Pakistan

Independence Eve in Lahore

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Last year this day, it was 45 degrees in Lahore. But since we couldn’t stay all day in the comforts of AC (and of course why were we here if we didn’t taste some real Lahori food?), there we were, in androon city, on the roof of Cuckoo’s Den—an old kotha, now operating as a restaurant run by a painter, son of an old prostitute—in the backdrop of Badshahi Masjid overhearing live qawaali from down below somewhere, deciding on our Lahori menu for dinner. Even though we were seated outdoors under the sky, there was not a single whiff of air that could dry out our perspiration. It was a starless sky with no air but not the kind that whispered rain. We had our dinner listening to the clear sounds of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s numbers playing in the park below, only marred by the buzz of rotating stand-fans—a low-key affair; neither too many photos nor too much drama, just the four of us enjoying the unearthly backdrop. But the moment we paid the bill, it started pouring with reckless abandon—large drops of rain, each the size of a ping pong ball—drenching our clothes in seconds while we ran for cover. IMG_20170813_212814

Not for long though. We knew our clothes had been ruined and there was no cover in the Food Street so we resorted to buying kulfi, checked out some traditional jewelry, and argued about whether we wanted to eat Paan (we decided we didn’t).

Only then my friend’s driver called to let her know that the car had broken down. Wow. Exactly how it happens in movies. Except it didn’t.

We strode towards the car, licking the melted kulfi, while it poured. People were running here and there in a frenzy—anxious for cover. The route from food street to my friend’s place—where we were staying—was no less than an hour at least. It was already past 9:30. And of course we didn’t forget it was Independence Eve tonight, with the whole city lit and ready for celebrations. And in case we didn’t know how Lahoris celebrated, we were about to find out.

My friend called home and informed that we had been stuck and called for another car while we waited in the broken car amid roaring rain that unsettled everyone around. People ran out of eateries, holding whatever they could over their heads—bags, purses, umbrellas—hailing rickshaws to get out of the narrow streets. It was a musical chaos: sounds of azaan from Badshahi masjid entwined with Qawali (which couldn’t decide whether to continue entertaining people or to stop, eventually stopping mid-azaan) from the park beside the fort, the horns of cars and bikes honking non-stop in efforts of getting everything—moving and unmoving—out of the way to get out of the broken roads and quickly expanding puddles of water amid thunder and lightning of the hammering rain that had been suppressed for too long, it seemed.

So there we were, the four of us, stranded in the middle of the old city, sitting in a broken car waiting for another one to come.While it showered non-stop—rain drops pelting continuously on the metal roof—we talked about all the things that we wanted to do, things we dreaded after the long weekend, of life in another city, of movies that we had watched and those that were on our to-watch list, Bollywood songs, and cheap dance parties that ended in us rolling on the floor with laughter, followed by pizza deliveries and coffee rush late at night. Tired of waiting in the car for more than an hour, we changed places, opened and closed doors of the car (since the windows couldn’t be rolled down) while arguing as to whether it was safe to open the car doors:

“But it’s getting really suffocating in here!”

“I’d rather die of suffocation than by a serial killer slitting my throat”. (The driver had disappeared somewhere looking for a mechanic).

The street where we were parked had suddenly fallen silent, the only sounds now of rain thrumming on surfaces. Street lights blinked, so did the lights from inside the windows of the two-three story kothas. The silence was eerie and yet daring. Bored of sitting needlessly in a closeted space of the vehicle, bickering about what we were going to eat next, I suddenly had an idea—something I had always wanted to do but had never dared to say out aloud: we could explore the red-light area.

The timing couldn’t have been perfect; us parked just outside the back gate that entered into the district, with no people around, and virtually no one to notice us, we could just get out of the car and go inside, explore the street and come back. I knew the taboo associated with the place—the infamous Heera Mundi where men from all backgrounds visited to amuse themselves; from drug-addicts to vagabonds to bureaucrats and faujis, students and tourists to cheats and liars, and everyone else who didn’t fit the list and yet wanted the sheer experience of it all. Even though the street is an enigma for the outsiders, enticing some while repulsing others, to me, it held an artistic value. I had read Fouzia Saeed’s Taboo: The Hidden Culture of Red-Light Area and since wanted to visit the place. Heera Mandi is a completely innocuous street unlike what people imagine—that the people living in the Mandi would capture any girl who entered the district and force her into prostitution. And yet the idea was thrilling due to its taboo. I knew the opportunity was too big to miss—when else would we be standing here in this place, idle, with the only worry in the world of a car repair to get home, only feet away from exploring the place I’d read about years ago; a district full of skilled musicians and artists and vocalists and dancers; people, who weren’t appreciated for their inherent art and disgraced for their clandestine services. But of course I wasn’t listened to. How crazy was I to even voice my irrational thoughts of getting out of car in that unsafe area in the first place and then going right into the lion’s mouth on a rainy night in wet clothes, four girls only, with no male to accompany? I tried to reason rationally first with facts and then with the thrill it brought, but my friends were too hard lined to give weight to my imploring requests.

