On 30 January 2013 my husband was abducted by six men in broad daylight on his way back from work, about 1.5 km from our house in Defense, apparently one of Karachi's "safest" and "poshest" districts, making me realise how fluid and relative the term "safe" really is and how vulnerable our concocted cocoons actually are.
That day, he'd called me to say he would be home in 10 minutes as we had to watch a play that night. But then as the hours ticked by I could not make contact with him. In retrospect, it surprises me to remember how stoic and numb I had felt about what may have happened. I continued feigning laughter at the jokes we were exchanging on a family WhatsApp group, aware that alarming people thousands of miles away would serve no practical purpose.
"[The kidnapping] reignited the existential struggle in my mind of what it really meant to be Pakistani and if this was something I wanted to call myself."
Standing alone in my oversized bedroom, I said a small prayer: "God, please bring him home, take time away from my life, but bring him home. I have no idea where he is." It didn't help to have no family in Pakistan then either. After waiting for what had seemed like an eternity, with close to 60 phone calls on both his numbers, I feared that he had met with a car accident. Accompanied by my driver, I began trailing the road from his workplace to our home, searching amidst minimal street lights (as it was nightfall by now), for an ambulance, a wrecked car, injured bodies, any clues that would help me reach my husband, to whom I had been married for under a year. This wasn't how I had imagined our first anniversary.
Several hours later, after being locked up in a remote, unfamiliar, no-go district called Lyari, somewhat bruised, more so shattered, negotiating for hours about ransom and more importantly his life, my husband successfully escaped from an area where until recently, even the police was not allowed to enter. It was nothing short of a miracle but that is a story for another time. I stayed on sleeping pills for the next several months, waking up sporadically in the middle of the night, even if I did fall asleep, staring at the ceiling for hours, patting my husband whilst he was fast asleep just to make sure he was still beside me and repeatedly wondering how much worse this could have been.
On the one hand, my patriotism for Pakistan (Karachi even more so), died a tiny death that night. The realisation that I was born in a country and a city that did not even grant me a right as fundamental as my life had hit home with haunting conviction. It was no longer us consoling a relative on their trauma and loss, whilst secretly counting our blessings that it wasn't one of us. On the other, however, it gave me perspective, to understand that there are those who have witnessed worse -- lost brothers, fathers, sisters. It also reignited the existential struggle in my mind of what it really meant to be Pakistani and if this was something I wanted to call myself. Is it being Muslim, being a Sunni or a Shia, being a man, being Punjabi or Mohajir? If I go to a temple or a church, am I still Pakistani? If I belong to the Ahmadi sect, am I still Pakistani? If I have roots to the Gujar caste, am I still Pakistani? If I speak Balochi, am I still Pakistani? If I am embarrassed to talk about my country in front of my Western friends, am I still Pakistani? Ethnicity, religion, class, caste, gender all immersed into a black maelstrom in my over-wrought head, as I wondered who I really was?
"[B]eing 'Indian' taking precedence over all other markers of identity has played a pivotal role in enabling our neighbours to attain the status of becoming a global force to reckon with."
Growing up as part of a middle class that was sandwiched between the upper echelons of wealthy, ministerial indulgence on the one hand and homeless street children sleeping drugged outside shrines on the other, I realised that this is one of the differentiators for why Pakistan and India have witnessed such markedly varied trajectories, despite gaining independence almost simultaneously. Belonging to the proverbial middle class, I still distinctly recall the scarring experience of attending a school that was notorious for its ''high-brow, stiff-necked' parvenus students, thriving on the opulence they had inherited by virtue of their birth, whilst we naively doted on a father who was a professor and believed that the nobility of his profession superseded all monetary returns. What the contributions of those children themselves were to that grandeur, in many cases, still remains to be seen. I think watching my mother sell newspapers one day to buy potatoes, so that we didn't come home to empty plates at lunch, are the sort of experiences that have made my siblings and me, braver, resilient and more empathetic human beings.
However, this very middle class in Pakistan is shrinking with perturbing rapidity. On the contrary, in India, a burgeoning middle class that benefits from an infrastructure that helps them compete and succeed. Besides, being "Indian" taking precedence over all other markers of identity has played a pivotal role in enabling our neighbours to attain the status of becoming a global force to reckon with.
I now have family that chose to move back to Pakistan -- a brother, his wife, my 18-month-old nephew and mother, who live in Karachi every single day and cope, just in order to survive, along with over 20 million others. They are the true heroes of our nation who should be lauded -- those who have chosen to remain in a country that continues to unleash on us new-fangled bedrocks of mayhem with every passing day.
"[T]his country is homefor anyone who calls themselves Pakistani and its orbit might have been significantly different, had we all played on the same team over the last seven or so decades. "
Being an expatriate means it is relatively simpler to pass judgments and express sorrow at the state of affairs back home, whilst quietly making a resolve to never return "home" from the security of one's Middle Eastern or Western drawing room. Not living in my home country any longer, the one conscious endeavour I try to make, (challenging as it is!), is to stop judging Pakistan and Pakistanis. Whoever we are, whatever the term means, and however convoluted our identity might be, the world needs to stop dubbing for us as judge and jury. For far too long, Pakistan has been smeared by lemming-like cretins amongst its populace, who oscillate between endorsing the criticising, patronising the gaze of the West on one hand, whilst fleetingly supporting flushes of "Made in Pakistan" each time it is in vogue to do so.
Yes there are problems, mammoth ones, which often, in the medium term at least, seem insurmountable. We witness gut wrenching barbarism, the chronic expulsion of innocent lives and the perfectly orchestrated engulfing of courageous professions into smithereens every day. However, adding insult to injury through scripting the final label from "failed" to "hopeless" each time a terrorist attack occurs, hardly offers the answers.
The one realisation for me, despite the personal trauma we have experienced in Pakistan, is that this country is homefor anyone who calls themselves Pakistani and its orbit might have been significantly different, had we all played on the same team over the last seven or so decades. Just the totemic power of such unity would have sufficed to battle the Frankenstein's monsters created and imposed on us by outsiders since the nation's inception. The way I see it is, simply put, if a love letter is soaked in blood, that shouldn't eradicate the fact that it is still precisely that - a love letter.
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