A product of the 2000's tries to make sense of 1980 Karachi violence redux
Would it be easy for an apolitical, unethnic teenager today to recognise Karachi from two decades ago?
When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi, my family and I were in one of the last cars to cross the Islamabad motorway toll booth before the city went into total lockdown. In the midst of the shock, anger and fear felt in the capital as it nervously eyed its neighbour, one image would particularly stick: the receptionist at the hotel leaning forward across the counter saying in a terrified whisper, “Aap log... Karachi say hain?” [Are you folks from Karachi?] The TV was on in the background, and for the first time we were forced to tell frantic family and friends calling in from home, well we’re fine, but er, how’s Karachi?
Trying to explain Karachi to the rest of Pakistan is like trying to explain Pakistan to the rest of the word. Well I mean, yeah, it’s violent, but we would really super appreciate it if, you know, you’d come visit. Like the well meaning Lahori nani who told a friend, “Beta, why don’t you come to Lahore? The food is good [understandable], the universities are better [debatable] and, darling, you won’t get shot/abducted/bombed on your way to school, khudanakhasta.”
For the last line, she has a point. For school-going people like me, one strike is cause for celebration, two spell doom and gloom. A few target killings and you get viral text messages warning against whipping out your mobile phones at traffic signals. Sixty-four people die over two days and we barricade ourselves in our homes. That over-used phrase “Sudden surge in violence” is apt, because just talking about violence belittles the fact that we’ve already developed very high thresholds for an acceptable rate of death in this city.
It’s as if every other adult over 30 is suddenly coming forth with their own tale of How I Survived The Last Time Haalaat Were This Bad. The more people talk though, the more it sounds like scenes out of Terminator. Killings every day. Army given orders to shoot-at-sight. Areas cordoned off. Police sweeping in and picking up young men from their homes, whether innocent or not. Rioting universities. Curfews - real, genuine curfews! Tanks in Karachi! Could I have recognised Karachi in the 1980s or the 1990s? Why do I know so little about it, sparing what my parents remember and that one Kamila Shamsie novel where she devotes almost half the plot to Karachi’s violence? To understand the events taking place now, I need to understand what happened then, and you need to be a member of my age group to realise how difficult that is.
We are the kids of the 2000s. We’ve grown up with a great sense of diction because of words like Terrorism and Fundamentalism, but very little sensitivity for ethnicity and politics, except for friendly jokes. In parts of Karachi they paint political party colours on your house’s roofs, walls, even the trees. But my neighbours only pick up the paint cans when they want to remodel their terraces. You can’t tell if they are Baloch or Sindhi, Sunni or Shia, Jiyalay or Bhai Log, at least not at first glance. The only flying objects that travel from our house to theirs are cricket balls when playing a rooftop game, not hand grenades. I don’t care that my friends are Mohajir, Pathan and Sindhi, but then we come from that age group, era and families in which you really can’t afford to care. Is it strange, even indifferent, that I’m sheltered from my own ethnicity?
In a city of 18 million souls, surely a few deaths here or there shouldn’t make a difference, as the ever helpful Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik put it. I like to tell myself - no, I know - that what he said was wrong, cruel and inhuman. But I also know that come Tuesday, I will go back to school and tuitions and Iftar plans, as if all of this is just an annoying buzzing on TV in the background.
So where does that leave you? You are not politically affiliated, though you’ll be eligible to vote in a few months. You have no comment on politics, apart from “Imran Khan is so cool”.
You are a true product of the 2000s, completely amazed at your parents and grandparents’ stories of the tense 70s, the evil 80s and the just plain bad 90s. Life until now was relatively good - terrorised, more bombs, and more politically twisted - but somehow, unbelievably, still better than before.
Some good days, and some bad days. Right now we’re going through some very, very bad days, and that is sad and inexcusable, whether here, in Lahore, in the capital, or really, anywhere else.