And so we waited for another hour stealthily glancing in the dark street—now the center of our focus, looking for any activity (it was too dark to find out)—till the other car arrived and we left eventually after 11 pm, reaching home (Phase 6) late at 1:30 am in the morning of 14th August. The ride on the roads on the eve of independence was a treat in itself worthy of writing another long post, nonetheless, the highlight of the drive back home was the final fifteen minute drive via Ring Road amid the downpour—sodium lit deserted road, wet windows, some nostalgic Pakistani music and us singing like crazy; probably the best long drive in rain I’ve had in years!

 

Note: To my friends who were the best company ever in Lahore, in scorching heat and load shedding hours and suffocating clouds followed by rain and downpour and summerhouse/rooftop conversations late at night.  

Special thanks to Beenish, my true Lahori friend, who was the best host ever.

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Quetta Bombing–August 8

August 8, 2016. Bomb blast in Quetta outside a hospital killing more than 70 people, injuring several others. Did anyone ever think of the possibility of a bomb blast in a hospital? Well, now we do. How many other places like that? How many more innocent civilians? How many more soldiers, police officers, in the line of fire protecting these civilians? How many more innocent human beings? How many more of such incidents to completely desensitize us? Do we still mourn? Do we even feel the loss we are going through constantly, persistently—or have we lost it completely?

Have we become braver or just indifferent? Because ‘bravery’ is a quality and indifference is the absence of humanity. Every day I leave for work, I observe people heading to their offices, children for their schools—everyone in a hurry, breaking signals, beeping horns despite knowing there’s traffic ahead—that no one’s blocking their way on purpose, rendering traffic police powerless and frustrated. Nobody is bothered about the fact that they are heading towards the same destination eventually. That they all want to get to work. That they all have the same purpose. That no one is wasting their time intentionally. It’s a daily ritual. A car hits another. Both drivers come out, cars abandoned in the middle of the road, engage in verbal abuse—traffic blocked behind, none of them caring. Few others join them as spectators. Hardly anyone comes up to disengage them. Everyone is afraid. Weapons might come out, shots might be fired. Nobody wants to get involved. Everyone wants to witness, break some news later. I look at the sheer irony of it.

Workplace is a blessing. Friendly people, empowering work, friends to hang out with, coworkers to have a good time with, it’s almost a different world. Until reality kicks in. I log on to a local news website. There are honor killings, security threats, mourning letters from the families of those killed in the latest acts of terror. I overhear a coworker saying, ‘there have been security threats after the Quetta blast. There’s always calm before the storm.’ The hair at the back of my neck rise as I take it in. it’s always been true for Karachi.

The city has already been on high security alert because of the Independence month. People have been seen happier than most days because of the pleasant weather and a relative peace. But everyone secretly knows that schemes have been brewing—some people can never tolerate peace in this city. Quetta just might have been a reminder. So what do people do? Do they need to be brave? Or do they have to be indifferent? Brave has to endure pain willingly. Indifference makes you numb. Brave shows signs of life. Indifference is the death of the soul before demise.

I don’t believe we’re just dead. Perhaps we’ve been killed. Once, twice, thrice, and then all over again. It had been excruciating the first time it happened, but with time it became easier. We still feel when our soul is ripped apart. But every time, the pain is less. Every time the soul feels less violated. Perhaps we are getting stronger at this. And that perhaps is the paradox.

I realize I don’t have solutions; I am part of the problem myself. But I want to feel more, to feel alive. To make myself feel human. And so, while I can’t stop the bloodshed, I pray. I pray for the lack of indifference, for strength, for being part of a solution—I pray for life.

 

Guard

He is asking for too much money but she gives in. It’s past six on a Friday. If she says no and decides to wait for another one, it’ll probably be too late and she’ll be stuck in traffic for another hour and a half at least. So she gets in the rickshaw.

But she holds her bag a little too tighter from its strap.

The rickshaw-wala starts the rickshaw and adjusts his rear-view mirror so that he has a clear view of her. She curses without moving her lips.

By now she has witnessed this thousands of times probably but she can never used to it. So she does her daily exercise of lifting her dupatta from her shoulders and puts it over her head, brings both ends of it in front and holds them together with one hand, the other hand gripping her bag-strap. This cloth over her head works as her protector right now, from ruining her hair in the polluted, humid Karachi weather and of course from those stares, or at least that’s how she thinks.

