The social and emotional inequalities of Pakistan come out in small anecdotes
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
AS THE LONG days of summer slink into shadowy evenings of fall, there is an urgency in the air for something that is indescribable. Or is it the humdrum of things staying the same? The day changing colours, stark brightness to velvety darkness, is my clock. Existing mostly within the rectangularity of my room, I’m aware of the difference between one day and another. Dully aware? Acutely aware?
The time of namaz changes with the season. My workout varies every day. I read, every few days, more pages of the book I take forever to read. The Haunting of Bly Manor, despite being deliciously tragic and palpably scary, is not a binge-watch as I take three days to finish it. The repeat viewing unfolds newness in corners I didn’t notice, shadows that were people long dead, in explanation of pain that haunted every crack of the gothic manor.
I see something new in everything old. Until something happens that jolts awake in me the realisation that not much changes in the world outside my large window.
One quiet October night, I was a guest via Skype on a talk show being aired live on PTV World, giving my oft-repeated points on the short and long-term agenda of the recently formed alliance of eleven major and minor political parties, innocuously termed Pakistan Democratic Movement. The door and window of my room tightly shut to keep the air-conditioned silence necessary for the hour-long show, I was all set for a conversation with one host and two guests staring at my own image on the screen. For once, even my two roommates, my dogs Pearl and Autumn, decided to go on the terrace outside my room without barking up any fuss.
A few minutes into the show, I heard a commotion downstairs. My sister in panicky loudness, my teenage nephew Zain running upstairs and going back in seconds, the dogs barking incessantly, and unfamiliar voices, raised, angry, beyond the front door of my house. For the first time in my life, I told a talk show host I had to go because I could hear people shouting at my gate.
Shaking, I ran downstairs. Despite being strangely fearless all my life, the fear of something happening to a loved one makes me go into a trembling mode. Until I start to exhale. When I reached the gate, there was a group of people shouting so angrily, I thought Zain had got into a fight with someone on the road. The group of shouting strangers had a grey-haired older man in a white shalwar kameez, a man in a black shalwar kameez in his 20s, presumably, a woman in her 60s, a teenager in shorts and a tee, two domestic staff members, one old, one young. There were more, I forgot them even as they crowded very close to me.
As they shouted, I tried to make sense of what they were saying. They were from a house a few houses from ours, on the other side of the road. Apparently, they had an issue with the silencer of Zain’s heavy motorbike, and they had talked to him a few days ago. The elderly woman, sister of the elderly man, was unwell, and the sound of Zain’s motorbike disturbed her. Zain had agreed to drive at slow speed outside their house, and the matter was solved. Clearly, it hadn’t.
Enraged at the sound of his motorbike as he drove past the brother-sister duo walking on the road, they went to their house, gathered more of their folks, and stormed to our house. To physically beat up a teenager?
I told the police that I felt unsafe, my family felt unsafe, my dogs were unsafe, and that I was going to file a police case against the bunch of men who didn’t even have the decency to give a sincere apology to a poor man
As I tried to calm them down, saying to them that I had to stop shaking before I talked to them, I reached out and grasped, briefly, the hands of the older and younger men. In Pakistan, females don’t hold hands of strange men. I did, to reassure them that I was listening to them. Fuming, they paid little attention to anything I said or did. They accused Zain of unleashing Pearl on them, my seven-year-old mixed breed who lives in my room and hates strangers. In a matter of minutes, I found out that one of them had slapped, repeatedly, my domestic staff member Nasir. That was when I got really, really angry.
Nasir is like a family member. One of his two children, eight-year-old Baku, the name I gave him, is in my room all day long. He even sleeps on my couch. Nasir’s daughter and wife are in their village for a few days. He told me that the neighbours stormed to our house, kicked our gate, stepped into the short driveway, shouted at being attacked by a dog that merely barks and angrily sniffs strangers, and slapped Nasir without even giving him a chance to speak. Zain told me that as he drove past them, the man tried to push him off the motorbike. I was enraged.
