At a literary event earlier this year, I met a number of people I had gone to school with; people I knew in college, people I worked with and people I had randomly met at some time or the other. The event, held in the gardens of Mohatta Palace in Clifton, was a glittery, shining tribute to the arts. It was full of people, people who all belonged to an elite segment based on their income, their language (they all spoke English more than they spoke Urdu) and the fact that they all went to the same schools and colleges.
It would be a shock to me if anyone at that event had graduated from Karachi University, rather than a private college like IBA, AKU or IVS.
Overheard at the event was an excited young girl who was meeting a number of models and actors, most of whom were part of the program for the evening: “All of Karachi is here. This is so exciting!”
All of Karachi? There were a couple thousand people moving around the gardens and waving hello to each other. Out of a city of 22 million, could two thousand people constitute all of Karachi? Perhaps, in a way, they could. Because this is the small elite population of the city that makes itself heard. These are the English-speaking writers, artists, actors, TV anchors, fashion designers, and owners/directors of social organisations (known as NGOs or non-government organisations) who like to think of themselves as the city’s representatives. These are the people who work in the media and publishing houses (mostly newspapers and magazines), and who are quoted, interviewed and brought to the world’s forefront as the ‘Voices from Pakistan’. Mostly, and in response to the more conservative elements in Pakistan’s society, they’re considered representatives of a liberal mindset.
“Hey, I Know You!”
In a way, the young girl was right. This is a big, yet closed, group of people, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they represent Pakistan. It’s not unusual to meet someone from this group and find connections (like Kevin Bacon in Hollywood) just a few degrees from each other. If you haven’t been to school with them, one of your cousins has. If you don’t work with them, you know someone who knows someone. And if you meet them for the first time at a social occasion, you’re likely to find you’re related, through distant cousins or through marriage.
Years ago, when I moved to Pakistan, I was a casual part of this social elite. I went to the right schools (private, English-speaking), spoke English with an accent and became an artist/designer. I worked for the coolest people in my field and I had expressed an interest in battling the conservative agenda.
I loved being a part of the crowd. I was dazzled by the level of intellect and dialogue, the debates, the potential opportunities, and the money.
Open-Minded vs. Liberal
I met a lot of people in those first few years, a lot of people who would be considered heavyweight intellectuals, filmmakers, artists, writers and thinkers. I once sat in on a poker game with a group of filmmakers who were discussing the creation of Pakistan. This was back in the late nineties. I had just graduated, made friends with a reporter at my first job, and had tagged along to the game like a groupie to a rock band. They regarded me with fond indifference as they argued, using Jinnah’s speeches in Congress leading up to Independence, that Jinnah never meant to carve out a separate country for Muslims from the Indian Subcontinent; that he was using the threat of partition to leverage a better position for himself among the Congress party.
The argument continued along this vein: Pakistan was a mistake, should never have been created and since it was based on a flawed concept, it wouldn’t survive. The discussion ended abruptly when I naively put in my two cents. “Regardless of how it was created, now that it exists, shouldn’t our focus be on fixing the problems? I mean, it’s here now. What good does speculation do us?”
When I finally left, it was with the humiliating sting of their laughter ringing in my ears. I stuck to my guns, however, through several other similar discussions (in particular, one about Allama Iqbal’s actual meaning when he spoke of a Muslim homeland. Almost everyone, without exception, argues that Iqbal meant brotherhood, not nationhood.) that I’ve been privy to over the years. It irked me that my point of view was considered childish or irrelevant.
I didn’t understand how one could be truly open-minded if one didn’t consider everyone’s opinion. A former teacher of mine is now one of the founding members of a diversity movement called #IAmKarachi. She once told me that she would never hire or work with a woman who wore a hijab because such women tend to be narrow-minded and bigoted. At the time, I was interviewing for a position in the publishing company she ran. I politely disagreed with her, explaining that my mother wore a hijab and was one of the most broad-minded women I know. I didn’t get the job.
I gained the reputation for being patriotic (not a compliment), and was told, quite often, that I was blind to my country’s faults.
Perhaps I was. Perhaps my perspective was slightly different from theirs.
Crossing the Bridge
Some years after that poker night, I was invited to be part of a group that would travel to different schools in the city and work with inner city kids on an art project. I was one of five people who accepted the invitation. Z was a prominent fashion designer, born and brought up in Pakistan until he went to London to study. S was a writer working on her first novel and hosted a radio talk show. R was a photographer and A was an artist, both with flourishing careers in their respective fields.
Z, S, A and R all spoke Urdu as a first language and had no problems, unlike me, communicating with the children. Of the five of us, I was the only one who was not born and brought up in Karachi. I was the only one for whom Urdu was not a first language—at that age, in fact, my Urdu was pathetic. Yet of the five of us, I was the only one who knew how to get to Federal ‘B’ Area, Liaquatabad and Kharadar—three areas considered among the poorest of the city’s population. None of the others in the group, all between the ages of 20 and 30, had ever been beyond the posh districts of Defence and PECHS.
Half of my relatives live in these areas, and we visit them regularly. The only reason we lived in Defence, in fact, was because my father bought a flat, years ago, in an area that wasn’t yet built up and was considered the ‘outskirts’ of the city.
I realized that a significant portion of the elite that I was mingling with had never ‘crossed the bridge’—Karachi’s version of the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. In order to get to Defence, you have to cross a bridge, either Clifton Bridge, or the Southern Bypass, or KalaPull. Three bridges that, ironically, divide rather than connect.
I still live on the right side of the bridge, but the glamorous parties and the intellectuals discussions over a glass of wine and a plate of cheese has begun to pall. These are all the same people. They marry each other. They promote each other and their children. They start up and shut down expensive brands and stores (all in this part of the city) with dazzling regularity. They hire people they know, and talk about people they know. And they discuss the plight of the city from the comfortable distance of three bridges. When they speak of crime rising, it’s crimes against them: petty theft from their homes, pickpockets in Sunday Bazaar, car-jacking in the dark back streets of the ever-growing Defence Society. A young architect I know is not allowed to travel beyond the bridge on her own after dark. Her parents are too scared that she may be mugged.
If this was anywhere else in the world, Defence Society would be an incorporated gated community. I wouldn’t care, except that this is the society that raises its voices the loudest among us. These are the people with the connections with the world’s journalists and papers and networks. These are the models that our middle class want to emulate, that our children hear when they turn on the TV or go to the movies.
I wonder what these children will learn when they grow up. Will they learn that social work means gathering together for tea and crumpets in an air-conditioned living room to write a report? Will they learn that starting up a business means hiring expensive architects to build a beautiful office rather than paying your employees well? Will they learn that making money is more important that anything else, because without it, you couldn’t drive the latest model car, buy an iPhone or build a house in Defence? Will they learn that nationalism is a farce and that it’s better to speak English and wear trousers than to speak Urdu and wear shalwar kameez?
Will they start to believe that patriotism is to be looked down on, and that living a good life is more important than doing good? Most importantly, will they start to discriminate based on language, clothes and ideas, because, surely, that has to be the most deadliest form of discrimination there is.
Thoughtful, Natasha. You think in nuance, which is seldom politically fashionable in any country. I am glad that you are my bridge to Pakistan.
Thank you for that lovely compliment, Paula.
Really interesting, Natasha. I’ve always wondered about the English-speaking elite over in the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they are like the elite in any country (not all of them, of course) – unconcerned about the mass of poverty beyond their heavily guarded gates.