The challenge of the Pakistani writer is to find new ways of writing about death. Death is everywhere inside bottles of cough syrup, lurking around the first aid boxes of health workers, in snooker clubs on Alamdar Road in Quetta, on the Super Highway in Karachi. Death skulks on street corners if you don’t’ hand over your mobile phone fast enough, on the window ledges of office buildings, in altercations outside apartment buildings, in slums and suburbs. Writing about Pakistan and for Pakistanis is writing about death, making death digestible, death in vast doses that choke when they hit the throat, death that threatens to numb the living before they die, death that curses and kills and bloodies and weeps but refuses to reveal which murmured prayer will yield some respite from this time of constant endings.
January 10, 2013 yielded another bounty in this one abundant crop that knows no famine; what to do with the 11 gone in Karachi, the 102 blown away in Quetta, the 22 killed earlier in Swat. The math of death is complicated and scattered, four bombs in one place, one to begin the carnage, a second to kill those who came to help; a third nearby. One hour in Karachi, the settled dusk hour of dinners, of returns home, of school homework and laments about bosses and teachers, and discussions of the cruelty of one television husband, the audacity of another soap opera wife. One set of 60 minutes that took seven people outside a homeopathic hospital in Sohrab Goth. No one knew their names but everyone knew the fear, the shopkeepers pulled down their shutters and scuttled inside; the frightened march away from death. A cameraman of Samaa television was among the dead in Quetta, students at a seminary in Swat, a cast of dead so varied so impossible to draw up neatly and serve up with meanings, patterns and conclusions.
Amid this practiced dance of death; there is a march, led by a reinvented man who promises change, an old party that supports him and many others that do not and a Government finishing up its term without announcing the terms of selection of the next, Their spats and avowals and promises and denigrations ring out at us daily; against the context of constant death. A march is meant to be a revolt, a mass voice arising in unison with some single cry some appeal; but then those are the meanings of ordinary times, where life exists along with death.
For the ordinary Pakistani, busy at the task of defying death, digesting death, ignoring death and devastated by death; the task of politics and choice and leadership seems an anathema. A traumatised society, one dominated by death makes decisions based on survival not by deliberation or by choice. The avalanche of the dying has indeed proven that there is no Government to protect, no policeman to stop, no security to insulate. The question then becomes whether a march, a revolt will be the panacea of those craving any sort of change, those duped into believing that death in a different form, death procured in what seems like rebellion, maybe different from the ordinary variety in the Pakistan that exists. Politics in a time of death then, in these days of marches and massacres, is the politics of death, a recalculation not of life but of lessening the deep, heavy and crushing exhaustion of despair.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.
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