The non-English speaking Pakistan, unlike the English speaking is not laughing much and a big section of the liberal, wealthy Pakistanis seem to have hidden themselves in their comfortable bubbles. Curfewed Night author Basharat Peer writes about his experience in the country ‘at war with itself’.
Some six years ago, I often rode past the Pakistan embassy in manicured Chankyapuri, on my way to work in Central Delhi. I would glance at the bluish dome rising above the high boundary walls of the embassy compound, take in the emptiness of the streets around it, and keep driving. I was curious, but did nothing about it. Those days, the late Assistant Commissioner of Police of Delhi Police’s Special Cell, Rajbir Singh, used to rule Delhi. The Pak embassy was like Pakistan, an invisible presence, and a forbidden land.
On a pleasant early February morning I walked past the heavy gates of Pakistan embassy and followed a small street—Andre Malraux Road–leading to the Pakistani visa counters. Around a dozen old men sat behind much older models of typewriters and stacks of visa forms on decrepit wooden tables. Around a hundred men and women from rural Bihar, Utter Pradesh, and Old Delhi waited in a queue leading, slowly to a rusted, thick iron gate. Some twenty minutes later, I walked into the embassy compound. A Kashmiri man walked in after a few minutes, bypassed the line, and walked straight ahead to a row of chairs much closer to the building housing the visa section. A middle-aged security guard hung about. “Why are those people in a separate section?” I couldn’t resist asking. “That is the line for Kashmiris, this is the line for Indians!” I joined the Kashmiris. It seemed to be the beginning of an interesting journey.
The tired immigration clerk at the Delhi airport woke up as I thrust my passport forward. His eyes moved slowly, like a shikara, over my name and address, and then he abruptly raised his head as if a bomb had gone off somewhere. “Pakistan Jaana Hai!” The fury over the Bombay attacks was still on the mind. I pushed forward as further proof, a copy of my book. “Is it about curfew?” he asked. “About a lot more,” I promised.
The PIA flight to Lahore was mostly empty and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang the words of Amir Khusrau from the overhead speakers. The airhostesses in rather dull salwar kameez and the stewards with Kamal Hasan moustaches distributed newspapers, smiled the airlines smiles, and announced that the passengers could take whatever seats they preferred. The engine came to life, Nusrat stopped singing, and the pilot commenced to read Dua-e-Safar, the Islamic prayer for safe travels.
We took off safely and I reverted to my pursuit of coffee and reading the Pakistani English language newspaper, Dawn. The paper founded officially by Ali Mohammad Jinnah had the same effect on me that PK271 had had: if you could add a few more archaic words and expressions to the Madras-based daily, The Hindu, you would get the Dawn. The papers could compete for the dullest newspaper layout award. Dawn would beat the Hindu though for the sheer amount of bad news: another high school had been burnt down by the Taliban in Swat, another few thousand people had been forced out of their villages in FATA by American drone attacks, which seemed to kill far more civilians than members of the Al-Qaeda or Taliban. I looked out of the window and was suddenly unsure whether I was flying over India and Pakistan. The Dawn announced: 27 Injured in Toba Tek Singh. An immigration official at the Lahore airport looked at my passport and asked with a smile, “Kashmir main aajkal kitna zulm ho raha hai.” I made some vague skyward gesture and he shook his head in somber understanding.
A British-Pakistani friend, who moved to Lahore from London, picked me up from the airport. Showket, her driver, overheard me talking about the Dawn report on Toba Tek Singh. “I am from Toba Tek Singh,” he said. I harassed him with a series of questions. There was no religious militancy in the area, yes, some local feuds once in a while. “The real problem there is load shedding. Recently we have gone without electricity for 20-22 hours,” he said, and continued driving on a rather dark road that brought us to the Mall Road.
The next day was Kashmir day. I had never heard of Kashmir Day, which turned out to be a day designated by Pakistan government to express solidarity with Kashmiris. I drove with a friend through Lahore. The Kashmir day banners were very sarkari, like the Information Department banners in Srinagar. “Indian Brutalities in Kashmir must Stop—City Government Lahore.” “Kashmir Hamara Hai, Sare Ka Sara Hai,” Nawaz Sharif declaimed from a gigantic banner.
The British built parts were neat and orderly, opulent and elegant mansions housed the Lahore elite and the government officials, glistening markets were busy, and famed colleges like the Government College Lahore spoke of history. Not far from the college, the billboards for mobile phone and pasteurized milk dwarfed the small red bunting of the Communist Party office. My friend pointed to a square on the Mall Road, where the Lawyers Marches began last year and where the ongoing Long March commenced, and a little further near a hotel with iron barricades that reminded me of Srinagar, he spoke of Lahore’s first suicide bombing. Above it all hovered portaits that many refer to as: Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost––President Asif Ali Zardari, son Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, and his late mother, Benazir Bhutto, towering over them, looking into the distance. Most of those PPP billboards came with a smaller picture of a lesser-known PPP member, a climber smiling away his loyalty and ambition on a town square.