When they said to me that the sound of Zain’s motorbike bothered them, my immediate reaction was an apology and a reassurance that it wouldn’t happen again. Without even going into the details of the conversation they’ve had with Zain earlier, I gave them my word that his motorbike wouldn’t be a source of disturbance to their invalid family member. They kept shouting, they kept looking at Zain and me as if we had done great harm to them. I stopped caring about their anger as soon as I found out what they had done to Nasir. I asked them to apologise to him. They refused.
The older man started to walk in the direction of his house, shouting, “Mera pastol lao.” (bring my pistol). He didn’t care who heard him. I asked loudly what he needed his gun for. “I’m going to shoot that dog,” he answered pointing to Pearl sitting quietly at the terrace. Now I was so angry I knew I had to do something.
Zain had called the police emergency number 15. Shortly after my useless talk with the fuming neighbours, four Dolphin personnel arrived on their official police motorbikes. The Dolphin Squad of Lahore is part of the Punjab Police that is mandated “to respond to emergencies within a timely manner and to assist Capital City Police in ending street crimes.” They listened to the two sides, us in front of our gate, them in front of their house.
Us was me, a woman; Zain, a teenager; Nasir, our domestic staff member, “servant” in the terminology of almost every Pakistani; and my two dogs, watching us quietly from the terrace after having calmed down, grudgingly, by the din at the gate.
The Dolphins were impeccably behaved, respectful, helpful. They listened, patiently, and stayed there for as long as I didn’t go inside my house.
I stayed outside my gate. On the street. I refused to go back inside. I was not going to let go of what they had done to Nasir even if I could bring myself to overlook how they had behaved with Zain.
Another neighbour came to talk to me. The self-proclaimed mediator of the feuds of the neighbourhood. Sharing with me that he was part of the group that talked to Zain a few days ago, and the courteousness of that conversation, his advice to me was to calm down and forgive and forget the whole thing. Agreeing to his suggestion of the pointlessness of prolonging a solvable issue, I said that I would let it go if they apologised to Nasir.
The Punjab Police were extremely efficient. Even the ones who had arrived without the orders of a very, very important person. Immaculately behaved, they listened, showed empathy, advised, offered to help in any way my family and I needed help. They promised more patrolling of our street, of the stretch of the ‘incident’
More time passed. People driving by stared. Some slowed down. Some stopped to ask me what had happened. The concern of two young men and a young woman in a White Toyota Land Cruiser was noteworthy. They talked to my nephew, gave him their phone number, and said to us that we could call them at any time if there was any issue. Insisting that Zain had not committed any crime just riding his motorbike, they said that we should have never said sorry to the angry neighbours.
After talking to the neighbours, the two Dolphin cops convinced them to render an apology. Two men arrived, the 20s one in black shalwar kameez, and probably his older brother or cousin. Flippant, sardonic, the younger one apologised to Nasir. I could see what he was doing. The sham apology to avoid a police report. It was the older man, probably in his 40s, who spooked me.
GLARING AT ZAIN, he said, “Who unleashed the dog on my parents?” He recoiled when I went close to him, trying to tap him on his shoulder to talk to him. As if I was a person of a low caste trying to touch someone of a high caste. My attempt to clarify that no one had attacked his parents went unheard. He walked away without listening to me. I asked him again. He refused to even stop. Why would he listen to the explanation of a woman? He had come there to “settle a score” with a teenager, while his brother or cousin offered his fake apology to a “servant.”
His demeanour was insulting. It was also scary. In our home, it is my sister and Zain and me and Nasir’s family. My brother-in-law works in Saudi Arabia. My son studies in New York. The absence of ‘the man of the house’ made us vulnerable. I made a call to the police for an officer to be sent to my house.
Then I started to make phone calls. I texted someone, a very, very important person in the province. My lucky night, he was online. A few minutes later, I received a call from his office. A few minutes later, a high-level police officer called me. A few minutes later, another police officer called me. And a few minutes later, another police officer called me. In a matter of minutes, an entire chain of command came into action.
