Life in Liaquatabad and Elsewhere

Coming from Hasan Square, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, past Ghareebabad, you would find the left footpath of the main road leading to Al-Karam Square dotted with red-hooded stalls. I had noticed them for the first time a few years back. That evening they seemed to have sprung up all of a sudden, out of the pulsating, violence-ridden, notorious Liaquatabad/Ghareebabad cauldron. The bright red sheets tied up with balusters, reddish brown earthen jars, their mouths covered with white kerchiefs, and a bearded fellow–donning white kurta, pyjama and cap–on each stall: I had marvelled at this fleet of qulfi-wallahs, at their spirit, panache and determination to earn a living decently in these miserable times, in Central District, Karachi. A few odd customers, probably residents of the nearby lanes, were sitting on chairs, and a car or two were lined up on the kerb, ordering the Ghareebabad speciality. Indeed, it was delicious.

Another time we drove past the same place to drop a friend at Al-Karam Square. That was a very tense evening. An MQM activist had been killed in the vicinity, there were rumours of vehicles being burnt in Liaquatabad and the strike call for the next day had been confirmed. It was hardly eight in the evening. The road, the footpaths and the streets were deserted.  And the sight of the bearded fellows sitting silently–under the chalky light of the tubes adorning the stalls–gazing at the empty void ahead, was eerie and chilling.

This morning of 27th November 1995, as I drive down the road, I find most of the stalls bereft of red canopies and bare wooden poles and structures sticking out of the footpath. The rows of welders’ shops and auto garages are yet to begin their daily business. I wonder if any of the qulfi-wallahs  still sits and sells the icy delicacy in the evening. I take a left turn from the busy dus number  roundabout — jam-packed with pedestrians, mini-buses, pick-ups, cars, donkey-carts, motorbikes, rangers’ armoured personnel carriers, police mobiles — and enter Liaquatabad. On the right side of the main road is Liaquatabad super market–rows and rows of shops of all kinds of commodities. As put very aptly by a resident I talked to, ‘You can buy each and every item of your daughter’s dowry here–from furniture, dresses, jewellery, crockery, linen, electronic gadgets, household stuff, upto needles and yarn. You don’t have to go out of Liaquatabad’.

Indeed, Liaquatabad–previously known as Lalukhait–and the adjoining localities–Nazimabad, Paposhnagar, Golimar, Ghareebabad–constitute a city within the city: self-sustaining, apparently normal, bursting with energy and petty trade, surviving amidst sniper shooting, target killings, bus-burning, police raids, rangers’ siege-and-search operations, gangsters’ and law enforcement agencies’ extortion. Underneath, as you talk to the people, you find a system crumbling– stagnating economy, corroding socio-cultural matrix, retrogressing education system.

‘The business is bad, very bad. On strike days, of course, there is total shut-down. If it is not a strike, then it is rumours that have a field day. On a slight  whisper, customers vanish, the market is deserted. And we just sit here, with open shops, folded hands and no buyers,’ says Qudoos Ahmad, a bespectacled, weary man with greying hair, in his late fifties. He owns a small boutique in Liaquatabad main market where he sells formal dresses, embroidered, sequinned, zari-worked, prepared by himself, his sons and his karigars. ‘Previously, customers from as far as Lyari, Orangi, Malir, Korangi, Landhi would come to Liaquatabad for shopping. Not any more. People, even of the adjoining areas, have become wary of entering our bazaar.’

Qudoos Ahmad lives in a section of Liaquatabad in a small house on 80 sq. yds, with his eight sons and five daughters. ‘This area is a bit safe. In the sense that none of the boys in ours and the adjoining lanes are involved with the MQM or Haqiqi. But all across Ghareebabad and Peeli Kothi area, Haqiqi reigns supreme and plays havoc with people’s lives,’ says his wife. ‘Relatively safe’ means there are no gun battles right in front of your house and no rangers’ siege in your street. ‘Otherwise, sound of firearms is the norm. Even if the shooting is going on in a distant locality, it sounds as if it is happening next door,’ says 28-year-old Sughra non-challantly. Her husband works on a cargo ship and remains away from home for months. So she locks her small two-roomed house nearby and stays most of the times, along with her two kids, at her parents’ place. ‘It is not safe at night’, tells her father.

‘Robbery is the other norm here. The youngsters roam at night, barge in at every second house and decamp with the few things you have toiled for all your life. We keep the door shut all the time and stay put. There is nothing more we can do. The third norm is the extortion by the police and the rangers. They pick up any boy they can lay their hands on and ask right away for one or two hundred thousands. Of course they know you don’t have that kind of money. So they leave you after you beg your relatives and friends and put two to five thousands rupees in their khaki pockets.’