The traffic is slow, vehicles too close. The rickshaw crawls along with the rest of the transport. A bike comes twining and comes to a halt right beside the rickshaw. It’s so close she can smell the stink of cigarettes off the clothes of these boys. They peer inside the rickshaw one by one. She pretends she does not notice but can observe their piercing gaze through her peripheral view. One of them smiles.

The traffic moves. The bike manages to zigzag its way through.

The city is changing its color. From blue to yellow to orange.  She sees an old man, stick thin on his crutches standing in the middle of the road, hands stretched out, unfazed by the horrors of the road. She shudders.

Saddar. Burns Road. Narrower streets. Smells of food, of rotten meat, of paan spits, of boiling gutters at sides, the stench is overwhelming. She covers her nose with her scarf. Maybe someday she will get used to it. Some day she won’t care. But today is not the day. The sheer presence of life on these streets is suffocating. Food, men, children, crows hovering above their heads, broken roads, bikers breaking signals rendering traffic officers powerless—this city frightens her. It claws at her. Imagine if there is a bomb blast at a place like this. Where is the security? Who protects these people except God? Imagine if the bomber is right here, lurking among these people, watching, planning his move. Imagine the havoc. The destruction. The lifelessness amongst life. She shakes her head trying to push away the thought of it.

She comes back to reality when the rickshaw-wala takes a turn she doesn’t recognize.Where is he taking her? Her grip tightens on the strap of her bag.  She voices her concern.

“baji ye short-cut hai, fikar na karo aap ko ghar pohuncha dun ga” (it’s a shortcut baji, don’t worry I’ll get you home), he mocks looking at her from the mirror. He does not like to be dictated.

She weighs her options. She can’t jump from this rickshaw on a comparatively empty narrow road, he can catch her easily, she can’t take that risk. She can see some people walking but she doesn’t know if they can help her. Her mind wanders towards her phone. It’s in the bag along with hundred other things. The sky has turned reddish brown by now. It would be fruitless to try searching it. So she resorts to the only help. She starts reciting Ayat-ul-kursi. Soon she is reciting all small surahs she had learnt as a child and promises God that she’ll offer prayer tonight if she’s not raped, killed and thrown in some gutter.

The rickshaw takes a turn towards left and they’re out on a road she can recognize.

She breathes. Her grip loosens a little.

The sky has turned the darker shade of blue.

Another signal. Another set of billboards. Another set of beggars.

A transgender comes towards the rickshaw. He is wearing green clothes, glitter and golden earrings. He has his back on her while he talks on the phone. She quickly zips open her bag and rummages her wallet. He has seen her by now. While still talking on the phone he comes to stand by the side of the rickshaw. The rickshaw-wala watches as a keen spectator from his mirror while she looks for a twenty rupee note.

Koi baat nahin baji das de den” (it’s alright baji, give me ten), the transgender smiles. He has read her mind and peeked into her wallet.

The signal turns green. The rickshaw starts moving slowly. She quickly takes out ten rupees and hands it over to him. The fair colored transgender holds both his hands together in the gesture of gratitude, mouths a ‘thenk-you’ and walks away.

The sky is a shade of gray clouds. It might drizzle if not rain tonight. The moon hides completely behind the thick clouds today. No play today. No pretense.

More green signals. More billboards. More beggars. More streets. She might reach home safe today.

 

 

Author’s Note: My short story ‘Guard’ was featured in November 2016’s East Lit (a journal focused on creative writing, English literature and art specifically from East and South East Asia) issue. Here’s the link to it:

https://www.eastlit.com/eastlit-november-2016/eastlit-content-november-2016/southlit-supplement-november-2016/guard/

The Wish Maker By Ali Sethi (Book Review)

The Wish Maker is a tale of an upper middle class Pakistani family run by strong willed women from the point of view of young Zaki who is observant and silent, trying to search for a place in his family and fit in.

What I absolutely loved about the book was the fact that it was not only a coming of age story of a young Pakistani (read Lahori) boy but also a road down the memory lane of 60s and 70s—when liberalism was at its peak, partying and alcohol was not a problem, to when Bhutto was tried in the courts and people were showing their reactions—and late 80s, when there was strong censorship and Islamization (ban on alcohol and the like); change of governments in 90s and Zaki’s family reactions brought a similar wave of nostalgia (although I was very young in 90s and remember very little, mostly from the discussions of elders).

Other than his witty observance of the political scene, growing up of Zaki and Samar Apa in 90s (along with their friends) brought back sweet wistfulness of 90s when kids would regularly visit each other house, cousins would stay over nights, movies would be rented and watched on VCR, TV antennas would be fixed for channels and then Dish Satellite would replace antenna, one landline would be owned by every house and everyone house member would use only that, and later when the emergence of internet Chat rooms was supposedly the coolest thing in the crowd.

