IT begins with the television anchors. As clouds gather over Karachi they begin their strange song. The weather is going to become ‘pleasant’, they sing in unison, their point pushed across by stock films of flowers bending under the weight of raindrops, of children playing in the rain. As the day progresses, they recommend other things; everyone is ‘enjoying’ the weather, they intone, pakoras and samosas and coffee are being eaten and drunk. More children are playing in the rain.
This weird song of denial is sung with regularity every time rain devastates the city; for every anchor or morning show host who sings it, a dozen more echo the chorus, a parody of love and pakoras against the backdrop of utter devastation. And it is utter devastation. The rain fell, and the lives of people in the city — already precarious, already propped up by pieces of cardboard or scrap metal — fell, and then flowed away in the toxic mix of industrial effluent, raw sewage and rain water that has seeped into every nook and cranny.
“The months-long lockdown did not cause as much trouble and grief as this one day of rain has caused,” complained one restaurant owner. After driving through four to five feet of water, he finally managed to reach Nishat Commercial Area where his restaurant was located. The basement was flooded. In an adjoining restaurant, there was even more damage. Expensive canning and packaging equipment was now completely soaked and sodden and hence useless. Everywhere, shop owners were engaged in inventories of the same sort, looking up and down flooded streets in the darkness that enveloped the city for days.
There was no one to help, not the government in any case. In Clifton and the Defence Housing Authority, city officials — who usually show up to examine and question shopkeepers and business owners for even the slightest building modification — had all disappeared. Also unseen were the police, the municipal workers, the politicians. In sum, they had, like those citizens of Pompeii who had advance knowledge of the impending eruption of Mount Vesuvius, fled in a hurry. If the people left behind suffered and died, well, it just was not their problem.
It does seem worse than the months-long lockdown, not least because the Covid-19 pandemic has not yet ended. The photos and videos of what the rain wreaked on the low-lying areas (and seemingly Karachi is one massive low-lying area) reveal people trying desperately to bail water out of their homes. In one such video, a man was in tears trying to get a hold of a small pump that would suck the water out of his home. Everything the family had collected for the dowry of a daughter was damaged and destroyed.
Some citizens have tried to protest. On Monday, residents of Clifton and DHA protested before the Cantonment Board Clifton. Days after the heavy rain, many of them still did not have electricity in their homes. The rotting food in refrigerators and freezers was much like the gutted city itself; one was no longer fit for human consumption, the other no longer fit for human habitation. Some are planning a lawsuit against the itinerant cantonment boards and housing authorities. The effect of such a lawsuit, in my dismal estimation, is simply that it may make the powerless feel somewhat powerful for just a small moment. Beyond that, it will languish and rot like everything else in this city of rain and romance.
The television anchors have moved on too. There is no apology for the lack of warning, the fact that the crucial period before the storms could have been spent spreading the message of citizen preparedness. Now, the terrible focus is on a kind of disaster pornography where hapless citizens are pitted against each other for whose personal tragedy is worse than the others. In the midst of it all, of the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking accounts of children crouched on tables or atop beds to get out of the rising water, are cooking oil commercials showing feasts on a scale no one has likely ever seen. No matter the cruel juxtaposition, no one appears to notice or care or cry.
The recovery and clean-up efforts are ever more dangerous because they are forcing people into close proximity with each other during a pandemic that is still ongoing. Nor is that the only risk; the vast amounts of stagnant water that is everywhere has become an incubator of more diseases, such as dengue and malaria, all growing in its dark depths about to start their own invasion of the city. The good old days of one pandemic and one long lockdown are no more. In their place is a fetid city, awash in parasite and poison and about to face several pandemics.
It is time to let go of this myth of rain and romance. The inhabitants of a dying and devastated city have no time for such pretensions. And since myth busting is the call of the moment, let us also eliminate the word ‘resilient’ in any sentence or tweet or anything else related to Karachi.
Those reading this column are unlikely to be able to help Pakistan’s largest drowning city, but they can spare everyone living there the misery of having to pretend that these cruelties wrought upon them must be worn as a badge of honour. Hardship endured once or even twice produces resilience; the relegation of one of the largest cities in the world to yearly destruction produces only despair. If you’re looking for that, then the city has large stores of it, awaiting distribution and disbursement to all those lucky Pakistanis who get to eat pakoras and be romantic when water pours from the sky.