If it’s not the rangers, then it’s the gangsters they have to face up to. Last week, a few shops away from his boutique, a big shop selling men’s clothing was looted by a group of three youngsters. ‘Around 7 O’clock in the evening, when people were busy winding up their businesses, these boys entered the shop, pretended to be customers, ordered yards of suiting and then left the shop with the booty as well as the cash box waving the weapons’.

Till recently, the youngsters received monthly ‘bhatta’ from the shopkeepers. ‘Now shopkeepers are resisting such tactics because they don’t have any extra money left with. With all this inflation, devaluation of rupee and slump in business, you simply can’t manage to give away a portion of your meagre, hard-earned money to young thugs. A few weeks back shopkeepers in Hyderi market refused to raise two lakh rupee in bhatta: they just didn’t open the markets for several days. But really, you can’t beat the angry young men laced with TTs and Kalashnikovs: now they don’t ask for bhatta; they simply rob you’.

While three elder sons assist Qudoos Ahmad in zardozi and tailoring, one is running a small stationary shop nearby, assisted by his younger brothers. Two are doing a computer course after graduation. The younger one recently passed Inter Science but could not get admission in B.Sc. ‘Very little teaching takes place  in colleges. Parents also discourage the boys to attend classes out of fear of street violence. In any case, who teaches in colleges and schools any more? The boys go to tuition centres’, says the mother.

Adnan, 17-year-old student of Urdu Science College, is fed up with college life. ‘There are political groups in the college: Jamiat, Punjabi-Pukhtoon, MQM and what not. Group fighting is common. Those who really want to study remain disturbed. Just yesterday I went to college and there was a firing incident among student groups. I came back. Who can study in such a scenario when any moment you might have to run for your life? Once you enter college premises, the politically affiliated boys, sitting in the corner, come and ask you to sit with them. The boys who don’t want to get involved with them have no choice but to stay home. Those who have access to any kind of source get their attendance registered without taking classes’, he says.

‘Even if you decide to stay and attend classes against all odds, you can’t beat the teachers! They come to take the class and leave before the period is over. If the attendance is low they don’t come to the class altogether. In any case, you are on your own. Either you squeeze money from your parents for tuition, or slog yourself with whatever brains you have. But tell me, if I had got the admission in B.Sc. and studied upto M.Sc., what chance would I have of a job?’ asks Adnan cynically.

For youngsters and children, it’s a closed and constricted life. ‘I have friends in different sections of Liaquatabad but I can’t visit them out of fear as those are the places with a higher probability of your being hit with a stray bullet. These are either under MQM’s or Haqiqi’s control, swarmed by agencies’ informers or police touts. So I don’t leave my home-ground. From 1 to 3 PM I sit in the stationary shop as my elder brother comes home for lunch and rest. The rest of the day I stay home, read magazines, or watch quiz and musicals on TV. Twice or thrice a week we watch either Indian or English movie on the VCR. There is only one outdoor activity left for us: the boys of my neighbourhood play badminton in the street from 8 to 10 at night. The mohalla committee has installed flash lights for safety reasons. We boys have collected money amongst ourselves and bought the rackets and the net.’ Adnan thinks the situation is better these days as ‘the number of dead bodies in gunny bags’ being found in adjacent streets have declined and the youngsters can play badminton till 10 PM.

Driving down the road, underneath the fly-over, past Liaquatabad furniture market, Bara Maidan and the Railway Crossing is the tail-end of Paposhnagar. On your left is Aurangabad. All along the single-track main road is a mix of shops: welders, tailors, bakers, grocers, video shops, estate agents. After each block is a narrow lane that leads to a residential area: rows of one/two storey concrete houses on 60 square yard plots. In between are narrow streets and narrower back alleys. All the streets and alleys are concretised and clean, and the manholes are covered: reminiscent of MQM’s short-lived control over local administration. The residents have kept up the environs clean which proves that once the citizens are provided with a workable system, they are likely to maintain it.

But inside, the concrete structures echo with fear and tension as the dwellers face the ‘mundane’ side of existence with taut nerves: the area has been raided by police a few times and has been put under siege-and-search by the rangers once. Short and stout Nasima, in her 50s, with black shadows underneath her eyes, and stained teeth, tells her ordeal in a voice that modulates between whispers and yells. ‘A group of them entered the house at 11 at night. Just imagine, this little place being searched by ten hefty rangers. They threw things around and asked me to open the drawers, the cupboards, the trunks. Then one of them shouted at me. “Where are your children?”  Two of my sons were away at the night shift. “Where is Suleman?” They asked for him by name.”

