Inside the jail, all that separates the prisoners from the ‘free ones’ are the Central Prison Karachi initials stamped on your wrist; literally, your ticket to freedom.
There are no visitors on Independence Day, just like all other public holidays, and the few that were there to cover the August 14 celebrations waited inside the office of Jail Superintendent Kazi Nazir Ahmed, who was on vacation.
Behind his leather armchair were two wooden plaques that bore the name of all the heads that the prison has had. ‘Mr D Oldman’ was the first name - appointed in 1899 - and a list of around 70 other officials followed, spanning over a period of more than a century.
Inside the jail, there is no way to communicate with the outside world; cellphones are taken at the entrance and the officials use walkie-talkie. The equipment is essential to control the overcrowded prison. “There are more than 5,500 prisoners here, but the capacity is only 2,100 prisoners,” said jail official Shakir Shah. “The initial capacity of the prison was 500 but back then the city only had a population of 100,000. The jail grew with the city, but now it is overcrowded.”
The superintendent’s office is a five-minute walk away from the hospital ward, where the football match was to be played. There is absolute silence along the way, save for the crows and the sound of the officials’ whistle. The whistle, they explained, is a signal for the inmates to move to a side and clear the path for people to walk by. The prisoners obeyed, like clockwork, moving out of the way almost as one; standing at the side, at attention.
At the Hospital Ward football ground, the sun scorched the uneven mud field and the players, who cared little as most of them looked in top shape. “We play every day from four to six,” they were to later reveal. The team dressed in white were of the B-Class - the prisoners that were previously taxpayers and often include professionals and graduates - while the ‘Aam Admi’, from C-Class - those from less privileged backgrounds - wore black.
A man with a mic sung the national anthem in an off-key manner. The inmates that had gathered to spectate sung along, the players stood in the middle of the field with their right hands over their hearts.
The whistle sounded a little while later; this time to indicate the start of the match. The match was played in good spirit, with smiles all over. For a minute they became so engrossed in the football that the players and the spectators alike forgot where they were - the match was all that mattered - and when the referee blew to signal for penalties at the end of the stalemate, the entire ground burst into applause. Penalties were a similarly close affair but B-Class won 2-1, with Muhammad Rashid - an aeronautical engineer who was working in Dubai just a couple of months ago - scoring the winning penalty.
“I came to Karachi on vacation and was implicated in a murder case because of an incident at my house,” said Rashid in flawless English after the match. “Today is just my 29th day here and I was working for [an international airline] as an aeronautical engineer before I was falsely implicated.” The kits for the match were provided by the authorities, revealed the captain of the losing side, Sher Hussain. “Those of us who had their own shoes wore those. Others who could not afford them were sponsored by those who could,” he said, pointing to his own shoes, one of which was red, the other black.
The players and the spectators then slowly made their way back to their barracks. However, Independence Day celebrations were not yet over, as they still had the musical event at night to look forward to.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th,2014.