It was after 11 pm. I sat on the grass outside the house in front of ours. Nasir and Zain didn’t leave my side. Nasir finally got me a chair from my sister’s living room. I waited for the police.
And then the police officer, an ASP, in command of my residential area, arrived. He was the last phone call. Masked, accompanied by his team, he listened to the entire story. I asked him to verify the story with the guards and the drivers and the cooks standing outside our other neighbours’ homes. They knew Nasir and had seen and heard the entire thing. I told him about the attempt to push Zain off the motorbike, their kicking of the gate of my house, entering my house, slapping a man who had not said a word to them, the threat to shoot my dog, the menacing tone of the man in his 40s.
My stance was unambiguous by that time: I told the police that I felt unsafe, my family felt unsafe, my dogs were unsafe, and that I was going to file a police case against the bunch of men who didn’t even have the decency to give a sincere apology to a poor man.
The night silence deepened. Cars stopping to ask what was going on became fewer. The entire stretch from our house to theirs was now full of the vehicles of the police and DHA (our residential area) security personnel. The police officer went to talk to the angry, unrepentant neighbours. Their voices were different when they talked to him. No longer were they flippant or sardonic or threatening. Suddenly, they were well-behaved men of a decent family who had got into a fight out of their concern for the wellbeing of the woman of their family. Zain and Nasir were there for a little while during the police officer’s questioning. They saw the neighbours changing their tone, their demeanour.
The officer told me that he had listened to both sides. Incredulous, I said that there were no sides. I said I wished to file a formal report. One officer took out a notepad and a pen.
The grey-haired bearded man came to talk to me. I didn’t think it was a willingly taken action. But I listened to him with respect. One police officer said that the sound of Zain’s motorbike was not an issue to anyone other than people who were unwell. The ASP’s subordinate said that while Zain had not done anything wrong, our neighbours entering our house, slapping Nasir and threatening to use a gun—all crimes.
In 2020, what remains unchanged is the vulnerability. Despite the noise about equality of rights of all humans, fights for gender equality, protests for cruelty against animals, police becoming more vigilant, it is still an unsafe world for the underprivileged, women, teenagers, animals
Reassuring the neighbour gentleman that Zain’s motorbike would not cause any disturbance to his ailing sister, I wished him and his family well. We said goodnight with big smiles. I know mine was sincere. I decided not to think too much about his.
The Punjab Police were extremely efficient. Even the ones who had arrived without the orders of a very, very important person. Immaculately behaved, they listened, showed empathy, advised, offered to help in any way my family and I needed help. They promised more patrolling of our street, of the stretch of the “incident”. Two hours had passed. I walked into my room. My laptop reposed in a long-ended talk show on Skype. My dogs welcomed me as if I had returned after a full day. Baku barely looked up from his Nintendo switch.
In 2020, the world turned upside down by Covid-19, Pakistan undergoing myriad issues of inflation, and the united opposition’s efforts to topple the government, young and old people dying everywhere in the world, flakiness of life becoming the glaring concreteness of existence, some things remain unchanged. The unchangeability is etched in words and actions that seem to shift form with a fluidity that is paradoxical to their very existence. Things that are etched are permanent until someone rubs dirt over them, until a sharp thing erases them, until time diminishes them.
The patriarchy, the boxes of gender, the dynamics of class and privilege. What is to do and how to do it, there is barely any clarity despite the reality of some very clear-cut rules. The rules that decide who is to be treated in which manner versus the mindsets that judge who is to be treated in which manner.
In 2020, what remains unchanged is the vulnerability. Despite the noise about equality of rights of all humans, fights for gender equality, protests for cruelty against animals, police becoming more vigilant, it is still an unsafe world for the underprivileged, women, teenagers, animals.
Those two hours on the road outside my house that October night. I knew. I felt alone. I felt scared. My world, despite being privileged, is still unsafe for Nasir and Zain and Pearl and me.