Instead of Suleman, who is toiling in the Gulf as an apprentice for the last five years, they took away her younger son, 23-year-old Arsalan, who works in a factory. As Nasima’s husband–jobless for the last three years– is ailing and bed-ridden, Nasima’s elder son, Subhan, who lives next door with his wife and two kids,  was notified about the incident. It was late night and they couldn’t do anything.  ‘My mother spent the whole night crying while I made a file of all the documents — draft receipts that Suleman sends regularly, receipts of a few objects that he brought from there, his letters along with the envelops and other papers.’ Early next morning, Subhan began the hunt, accompanied by his mother, on his motor bike.

‘We went to 16 police stations in the city that morning to find out about him. At most of the places the personnel behaved rudely: nobody was willing to hear our story that none of my brothers has anything to do with any party. Moreover, Suleman, whom the rangers asked for, is not in the country for the last few years.’ However, at some of the police stations the staff was sympathetic. ‘They listened to us, checked their files and told us to look elsewhere,’ says Subhan, 29, who works as a technician in a local company.

‘We were lucky enough to come across an incharge of one of the police stations who was very helpful. He was patient enough to listen to my mother’s outbursts. He went through the documents I had brought with me and assured us, “If your brother is not involved in anything, he will be returned to you. Come back at 7 in the evening.” When the mother and son went to the police station, the boy was handed over to them. ‘They didn’t ask us for money. Though one of them said ‘we could have asked you one lakh…”  It’s no wonder that for Nasima, ‘He was an angel, truly an angel’: a person who simply performs his duty according to the statute books of the land is someone ‘supernatural’, someone with ‘higher values’.

‘The incharge told me it took him one hour to explain the case to the CIA people,” tells Subhan. What had happened was that one of the boys killed in a police encounter in the city had Suleman’s name and phone number on him. ‘This boy’s family once lived in Paposhnagar. Ten years ago they moved to Liaquatabad. Suleman was acquainted with this boy in his childhood. He was hardly in touch with him after they left. Besides, Suleman is not in the country for the last several years.’

‘They blindfolded him, gave him a severe beating and kept him without water for 24 hours,’ says Nasima. When they brought Arsalan home, he was dishevelled and in a daze. His body ached with pain and he ran fever for a week. ‘Just today, I urged him to get up and go to work. It’s more than a week and his salary will be deducted. I had no choice but to push him out to work.’ Arsalan gets 2,500 rupees per month. As is the case in most of the small industrial units, he is not entitled to any medical or casual leave or other facilities.

Nasima’s two elder sons are married and one is working abroad. But the anxiety for her three younger sons is taking a toll on her health. While Arsalan has now a steady job, Furqan, 21, who dropped out after class 7, ‘bums around these days,’ says his mother. ‘I worked for five years as apprentice in an auto garage at Tariq Road. They paid me Rs.1,100 and it was a 9 to 9 job. I couldn’t take it any more. I tried to find work at some other garage but no luck. Now I have got a part time job at a factory in SITE.’

‘I am fed up. My mother is after my life all the time, shouting at me: “Where are you going? Don’t go out. Keep inside. Shut the door.” She has become neurotic after the incident. What am I to do? I can’t remain inside this cubby-hole the whole day. I feel suffocated. I am out on the street for fresh air. If I sit and watch VCR, she doesn’t like it either,’ he grumbles. ‘It’s okay once in a while to watch Indian movies but I don’t want my children to be glued to that stuff all day long.’

Nasima’s youngest son has also dropped out from school. He is 13 and spends his time on the street — the danger zone in Paposhnagar. Nasima is at a loss how to make his sons sit at home. ‘I want my 23-year-old son to get married as soon as possible. That’s the only way to make him stick to the hearth.’ The daughters are no problem. The eldest is married. The younger ones are studying in class 9 and 6. They are not allowed to move out of the house except for school. ‘I would have her quit school after class 8 but whichever proposal comes these days, asks for educated girl. I have bethroted her to a boy who says he will marry her only after she finishes BA. This is another problem,’ Nasima is confused at the fast changing values, ‘Just ten years ago boys did not want to marry a girl who had studied at college or university.’

Robberies, too, are frequent in Paposhnagar. ‘The boys are out to grab whatever they can lay their hands on. People are afraid as they usually carry arms with them. But at times they come with just sticks and stones. A few nights ago, a boy entered a house in our lane at 2:30 AM. Luckily the woman of the house had put something to boil for the night and she was up. She shouted and the boy ran away after throwing a stone at her.’  Nasima has many such stories to tell to anyone who has time to listen.

Sajida, a widow in her late 40s, lives with her two daughters and two sons in the adjoining residential area that sprawls out at the end of the road. These are 80 sq. yds unit and the lanes are a little wider. “Things were very bad two years ago in our area. It was MQM and Haqiqi boys after each other’s life, ruining us in between. There was a constant fight over control of the councillor’s office. But now the Rangers got it vacated and sealed,” says Sajida. She is white-haired, soft-spoken and cool-headed. The vicissitudes of life have given her an inner strength to cope with crises that crop up off an on. ‘We have been here for more than 25 years. Within the last two years, most of the old residents have shifted to other areas. New people from the troubled section of Paposhnagar have moved in. People don’t know each other any more,’ she says.

