x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Pakistan party people

Last word Young Karachiites energised by the democracy movement now resign themselves to revelry, writes Taimur Khan.

Workers at a Red Crescent Iftar tent, 
Musaffah, Abu Dhabi, 2009 |
Workers at a Red Crescent Iftar tent, Musaffah, Abu Dhabi, 2009 |

Young Karachiites energised by the democracy movement now resign themselves to revelry, writes Taimur Khan. One week after a night of monsoon rain deluged Karachi with more water than it usually holds in an entire year, flogging the city's moribund electricity grid and half-submerging whole neighbourhoods under sewage, I was at a party, standing under the midnight sky on a second story veranda. Looking out over the surrounding houses, I could see a sleek white windmill with three stationary blades poking through a canopy of trees - one neighbour's unusual attempt to generate his own electricity. These days everyone with the means to do so is determined to fine the best way to bypass the efficient supply of blackouts delivered by the privately run Karachi Electric Supply Company.

Across the street, an electricity transformer exploded in flames, and a shower of sparks rained onto a chowkidar's tent below. Others on the veranda watched in detached amusement before returning to their drinks and conversation as the thumping bass coming from inside came to an abrupt halt and the house went dark, but only for a moment: within seconds an uninterrupted power supply battery - the very latest technology - kicked in and the lights and music came back to life, barely missing a beat.

"Do we need any ice? Should I send a driver to get more food?" the hostess asked the few guests who had arrived, matter-of-factly, as they hung around the bar, eating chips and guacamole. "There are some disturbances in the commercial area and the shops are closing. If anyone wants something, we have to get it now." The theme for the night's revelry was "The Wild, Wild West". Four bartenders wearing plaid shirts and cowboy hats served drinks at a mahogany bar; an overhead projector beamed a mute Sergio Leone film on to the room's nearly theatre-sized movie screen. Guests trickled in wearing accoutrements of the old American frontier - cowboy boots, a big belt buckle - but most were costumed as the stylish youth of the urban haute bourgeoisie the world over - women in tight jeans, high heels, diamonds; men with designer T-shirts and Gucci sandals.

An attractive couple sat together on a sofa inside, leaning into each other, talking and laughing as if they were alone at home. Her coiled hair revealed heavy diamond and sapphire earrings. From time to time, ayahs slipped into the bar from a hallway to update parents on their children sleeping in other rooms. The revellers were urbanites in their twenties and early thirties, still just "returned" from university abroad. The party's theme of an imagined American past, and the perfunctory but intense smoking and boozing, fuelled their nostalgia for the American freedoms they had enjoyed, ensured by family wealth in Pakistan. Returning to the claustrophobia of Karachi after such libratory anomie, it was not easy to reinsert themselves. "You don't understand what it's like to have people constantly on your head, and have to do things for them all the time," complained one woman who had been home for nearly two years after spending five in the US. "I can't even drive alone at night here, I have to use a driver. It's not easy to readjust."

Or perhaps the desperate pall of hedonism was an index of their resignation. These were Jinnah's heirs, those who Pakistan was created for - not the Muslim underclass of the subcontinent, but the future entrepreneurs and industrialists who, it was feared, would have been outnumbered and dispossessed by Hindus. Many had been enthusiastic about the democracy movement that rose up in opposition to Musharraf's suspension of the constitution as his power slipped away in 2007. Students at the country's elite universities and young professionals who had returned from abroad saw the crisis as a liminal moment with the potential for the democratic institutions of the state to finally become entrenched. They hoped that the push to reinstate the constitution would start eroding the political, social and economic monopoly that the feudal-industrial-military complex held on Pakistan. Most crucially, transparency and meritocracy would win the day over corruption and cronyism, giving them more opportunities to make money.

Since Russian tanks rolled into Kabul, the rest of the world has carefully attended to each shift in Pakistan's political landscape - from Bhutto to Sharif to Musharraf to Zardari - but for Pakistanis each upheaval renews a wearily familiar cycle. The elected government is still run by kleptocrats cut from the same authoritarian cloth as their predecessors. President Zardari is the object of such intense public ridicule that his government recently amended the dubious cyber-crimes ordinance in order to better target "the SMS/e-mail terrorists" who slander the political leadership of the country (the punishment is 14 years in jail) with jokes and conspiracy theories such as the one about Zardari himself being an American drone. Even the lawyers movement - led by their supposedly infallible chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary - is now more concerned with retrospectively prosecuting the crimes of the Musharraf era, and consolidating its own power, than with democracy or national cohesion. For the young, wealthy and educated, the retreat into privilege was easy.

As partiers on the dance floor sang along to Desi Girl, the head bartender, who owns a company that services private events in the city, said: "My business is fine because people drink when they are frustrated. It's actually picked up quite a bit since the past two years." His assistants hammered at a new bag of ice while he poured whiskey with both hands as people pushed toward the bar. While the city's wealthiest are still able to fill in some gaps left by an indifferent state with generators, the electricity crisis has caused new forms of suffering for those at its mercy, and hot nights are now followed by burning days. Industrial workers riot regularly, torching factories that cannot operate and pelting cars unlucky enough to be driving by. "It took me five hours to get home from work!" one young woman in a cowboy hat said to her friends at the bar, as she ordered a round of tequila. "Something was happening on the overpass, so every car began turning around, driving the wrong way..."

In a corner of the veranda, a young woman in a red gagra sat with a man wearing a white shalvar kamiz, sharing a cigarette, oblivious to the drizzle soaking their thin clothes. They had arrived from a mehndi, and the man was detailing a plan to stop working for his multinational employer and invest with friends in their own call centre. "Don't waste the money," she reproached. "It will just get stoned and burnt, sooner or later."

It was the rise of the rest. Defence, this sprawling upscale neighbourhood abutted by slums, had always seemed more or less impermeable to the volatility of wider Karachi. "I think about when Benazir was killed, and they were burning petrol stations and pulling people out of their cars all the way to the petrol station on Korangi. I mean, they were vicious! I saw blood on the streets where people had been killed that night," said Ali, a 20 year old who attends college in the US.

My uncle, who would still rather live nowhere else, now carries a pistol in an ankle holster when he drives to work. He recently mentioned keeping a grenade in the car. For what? I asked him. "It will take out four or five of them and scare the rest away." tkhan@thenational.ae