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Give me liberty or give me death

by Mahim Maher

September 14, 2011 | 2:47 am

This woman is being taken to the Sobhraj maternity home in downtown Karachi where nearly 100mm of rain fell on Tuesday. The water doesn't drain because people have built over the sewer system, blocking it. The city government hasn't cleared them in years. PHOTO: MOHAMMAD SAQIB/EXPRESS

I’m listening to Adele’s ‘Set fire to the rain’ these days and leaving the radio on all night long in an attempt to latch on to any sort of different sensory input in the hope that it will compete with and eclipse the anxiety-riddled tickertape running through my head. I’m seeing my psychologist twice a week, my irritable bowel syndrome has flared up and I’m ready to punch the National desk in the face if they keep taking stories to discard them later on. To make matters worse I just learnt that the True Blood episode 12 I just watched was the last for the season. For now, it will be back to Chris Noth in the Law and Order episodes from the 1980s.
Thus, television and music barely provide a respite from the grinding realities of this life, this job, this city. The narrative of my life runs like a thread through the very similar coloured narrative of my country. Everything is falling apart. And the macro-script unfolding at the national level just keeps looking more and more like a surreal Quentin Tarantino film, replete with the gratuitous anatomical dismemberment and subverted characters masquerading as normal.
One example. In a bizarre directive, the president has called for a collective prayer today to help my province of Sindh, which has been buried by monsoon rains. Just last year we were swept away by floods in the worst natural disaster since the great earthquake. Millions of children and women have been displaced again. It is as if Nature is exacting some kind of sick revenge on us. As usual, the government was caught with its pants down. We are beyond prayer. 
Karachi is flooded as well. It’s been raining for days and making it to and from work has become an azaab (or nightmare) as we say in Urdu. Because the fancy army-run defence housing society and city government can’t get their act together, the roads are potholed, rutted through and crumbling. Six decades of existence and we still haven’t figured out how to build a road.
A steel magnate who bought a house in my neighbourhood had it renovated but forgot to remove all the construction material and sand the workers dumped at the back of the house. Now that it’s rained this mound of his ex-house turned to sludge and spread all over the road I take to reach my gate. When they had initially started dumping the ripped-out toilets and discarded brickwork in an empty plot near my house I had gone to complain and ask them to have it removed. I got told that this man was a real close buddy of the president. In Pakistan that is what we understand is a “shut-up call”.
My neighbourhood has still been spared any actual devastation this monsoon. Go to inner city Karachi and you’ll see water – mucky grey water that is slick and slimy, something straight out of Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.
The problem, says the man temporarily running Karachi, is that people have built over our stormwater drains, 70% of which have been reduced to one-fifth of their actual size. My question is, did the city government not know that the rains were coming? Could they not have prepared? Why am I talking to myself again?
The irony is that when it comes to Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and economic engine, the political parties fight over it like cats and dogs. Their new thing is the marathon press conference, that runs so long that my reporters’ phone batteries die and we worry if we’ll make it press in time.
When it comes to the turf war in Karachi we’ve got rockets and grenades, mortar and TT pistols. It got so bad this summer that the Supreme Court was forced to take suo motu notice and start hearings on the violence which has claimed 300 lives. If you’ve watched ‘In the Name of the Father’ or any IRA film you’ll know what they can do with electric drills. Decapitated bodies were dumped all over the city in potato sacks. Karachi is the world’s most dangerous city – and not because of the Taliban or militants but because of the political parties that all want a piece of it, whether it is extortion money or land grabbing. Or votebanks.
Let me give you one example of how bad things are: the two major political parties cannot even agree on a system to run the damn city. General Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup, imposed a system of local government. When Benazir Bhutto’s party, the PPP, swept to power in 2008, shortly after her assassination in 2007, they tried to bring back a system of commissioners inherited from the British. In the end, it’s 2011 and we still don’t know if we want a mayor or a commissioner.
In the beginning I was really excited about writing this blog. But then I realized that I keep putting it off each week – not just out of sheer exhaustion – but because I really have nothing nice to say about where I live. I’m a perpetually depressed journalist in the world’s most violent city. Suddenly True Blood’s true death and Sookie Stackhouse’s decision to walk away from Bill and Eric is starting to make a lot of sense.

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