The residents, who can afford to sell their houses — which they had built brick by brick over 30 to 40 years — at a throw-away price and buy a new place, are moving out. This has created an opportunity for the residents of smaller houses in troubled quarters to buy better accommodation in slightly safer areas. Thus many families of Aurangabad, who lived in 60 sq. yds. dwellings have moved onto 80 sq. yds. structures. And the dwellers of 80 sq. yds houses are moving up to 120 sq. yds. houses across the road. This forced movement has accelerated the disintegration of the social fabric of the neighbourhoods. The old community ties and cherished values — sense of belonging, solidarity, collective will to solve the community problems, extending help to each other in crises — have withered, substituted by suspicion, anxiety, fear and indifference.

‘A few months back, I was alone in the house with my daughters. My eldest son was at work and the younger was out — he is looking for a job. I heard some noise. A few boys were shouting: “Burn this house down!” I peeped out of the window and asked them what the matter was.’ The boys said someone had hurled a stone from the rooftop. Sajida kept her cool and told them there was no one at the terrace except her old and ailing brother-in-law, who is totally bed-ridden in a room built at the terrace. They wanted to check themselves. ‘I told them I couldn’t let them in as my sons were not at home.’ Her nerves of steel and the authority in her voice saved the situation and the boys backed out. “This would never have happened had the neighbourhood remained the same.’ Besides Sajida’s, only five more families of the good old days lay scattered in the area.

Abdus Salam’s family is the lucky one. Two years ago they were able to move out of their 80 square house on the main road — where he had spent 35 years of his life –and buy a bigger house across the road. ‘Life in our old house had become difficult as it was situated on the main road. We lived in constant fear of sniper shooting. On strike days we couldn’t step out of the house. This is not the case in the inner sections: some of the petty grocers and vegetable vendors operate, though cautiously, in the thick of the residential quarters but not so on the main road,’ he says.

The main problem was his declining business of screen-printing which he had set up in the upper storey of his small house with the help of his three sons.  He came to know about a house owned by a Chinioti family. It was just the house he was dreaming of, and the Chiniotis were desperate to sell. He got it at an unbelievably low price. The house has enough space to accommodate large tables for screen-printing. The camera has been fixed in a small room. Dye-making is done in a separate portion.

The houses here have iron gates, and the streets are wider. ‘This is a safe area. But of course within a troubled locality.’ Thus, one of Abdus Salam’s four sons, who works in a foreign company in Clifton, stays on for days in a hotel room booked by the company. ‘In such a situation, phone is the only contact between him and his home. Recently, the telephone lines of the entire locality remained out of order for six weeks. The boys had torn down the cable box. Now the telephone department has laid all the cables underground.’ The phenomenon of damaged telephone cable boxes, done by ‘terrorists’, young boys, ‘God knows who’, is quite prevalent in the city. Sections of Liquatabad, FC Area, PIB Colony, Shah Faisal Colony, North Nazimabad have suffered dead phone lines for weeks and months.

The problems for the residents of District Central are compounding day by day. ‘When you are called for a job interview, the first thing they ask you is: “Where do you live?” Once you utter the name of an area that falls in Distric Central, you are shown the door. ‘Sorry, no vacancies for residents of Distric Central,” you are told crudely,’ says 27-year-old Shamshad, a resident of Nazimabad. After a few such encounters, he lied that he lived in PECHS. ‘One of my relatives lives there’.’ During the last ‘three-day mourning’ strike, he reached his workplace with much difficulty. Shamshad’s life is marred with this extra tension besides so many other anxieties and hardships. He supports his widowed mother and younger brother and lives in a one-room house in Nazimabad.

Many families, whose boys are not involved in politics, are nevertheless apprehensive for their safety. The worse scenario is ‘if your son happens to know, even very remotely, a boy who has some connection with either MQM or Haqiqi. You live in perpetual anxiety that he might be picked up, your house might be raided,’ says Fatima, who has two grown up sons. She has been coping with that fear. But the situation became worse when some boys from the neighbourhood came to her and said: ‘You have two sons. Give one to Altaf bhai,’ A widow, she panicked. With much difficulty she arranged for her son’s railway ticket and packed her off to Punjab to a distant cousin.

A student of 2nd year, Rashid returned home after spending four restless, anxious months in alien environs. ‘I can’t live there indefinitely. I miss home,’ he says. He missed his college and doesn’t know how to manage. For Fatima, life is a living hell: she fears for the day when ‘they’ will knock at her door again asking for her son.

And so, the life continues. In Liaquatabad and elsewhere.

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