Book Excerpts

Independence day in Pakistan: An Excerpt from ‘Karachi Raj’

Jashn-e-Azadi came around soon after she concluded the census. Six decades on, the wonder of Independence remained fresh, a miracle that by rights ought never to have happened in the first place. National songs blared constantly on the radio: ‘Ay watan, pyare watan’, ‘Main bhi Pakistan hoon’, ‘Jeevay, jeevay Pakistan’.

A mela, held in what passed for the Basti’s public square—an empty space called Chandni Chowk near the centre, rigged with loudspeakers and water coolers—attracted hundreds of people. Helium balloons, bamboo flutes, clown hats and paper dolls could be bought for a pittance. Claire devoured roasted peanuts, craving the saltiness, as diverse factions played discordant music. The speeches were little more than excuses to justify the songs and dances.

One speaker at the podium, louder than the others, jabbed his finger with every sentence, accusing, warning, praising: ‘This Basti was founded twenty-five years ago by a man with a heart of gold. He came from East Pakistan, where he sacrificed much of his life. He’s the most famous man in Asia, after Emperor Hirohito and Bruce Lee. He never married because the Basti is his bride. He never had children because we’re his children. Like Jinnah, the founder of our Basti is a single-minded man. Listen, O people of the Basti, if you want success in life, you must attend to only one thing at a time. I myself have wasted many hours composing poetry and playing sitar and tabla. I wish I could have those hours back. On this Independence Day, let us cease wasteful activity. Our nation is new, young, untested. We need to build it until it’s the most powerful country in the world.’

The audience allowed itself to be inflated. A troupe of women in yellow dresses performed a folk dance, dipping from side to side as though deploying a scythe in the fields. A succession of women sang national songs, at times off-key but always with confidence.

After that, a sha’ir—one of the Basti’s own poets, complete with shawl, scraggly beard, matted hair and spectacles patched with scotch tape—delivered a rousing poem against the corrupt elite. ‘They go to sleep in luxury beds dreaming of mansions to buy, while we who built this land yearn for a little patch to die,’ he rhymed lustily.

Claire went up to talk to him and he gave her his address with a flourish. He spoke to her as he thought a poet should, in dramatic casuistries that made no sense, hopping from sentence to sentence like an injured bird.

A group of male dancers executed backbreaking gyrations to the rhythm of loud drums. It was a primordial dance with no apparent connection to Independence Day.

The evening ended with a fine play, put on by the Basti’s veteran thespians, about a feudal landlord made to see the error of his ways with peasants and women by his idealistic, university-educated son. ‘That’s a copy of a copy of an old Indian movie,’ an octogenarian enlightened Claire.

Despite such occasions of communal ecstasy, Claire’s first weeks were riddled with anxiety.

She kept dreaming of her fieldnotes being stolen. In one dream, she returned from a round of interviews to find her door wide open, banging against the post, the smell of curry and garlic saturating the room. The pile of notes next to her bed was gone. The thieves had scrawled in black marker on the wall: ‘Go back to where you came from. Spy! Imperialist! Thief!’ While they were at it, they had taken apart her rudimentary stove, which used to sit low on the ground.

In another dream, a courteous police inspector visited her, asking to see her papers. When she pulled out her passport with the visa stamp, he said, ‘I was talking about these papers!’ He grabbed her notes and stacked them on his knees, reading for hours, pausing to comment every so often: ‘Are you sure you’re triangulating enough when it comes to male-female roles reported by subjects? I’d say your reliance on key informants is about right. Hmm, everything seems to be in order. I’ll take these with me for further study.’

‘But these are my notes. I can’t let them out of sight. You have no right to take them.’

The inspector laughed. ‘Need I remind you that you’re only a guest in our country? Being a guest has certain privileges—and duties.’

He clapped his hands and a menial showed up to bind the notes in string and carry them away for him.

In the worst of the dreams, the Basti’s officers themselves conspired to make Claire’s notes disappear. She went around asking Karim and the others where her notes were, she’d just left them on her desk. They acted as if they didn’t know what she was talking about.

In the dream, Helga put her hand on Claire’s forehead. ‘You have a chill. I advise bed rest. For two weeks.’

Claire threatened to call the police.

‘The police are on holiday,’ Karim sniggered.

An intern passed Claire a Herald clipping, announcing that professors in Karachi University’s sociology department were on hunger strike. ‘It’s these things we have to worry about, professors getting out of hand,’ the intern lamented.

The intern was an amalgam of the three who actually worked at the Basti’s offices: he/she had one’s hair, another’s body and yet another’s voice. This composite intern often made an appearance in Claire’s disappearance dreams, saying things so offensive she forgot about her losses.

The absence of Boston construction noise—jackhammers, alarms, truck squeals and grinds—meant too much quiet, leading to ugly morning stupor for Claire. Even the ducks that quacked all day, fluttering from pedestrian to pedestrian like angels bestowing blessings, inhabited the waterlogged parts of the Basti, not the centre where Claire lived.

Buy Anis Shivani’s Karachi Raj here.

karachi raj

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