Rock music, mansions with private guards and big guns. Meanwhile, students work as shoeshine boys. A journey into a country of contradictions—Pakistan
The tired immigration clerk at Delhi airport woke up as I thrust my passport forward. He 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 PIA flight to Lahore was mostly empty and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang the words of Amir Khusrau from overhead speakers. Air-hostesses in dull salwar kameez and stewards with Kamal Hassan moustaches distributed newspapers, smiled the airline smiles, and announced that passengers could take whatever seats they preferred. The engine came to life, Nusrat stopped singing, and the pilot commenced reading Dua-e-Safar, the Islamic prayer for safe travel.
We took off safely and I reverted to my secular pursuit of coffee and reading the Pakistani English language newspaper, Dawn. The paper founded officially by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, written in a staid, somewhat archaic language, was full of bad news: ‘Two more schools blown up in Bajaur’; ‘Nato supply line disrupted by bridge blast’; ‘70 militants killed in Swat’; and in the inner pages, the UNHCR office in Pakistan estimated that the number of people displaced from the tribal areas was feared would reach 6 lakh—the collateral damage of the war featuring American drone attacks, Pakistani military, and the Taliban.
A friend picked me up from the airport and warned me about the load shedding in Lahore. Shaukat, her driver, was from Toba Tek Singh. One of the headlines in Dawn was: ‘27 Injured in Toba Tek Singh’. Shaukat told me there was no religious militancy in the area; yes, some local feuds. “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 highway that brought us to Mall Road. We drove past a few hotels; most had high iron barricades and armed guards at the gates. “How long can you stay out at night?” The guns brought out the Kashmiri in me, which made my friend laugh. “You can be out all night.”
The next day was Kashmir day. I had never heard of Kashmir Day, the official Kashmir Solidarity Day. Hundreds of banners hung by the roadside. ‘Indian Brutalities in Kashmir must Stop—City Government Lahore.’ ‘Kashmir Hamara Hai, Sare Ka Sara Hai,’ declaimed Nawaz Sharif from a gigantic banner on the British-built Mall Road, lined with elegant mansions housing the Lahore elite. Jamaat-e-Islaami had put up posters of Kashmiri children and women being beaten up by the CRPF. It felt a bit like a ritual, something one did as punctuation between other preoccupations. At least for my friends with elite Western degrees, Kashmir wasn’t something they gave much thought to. Maybe it was an article of faith for others. Advertisements for mobile phone and pasteurised milk stood taller than the Kashmir banners. Above it all hovered portraits that many refer to as the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’––President Asif Ali Zardari, son Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, and his late mother, Benazir Bhutto. A survey by the American think-tank International Republican Institute (IRI) in December found that only 19 per cent of Pakistanis wanted him for their leader and 88 per cent thought the country was headed in the wrong direction.
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, Lahore was another city, crowded and decrepit. In the Chandni Chowk-like old bazaars of Anarkali, a journalist friend talked about interviewing refugees from Swat valley, boys whose schools and houses were destroyed in the fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani military, or in US drone attacks. They were now working as shoeshine boys, waiters and labourers. Not far from them, rows of luxury cars lined up for their occupants to have a lunch-with-a-view at a rooftop restaurant. There is no one Pakistan. And these many Pakistans barely seemed to know each other.
The impression repeated itself as I walked into a coffee shop, with framed posters of Westerns and Broadway musicals hanging on the walls. The upper floor of the coffee shop included a small bookstore with well-chosen titles of fiction and non-fiction. Convent schoolboys in light blue blazers created a ruckus as they ordered ice-cream, punched one another, and shot pictures with cellphone cameras. Aslam, a tall, wiry man in his early 20s, managed the bookshop. He watched the schoolboys and lovers with a halfsmile that both mocked and envied their leisure. He was finishing a commerce degree at a local college. Aslam supported his education by working at the bookstore after morning classes. “I read my course books between customers,” he smiled, and talked about his dreams of getting an MBA. But his journey across the desert of inequality separating the rich and poor in Pakistan seemed a long and hard one. Public schools, colleges and universities remain highly underfunded, as the Pakistan government spends only 2.4 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, which has led to a sharp rise in private educational institutions that students like Aslam can’t afford. The annual tuition fee for an MBA at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) costs $10,500.
