This country just keeps getting stranger.
Last week, on my drive home from work, I had my cell phone and wallet stolen. That, in and of itself, is not a strange thing. In fact, in Karachi it is a rite of passage. You cannot be considered a true Karachiite if you haven’t been held up at least once. If you have managed to avoid such an experience, then it’s probably because you are the one doing the holding up. Otherwise, there is no excuse. If you want to be taken seriously in this city, then roll down your window and hand your phone over to the next person you see with a gun. It’s part of the social contract.
What made my mugging peculiar wasn’t that it occurred, it’s what happened after it began. He showed me his gun and asked me to hand over everything of value. Sitting in my car, I knew the standard operating procedure for such an event. There is an established protocol of behaviour here and if you stick to the script the entire procedure is over fairly quickly and painlessly. I handed over my phone and took the cash out of my wallet and gave it to him. He motioned towards a laptop bag and I opened it to show that it contained a book and some sketchpads. With the gun still in view, he smiled and asked if I was angry. I smiled back and pointed out that since he had taken everything I had on me, at the very least he could leave me my anger. I think that caught him my surprise. Comedy does that, it’s all about taking you unawares. Kind of like crime. He blurted out a laugh and so did I. Then, after a pause, he handed me back the phone and the cash. That was when I got confused. Was I the victim of some new hidden camera TV show? I think I even asked him that. He put his gun away and told me that robbery was something he had to do. A major political party had killed nine people of his ethnicity, all of whom were his close friends and family. He now had nine families to feed. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it to someone he liked. I offered him the cash again so he wouldn’t rob anyone else. He said that was unavoidable. He apologised and then walked away.
I think I would have been less shocked had he actually taken my phone and money. Like I said, it’s a damn strange place we live in. Surrounded by crime and terrorism and corruption and all sorts of evils, we forget that sometimes we are the victims of victims. Were there other options for him? Did he look for a job in a market where joblessness was increasing? Or maybe he was forced into this racket by people with more power than him? Was it just a matter of time before he was killed by the same people who killed his friends and family? Or would he perpetuate the cycle of violence by killing the friends and family of another? With just a brief interaction borne of desperation, all I am left with is a need to construct my own narrative. It’s the same narrative that fills the story of an incredible musical being performed these days, titled “Karachi – The Original Musical” with the tagline, “Haar na mano”. The artistry of that performance was true and honest enough that it had me thinking back on my erstwhile mugger the entire time. It, too, is a story about desperation, the mistakes created by it and the erosion of humanity by the harsh environment we live in. These are the stories left to us now. Not about hope and happiness, but about survival and the surprises we encounter along the way.
Strange country. Let’s keep it that way.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2011.