Zaki and Samar Api’s relationship throughout the book is one of the many reasons why one cannot put the book back without finishing. Samar Api is older, condescending and intimidating for Zaki but that does not lessen Zaki’s love for her. Zaki is Samar Api’s minion (no matter how harsh Samar Api could be sometimes to him). He does what she says and does not interrupt or correct her even if he knows she is making a mistake. He accompanies her in all her reckless adventures and decisions and keeps her secrets even if it means compromising the truth. The end does not end well for either of them. But for Zaki, Samar Api changes his life in one way or the other.

The Wish Maker although a work of fiction is a glaring truth of the events that were before partition (in Lahore) and that occurred right after partition (the fleeing of Sikhs and Hindus, killing of Muslims and Hindus on both sides of the borders) to the way politics impacted the life of rich and the poor in 70s, late 80s and 90s (there is a little glimpse of life in Pakistan after 9/11 as well); which makes is closer to relate—something that lacks in a lot of writings.

One thing that makes this book a little foreign for a Pakistani reader could be the that sometimes while reading, it feels like Ali Sethi has probably written this book as if his audience is non-Pakistani and foreign where he has to explain every tradition and every gesture (such as Azaan) in a simpler, comical way which takes away the desi beauty of it. Otherwise the flow of the story is simple yet magical to grip the attention of the reader till the end.

My Rating 4/5

Taboo! (The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area)– Book Review

I remember my freshman year at college when I was first exposed to the knowledge of prostitution culture in Pakistan. I was flabbergasted and awed at the same time. I had not watched enough Pakistani or Indian movies for that matter and did not know about the Kotha culture. I only assumed these girls wearing shiny dresses of silk entertaining men in Bollywood/Lollywood songs as dancing girls. All I had read about prostitutes till then was through English novels—and that knowledge too was limited.

Thus Red Light Area was a new term for me. I remember the shock on the face of my seniors when they found out during a discussion that I had no clue what they were talking about. That is how I was schooled briefly on the prostitution culture in Pakistan and, Heera Mandi and Shahi Muhalla of Lahore came as obvious references. At seventeen, I was disgusted at the practices and the culture of a part of our society that existed and lived amongst us, and yet surprised that people not only hadn’t eradicated such a system but also used the services unbeknownst to the family—pretending to be ‘Shareef’ members of the society. But soon I realized that the game wasn’t so simple. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession after all.

‘Taboo!’ was a gift from a friend, providing me a motivation towards looking into the lives of people who dwell in Red Light Areas.  Authored by Dr. Fouzia Saeed, Taboo takes a detailed qualitative approach to describing the lives of prostitutes. Dr. Saeed’s research extends to a period of ten years where she consistently visits the Shahi Muhalla of Lahore and covers the detailed life stories of people living there, their lifestyles, family system and hierarchy, status of family names and ethnicities.

The book further discusses the history of prostitution in subcontinent and how the elite section of the society had played its part in flourishing the business since the beginning. As Kaisera, a manager tells Fouzia,

‘…they are all hypocrites. Those who speak the loudest are against us are the ones with many children here.’        

It is interesting as well as ironic as Dr. Fouzia points out that the women in this business are considered the lowest of the low in the society, have been seen as evildoers in general and are harassed by the police from time to time but no one questions the men who visit as customers. After all they are the ones helping the business thrive at the end of the day. This argument might also open a battleground for who is worse, the customers or the service providers. But the fact remains, business cannot prosper without either of them.

Similarly, her research also sheds some light on governments’ steps to ban the business from Shahi Muhalla from time to time. The residents of Shahi Muhalla argue that their services are not exclusive to prostitution only rather they produce country’s best musicians and dancers at the same time. As opposed to brothels in different parts of the city (of Lahore) whose sole purpose is sex provision, Shahi Muhalla provides a rounded up entertainment. Evacuating residents from Shahi Muhalla would only make them dissipate to all parts of the city and would be even more difficult to control and keep tabs. This is also partly the reason why brothels have been doing well in recent times according to Shahi Muhalla Naikas (women managers).

While reading it was also very interesting to note the faith these people in God—leaving everything to God in every matter—and their struggle for them to earn ‘Halal ki roti’ (Kosher earning) in their words. They would look down upon begging and stealing and would pride themselves in earning by hard work. It only reflects as to how different people have different ways of looking at things.

Taboo is thorough, well researched and backed by facts and history. In addition, it not only provides insights to the lifestyle of residents of Shahi Muhalla but also narrates the stories of several prostitutes, their dreams, aspirations and the bonds Fouzia develops with the residents along with time, thus keeping you engaged till the very end.

Average rating: 4/5