Lahore had other echoes of Delhi—the beautiful Mughal mosques and tombs that one is forced to visit when a friend from the West is in town–but the scale was more of Jaipur or Lucknow. Most vehicles on the road were mid-sized and luxury cars, public transport seemed non-existent except for an occasional rickshaw. A mile away, near the historic district of Anarkali and the Mughal built Badshahi mosque, it was suddenly another city, more crowded, decrepit, noisy. A lot of boys played cricket inside the mosque compound and lot of younger boys worked at shops and tea stalls in the surrounding markets.
Black flags hung from the rooftops of various buildings, signaling the abodes of the prostitutes, the sad fairies of Anarkali. We drove past a row of dhabas, where a few days earlier my friend had interviewed boys from Swat valley, whose schools and houses were destroyed in the fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistani military and US forces, working as shoe shine boys, waiters, and laborers. I stared at a few young faces with subdued eyes behind shoeshine boxes.
A little later, I saw young faces again in a swanky coffee shop near Gaddafi cricket stadium. Frames of Westerns, Broadway musicals, and Pakistani horror movies hung from the walls. The upper floor of the coffee shop included a small bookstore with well-chosen titles of fiction and non-fiction. A group of convent schoolboys in light blue blazers created a ruckus as they ordered ice cream, punched each other, and shot pictures with cell phone cameras. Two intense, sad lovers, whom one sees in every coffee shop in South Asia, sat in a corner.
Aslam, a tall, wiry man in his early twenties, managed the bookshop. He watched the schoolboys and the lovers with a half-smile that both mocked and envied their leisure. He was finishing a commerce degree at a local college and hoping to get an MBA. Aslam supported his education by rushing to the bookstore after classes and working there till evening. “It is good to be surrounded by books. I read my course books between customers,” he smiled. I hoped that he was able to walk across the desert of inequality separating the rich and the poor in Pakistan. A few weeks later, a hundred metres from his book counter terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team. I hope he is still bent over the counter, reading an accounting textbook.
After a few days in Lahore I travelled to Karachi. Karachi was a riotous concert of speeding cars, ornate buses in bright reds, and black Hero Honda motorcycles in a deathly race with auto rickshaws flaunting a wide-range of decorations from Tablighi Jamaat Zindabad to Dilbar Pukarey.
Every empty public space was either a political slogan of some kind or an advertisement—the most bizarre was the offer to treat piles using the powers of djinn “commanded” by a Sufi quack.
Half an hour later, I walked into a swanky coffee shop, The Second Floor, in Karachi’s up market Defense Housing Authority. Around fifty men and women had gathered there to hear the novelist, Kamila Shamsie read from her new novel, Burnt Shadows. Before I left to join some friends for dinner, Sabeen Mehmood, T2F’s energetic owner had arranged a reading for me. “Sunday night, after the film festival shows are over,” she said.
The Karachi International Film Festival had begun, just the day I landed there. The day passes priced at hundred rupees a day, were aimed at a larger audience, unlike the Rs.1500 tickets for the performance of the famed musical Chicago, by a theatre group from Lahore, which ran to full capacity for two weeks in January. Urban, upper-middle class Pakistan seemed to be having a cultural flourish. Apart from the new wave of novelists and rock musicians, I was also struck by English-language satire on television and stand-up comedy shows. Dawn News TV ran a sophisticated knockoff of the John Stewart’s Daily Show.
Saad Haroon, a stand-up comic in his late twenties, ran a successful satirical TV show called “The Real News” and continues to perform with his troupe, Shark, at multiple venues in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. Among Haroon’s many popular hits: Every Time I see Your Toes, Burka Woman! The other laughs were at terrorism, airport security, cricket, military, and politicians. “At the moment I only reach the English-speaking audience, but I am hoping to do shows in Urdu, travel to smaller cities like Faisalabad and Peshawar,” Haroon told me.
The non-English speaking Pakistan is not laughing much and a big section of the liberal, wealthy Pakistanis seem to have hidden themselves in their comfortable bubbles. I felt it most acutely when Haroon and I got an invitation from someone he knew. We met some twenty young professionals—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—at a popular rooftop restaurant in Karachi. I found myself seated near a young doctor in her twenties. Her accent reminded me of American college girls, and she said, “Like” every few seconds. She had been told I had written a book about Kashmir, Curfewed Night. “So what is like there. Like, you can’t go out after sunset?” Since 1990 going out at night has been impossible in Kashmir. I told her so. She fell into a long silence. I didn’t say anything either and my mind wandered to the packs of stray dogs barking at mid-night on empty Srinagar streets. Then she startled me. “If you can’t go out at night, then how do you party in Kashmir?” Like everyone else, at the dinner she lived in the elite Defense Housing Authority.
