My lord, the vegetable vendor

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WORKING & LIVING IN MAYHEM: KARACHI

The world is falling around your ears. You look on admiringly at those who survive and flourish. Why not flourish with them, asks  Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Illustration: Samia Singh

THE OTHER day, something happened in Karachi that made me question the purported reach and propaganda power of social networks. The most significant text of the month, the demand for a separate province by a political party, was not delivered on any social network. It was spray painted on the city walls in the darkness of the night. If the aerosol can is the new medium from whose nozzle the future propaganda will flow, I must stock up on it before there’s a run on them. And the publishers should stop sinking good money in e-book technologies: the city wall is the new medium.

With the world focussed on Pakistan and the fiction coming out of its tremulous belly, I am soberly aware as a Pakistani writer of the great responsibility placed on my shoulders not only to interpret its upheavals to the outside world but also, ideally, to provide an ideological fulcrum that will allow the aspiring masses to dislodge the rotting, venal, and perverse order.

In other words, the responsibility to bring about a revolution has fallen on my shoulders. And a more willing or able pair of shoulders it could not have fallen on; for I am not only willing, I also know the way to bring it forth. But lest my readers should be later disappointed, I would like to inform them that it would be a little bit unlike revolutions elsewhere. It is because Pakistan is a little bit different from the rest of the world.

To illustrate its uniqueness, I can think of no better example than my neighbourhood vegetable seller. I don’t know his name; I have never dared to ask him or others, but it is not Muhammad Bouazizi. Besides their profession, the only common factor between the Tunisian vegetable vendor and his brother from Karachi is the fact that both of them started with unlicensed vegetable carts. When beaten by the police and denied the chance to make a livelihood, Muhammad Bouazizi committed self immolation in front of the provincial headquarters, triggering a revolution in the Middle East. But when the police came to remove the Karachi vegetable vendor, he sent them away with a small advance on a promised larger bribe. Within a few days, he appropriated the vacant plot where he used to park his cart at night. He then quickly portioned up the place and rented it out to other vendors and began collecting rent from them. After he wound up his business for the day, he would sit in the neighbourhood park and sell drugs.

He soon made the full payment to the police. He has now started charging protection money from the local shopkeepers. All the local goons now work in confederation with him, and his influence grows daily. Crime is on the ebb because nobody would dare intrude on his turf. A few days ago, when the police returned to negotiate a higher rate for his ‘property’, there was a disagreement and he threatened to set fire to the police station. The police had to accept his terms. They know he is as good as his word.

The day he starts a political party, I will join it. Men far inferior to him have fathered nations, and I will be proud to belong to the one he spawns. But even if it does not happen, I intend to make a humble tribute to him in the planned novella, Our Local Baron, in which I will celebrate his heroic life and deeds.

I happened upon writing only through a series of failures in other possible destinies. There were others like me among my friends. The devil had filled our minds with the dung of idealism and because of that we missed many chances of self-advancement. All of us struggled and struggled and many of us came to bad ends. But I am glad the new generation is clear-eyed. A young man whom I recently sounded on his views on politics exhibited a clarity of thought and vision remarkable even in a bureaucrat in his first week on the job. He accepted with perfect grace corrupt practices by the highest officers of the land and the necessity to politically support them regardless because it is a given that all of them will be corrupt. I hope there are many young men like him among his generation. The implied willingness to make compromises along the way is a quality that would hasten them to their destinies of choice whether art, business or science where they would work methodically to make a name for themselves. My prayers and good wishes will be with them because I now believe that nobody should struggle to find their way if they can help it.

The day he starts a political party I will join it. Men far inferior to him have fathered nations. I’ll be proud to belong to the one he spawns

SO HERE’S my plan: I am already nocturnal. And I know what makes the youth of my land tick. Armed with a spray can, I can do some good work on the city walls, making sure that the local baron notices my doings. I don’t need to be too conspicuous; he already keeps a strict watch on the streets. I can spray paint stuff calculated to bring out the youth on the streets in droves where they will find an able commander in the vegetable vendor. He knows how to make the law bend to his will. The revolution will not be late in the coming. Within hours, this land will be transformed and before breakfast time the next day, we will be a new nation. When the search is conducted for the person who brought it all about, the vegetable vendor will remember me. He will crown me as the ideological father of the new nation. Then I will have arrived.

By the time you read this, it may have already happened.

Farooqi is the author of The Story of a Widow and The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories. His new novel Between Clay and Dust is forthcoming

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