drama of modern Karachi lies in its perception. Perceptions of which are the worst parts of town, perceptions of the best part of town, but above all else, perceptions of who are the most oppressed people. To be fair, this is a national pastime. It wasn’t until I was flipping through the telly the other day that I noticed the rhetoric of Karachi’s most volatile political party, the MQM, and found it losing its marbles. At a large, well-designed rally with no leader, the party announced it was feeling so unloved that it is threatening to secede into “Sindh 2”, a new province.
It may sound like a sequel to a low-end Bollywood action/horror show (tagline: “From across the oceans, it’s back, for another chance… Sindh 2, coming soon to a riot near you!”) but it’s totally true. Altaf Husaain, that rambling figure many have seen only on screen (small mercies), shouted that his party’s Urdu-speaking Muhajirs feel so threatened that he will demand a whole separate province, should his requests not be met. He says this from thousands of miles away, near Tottenham Court Road. Maybe it’s because I’m self-obsessed and so unused to taking much of what anyone else says seriously, but I was actually shocked that TV talk shows and op-eds ran with the story as if this were a viable request and not a mad rant from a man whose ongoing relevance to contemporary politics is more disturbing to me than the existence of diet cakes.
As we know, the term Muhajir refers to people who migrated from India to Pakistan during the Partition, leaving behind fortunes, houses, families and memories. These people often spoke Urdu as a first language, as opposed to most Punjabis and Sindhis who lived here before the Partition and identified strongly with local languages. The Partition remains one of the largest human migrations in written history, and its scars are still fresh.
I get that.
But I also get that nearly 70 years later, it is no longer a valid basis for an identity. It doesn’t compute to me that a third generation boy or girl growing up in Pakistan feels, in any real way, a recent import from India. Many people have not been permanently displaced, but still feel like it. And it makes sense that in a country like ours where no on really feels at home, any true sense of otherness is exploited by people like Altaf Hussain for short-term political blackmail. My point is not that the Muhajirs of Karachi are not “oppressed.” My point is: get in line.
Honestly, how can you revive the wounds of Hijrat circa 1947 in this current climate of general degeneration? Even now there is a growing line of relatives of “missing persons” from Baluchistan, slowly making their way on a truly long march from Quetta to Islamabad to protest (in the only way they can) the ongoing campaign devoted to their eradication. Few TV channels have covered their journey. No journalists are live-tweeting their events or pit-stops. Few probably will, especially given how everyone is watering at the mouth to see the fate of General Musharraf.
Poor Mush, so sad, so screwed, so “heartbroken.” I would feel sympathy for him had he not voluntarily returned to the country only to have shoes thrown at him. Many are calling for his death, evoking the “forces of justice” to exact revenge on a man who has made a mockery of the constitution, though he is far from the only offender.
I hope none of this gets to the stage where they hang the man. I’m against the death penalty for reasons I don’t need to explain to you. Suffice it to say that hanging the general won’t bring back the years he stole, nor undo the crimes he is accused of. In calling for his death, we think that we are projecting the perception that justice is swift in exacting a swift revenge. That’s how the law works here – in cycles of revenge. It’s a shortsighted, stupid and deliriously daft way of thinking. But justice can’t simply be revenge. If it is, we’ll never get any better. Perceived or otherwise.
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