Defense stretched for miles, mansions after mansions guarded by high walls and private guards with guns. The upper middle class and the elite seemed to be a bigger chunk than in most Indian cities, and the cramped quarters of the poor, far away in another Karachi were equally bigger. The middle seemed missing. On my first morning in Karachi, I had to register at a police station and the friend I was staying with drove me to a police station in Defense. Darakshaan police station was certainly the most luxurious I had ever seen. The duty officer was on the phone when we entered his room. “Send more bullets. They are running out,” he shouted on the phone. “There has been a robbery nearby. Our men are busy fighting dacoits. Check in a few hours,” he said and dialed the phone again.
It didn’t feel strange, this talk of dacoits in the middle of that island of opulence. Neither did the grave sense of concern among the journalists and writers about the future of Pakistan. I had met the novelist Mohammad Hanif at the Jaipur Literary festival, where he had charmed hundreds with his wit and brilliance. I saw Hanif again, this time in Karachi, in his house with a few journalist friends. He was depressed by all the bad news coming from Swat and Fata and elsewhere in the country. “It is a country at war with itself,” Hanif sighed. “Maybe they (Taliban) will take a few years to reach Karachi,” he forced a laugh. “These seem to be the last days of the Roman Empire,” said Huma Yusuf, an editor with Dawn.
I spent my last afternoon in Karachi buying novels in Urdu Bazaar, an area as crowded and cramped as Delhi’s Chowri Bazaar and surrounded by as many tempting, cheap eateries as Jamia Majid. Every major work of non-fiction, especially about international politics and current events, had been pirated and translated into Urdu. Urdu pulp fiction occupied many shelves, but so did the high literature of Intizaar Hussain, Bano Qudsia, Manto, Premchand, and Quratul Ain Haider, among others. Among the best sellers was an Urdu journalist’s sensational account of the sexual adventures of the Pakistani politicians, Parliament Se Bazaar-e-Husn Tak. One of the books prominently displayed was an Urdu translation of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. The subtitle for this edition was a stirring verse of Faiz Ahmad Faiz: Joh Chaley Toh Jaan Se Guzar Gaye! “Does it sell?” I asked the bookseller. “It always sells, a lot of copies,” he replied. “Who busy it mostly?” I asked. “The Baloch”.
Karachi railway station is strikingly small and decrepit for the mega-city it pretends to serve. It has two separate buildings for two classes of tickets: an empty one for the business class, and a crowded one for the economy class. Stepping onto the platform instantly transported me to a small town railway station in Utter Pradesh. Even the paan wallah looked a bit familiar. I thought of Aligarh. I boarded the late afternoon Karakorum Express for Lahore from one of the two platforms of the station. The Chinese had built some of the coaches and a salesman in my car joked that the Chinese had built it with their own sizes in mind.
The train began leaving Karachi and for a while we passed slums. Dazed children in rags waved at the train and tired older men seemed to watch us pass by impassively. The chai-wallah bought tea, the train conductor arrived, followed by a few young he was trying to “adjust.” My co-passenger complained about the tea and the corrupt practices of train conductors. Introductions followed. He was salesman, had sold Water Coolers mostly in Swat for the last ten years. For the past few months he couldn’t even visit as the Taliban were taking over and drone attacks by the Americans were destroying villages and killing scores. “One of the factories I worked with was called Khyber Water Cooler Factory. The Americans say they were attacking al-Qaeda but the drones hit the factory and killed 21 workers. It was closed. Then the maulvis announce death threats on their FM radios and destroyed schools. My business was totally destroyed and the factory owners fled to Islamabad.”
He drank some more tea. “Now if you have refugees coming from Swat to Islamabad and they are your countrymen and your brothers in Islam, what are you supposed to do? You welcome them! But no, we raised the rent threefold in Islamabad because we know they are desperate.” His faced glistened with anger, and he expressed his admiration for India. “Indians have really built a country. We have only destroyed it.” I was curious which political party he supported and asked him about his politics. He offered a torrent of bad words for the politicians as a response. “I am only with the party of God, almighty,” he replied with a rather mystical air. I took a minute to process it and remembered that many Jamaat-e-Islaami types would make such claims. “Are you with the Jamaat?” I asked. He spit out more abuses and talked about political corruption for a long time.
He took a nap, I read a magazine, walked along the aisle, watched a few Pathaan young men in the next compartment offer prayers between the berths, and stared at the empty desert of Sindh we rolled through. We passed some small villages and poor small towns, where I caught glimpses of men and women in red and orange and pink salwar kameez hanging about their mud houses or working in a fields, where growing anything must be a bitter struggle against nature. Then slowly as the train chugged along, the sun rolled behind distant hills and night fell.