Life in Micro Pakistan


Life in Micro Pakistan
Scholars wanting to study the issues facing Pakistan need not scour the libraries, conduct hundreds of interviews, or travel all over the country. They can come and visit my apartment building. Here they will find a perfect miniature Pakistan. For reasons that will become clear later, I cannot give the exact name and location of my building. Suffice to say it is located in one of the neighbourhoods of Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan.

The building correctly represents the demography of Pakistan. There are residents from all the five provinces of the country. Linguistically, English, Urdu, Punjabi, Seraiki, Sindhi, Balochi and Pashto – and many other languages that sound quite esoteric – are heard in the building.

The residents of the building are a very representative mix of professions and occupations. From anecdotal evidence, some of the residents are likely involved in shady businesses like smuggling and gun-running. There are politicians, and active and retired government officials who seem rich beyond their means. At the bottom of the ladder, there are professionals, who from their simple lifestyle do not seem to have gotten a chance to benefit from corruption.

Then there are some “special” residents. There is a widow who refuses to pay maintenance money due to her special status, notwithstanding that she has sons who are earning very well. There is a lady who takes her showers in the Sind Club because the water in the building is too salty and not good for her hair. Once a DIG Police moved in. Overnight the building started looking like a police chowki in North Waziristan. A tent for guards was set up along the boundary wall and heavily armed policemen were seen marching inside the building. Fortunately, the DIG soon left for housing more in keeping with his exalted status. There are regional colours too. The residents from Balochistan bring with them the joys of the tribal culture. These elite have their numerous SUVs and double cabin pickup trucks with Balochistan government number plates that take up most of the resident parking.Their children, who sleep during the day, start their fun and games at 11pm – when it is cool outside. However, in keeping with the good part of the tribal culture, they serve free food to the chowkidars.

There are no servant quarters in our building so there are live-in-the kitchen-cooks and sleep-on-the-floor-maids. As to where the many drivers of the many vehicles live, I am yet to find out. The chowkidars sleep in the chowkidar room – which cannot be called a room by any reasonable definition.

Further down the social hierarchy are the cleaners who come in the morning from areas in the city not known to anyone in the building. Since Pakistan has a high degree of religious tolerance for non-Muslims, all the cleaners are Hindus. In addition to sweeping and picking garbage, they are mostly busy in cleaning the gutters that are perennially clogged. The cleaners come and go. When I did not see a cleaner for a few days and inquired about him, I was told that he was run over by a bus. Another one went home in the evening and was dead the next day of unknown causes.

When it comes to toilets, there is no discrimination between the chowkidars, gardeners, drivers and cleaners. The one ramshackle toilet - that no resident has ever seen from the inside, serves all the staff. A little shed outside the building gate serves as the waiting room and the rest-and-recreation area for the staff.

For the cleaning, guarding and gardening services for the building, each resident is charged Rs.4,000 per month. About a quarter of the residents just don’t pay and have outstanding payments running into lakh of rupees. All of these defaulters have one or more late model cars and SUVs, drivers and other domestic staff. If they are penalized by not letting them use indoor parking, they park anyway; their water supply cannot be cut-off as the water tanks are shared; if their garbage is not picked up they will likely just throw it in the driveway. All the rule-abiding folks in the building are scared of these “defaulters” as they belong to the thug category.

There is no water in the municipal pipes coming into the building but the municipal water bill arrives regularly. All water is supplied by tankers and Rs. 10,000 per month is charged for the water which is not fit for cooking or drinking. Again, some residents do not pay, but since the tank is common, those who do pay eventually end up paying more than their share to make-up the cost.

Since the services and maintenance funds are always short, not much repair work is done. “Special Funds” are gathered when some urgent renovation is required. Again, only a minority of the residents contribute to such funds. Sometimes foreign aid comes by way of a wealthy gentleman whose mother lives in the building. Since the funds are short, the staff is paid pittance. Any suggestion by a few socialists in the building to increase the monthly contribution to give better salaries to the low paid staff is shot down unceremoniously.

The building is aging and the pipes are getting rusted and leaky. Those – like myself – living on the ground, floor suffer due to water leaking into our wall. I have not been able to convince the residents living above us to get the leaky pipe fixed as they say it is not their problem. Even when I propose that I would bear the total cost of repairs, they do not agree, as the repair work would inconvenience them for a few days.

The only thing on which most of the residents agree is that tall trees are a clear and present danger to the building as these can fall in high winds and damage the apartments. Then there is the pious brigade that opines that the bird dropping from the trees break the “wuzoo” (ablution) of those headed for the mosque next door. The few tree lovers in the building are in a constant battle against attempts to cut down the magnificent trees.

The building is managed by a residents’ committee that is dysfunctional. Meetings of the august body are rarely held and when they do, not more than half a dozen residents show up. The meeting soon breaks down into chaos and acrimony. When it ends, nothing is resolved. Most of the blame for the problems is attributed to the “corrupt” caretaker, who receives a royal salary of Rs. 15,000, and who is not even a part of the meeting. No one pauses to ask how is it possible for anyone to steal money when there is no money in the kitty in the first place.

The status of women in the building is an exact reflection of the status of women in the country. Catcalls and whistles follow the maids when they arrive at the place of work covered from head to toe in black chaddars. The “ladies” in the building do not fare much better. When we were discussing the participation of women in the management committee, there was strong opposition from the males. In their view the women talked too much and the men could not talk back as they “respected ladies too much”. Their answer was to simply keep the nuisance ladies out of any decision-making.

In the unlikely event that my apartment buildings affairs are fixed, I will write a white paper, then find some friends in the Establishment and suggest that they use the same formula to fix the country. But it is more likely that our three-storey building situated on a large piece of land will be bought out by some shady builder and torn down to build a highrise. After all, as our dear PM himself encourages building high rises to answer Karachi’s housing problems in declaring, “In Karachi, the sky’s the limit.”