After a few days in Lahore, I travelled to Karachi. The port city was a riotous concert of speeding cars, ornate buses in bright reds, and Hero Honda motorcycles in a deathly race with auto rickshaws flaunting slogans from ‘Tablighi Jamaat zindabad’ to ‘Dilbar Pukarey’. Half an hour later, at The Second Floor, a coffee shop in Karachi’s upmarket Defense Housing Authority, I saw around 50 men and women hear novelist Kamila Shamsie read from her new novel, Burnt Shadows. And there was talk of the ongoing Karachi International Film Festival as well. Its day passes, priced at Rs 100 apiece, seemed aimed at a larger audience, unlike the Rs 1,500 tickets for a 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 in the throes of a cultural flourish. Apart from novelists and rock musicians, I was also struck by English-language satire on TV and stand-up comedy shows. Dawn News TV ran a sophisticated knockoff of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Saad Haroon, a stand-up comic in his late 20s, 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 is Every Time I see Your Toes, Burka Woman! The other laughs were at terrorism, airport security, cricket, military and politicians.
The non-English speaking Pakistan is not laughing much, and a big section of liberal, wealthy Pakistanis seem to have hidden themselves in their comfortable bubbles. I felt it most acutely when Haroon and I got a dinner invite. We met some 20 young professionals—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—at a popular rooftop restaurant in Karachi. I found myself seated near a young doctor in her 20s. 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’s it 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. My mind wandered to the barks of stray dogs roaming deserted Srinagar streets at night. She spoke again. “If you can’t go out at night, then how do you party in Kashmir?”
Defense stretched for miles—mansion after mansion 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 a friend drove me to one in Defense. Darakshaan police station was certainly the most luxurious I had seen. The duty officer was on the phone in his room. “Send more bullets. They are running out of bullets,” 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 journalists and writers about the future of Pakistan. I had met the novelist Mohammad Hanif at the Jaipur Literary festival, where he 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 from Swat and Fata and elsewhere in the country. “It is a country at war with itself,” Hanif sighed. “Maybe, they (the Taliban) will take some years to reach Karachi,” he forced a laugh. Some 59 per cent feared their economic status would worsen during 2009, according to the IRI survey, and a staggering 78 per cent felt less secure. “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 Jama Masjid. Every major work of non-fiction, especially about international politics and current events, had been pirated and translated into Urdu. Pulp fiction in Urdu occupied many shelves, but so did the high literature of Intizaar Hussain, Bano Qudsia, Manto, Munshi Premchand, and Quratul Ain Haider, among others. Among the bestsellers was an Urdu journalist’s sensational account of the sexual adventures of Pakistani politicians, Parliament Se Bazaar-e-Husn Tak. One of the books 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 buys 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 business class, and a crowded one for economy class. Stepping onto the platform instantly transported me to a small town station in Uttar Pradesh. 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 they had built it with Chinese 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 chaiwallah brought tea, the train conductor arrived, followed by a few of the young he was trying to “adjust”. My co-passenger complained about the tea and the corrupt practices of train conductors. He was a salesman, had sold watercoolers, mostly in Swat, for the last ten years. For the past few months, he couldn’t even visit.
“One of the factories I worked with was called Khyber Water Cooler Factory. The Americans said they were attacking Al-Qaeda, but the drones hit the factory and killed 21 workers. It was closed. Then the maulvis announced 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 face 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 politicians as a response. “I am only with the party of God Almighty,” he replied with a rather mystical air. “Are you with the Jamaat-e-Islami?” 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 Pathan 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 fields, where growing anything must be a bitter struggle against nature. In rural Pakistan, 27 per cent live below the poverty line. (The urban poor are slightly better off, with 23 per cent below.)
It is a world of feudalism and poverty that has been best recreated by Daniyal Mueenuddin in his short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin also runs a farm in rural Punjab, seven hours from Lahore. The train left the poor villages behind and I thought of a conversation I had with Daniyal this winter. “People constantly come to my farm seeking work and they are often ready to work for no money, just meals,” he sighed. Karakorum Express continued leaving behind the villages and small towns, which the moneyed enclaves of Lahore and Karachi had forgotten. The sun rolled behind distant hills and night drew a curtain over it all.
About The Author
Basharat Peer is a staff writer at the New York Times and the author of A Question of Order: Strongmen and Illiberal Democracies
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