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(Only) one dead: The Math of Tragedy


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Owais Baig went to the State Life Building on Abdullah Haroon Road for a job. It was an ordinary day and he was an ordinary man. He was dressed neatly in a crisp shirt and ironed pants as so much of the randomly selected world on one of Karachi’s streets would discover just over an hour later. One and a half hour later, the senseless meeting of two wronged wires would start a fire. The smoke from the fire would start filling up the hope and trepidation filled room where Owais Baig waited for his turn at impressing someone enough to be rewarded with a job.

One hour later the unthinkable would happen and of the 800 or so people in the building, one man, Owais Baig would know the least about how to leave. In the panic of entrapment, only he would try the fire escape instead of the stairs. Only one man, Owais Baig of Gulistan-e-Jauhar, would hang for over 20 minutes from the ledge on the State Life Building, waiting for one of the three snorkels in a city of 18 million. Only one man’s 10 fingers would give out as he clasped its edge. And only one man would fall to his death on the hard, unforgiving streets below, his bones crumbling against the asphalt, his blood spattering on the sidewalks worn by the steps of so many souls.

“One man dies in State Life Building Fire”, the headlines would scream the next day, their black decisive letters sitting on top of a picture of a brown building and a man in a white shirt and crisp pants, caught in the midst of his fall. Ironies and metaphors abound in the death of Owais Baig.  He came for hope, armed with education in a city just waking up from mobile outages and Moharram mourning. His last moments were spent clasping on to the barest of hopes; on the ledge of a building whose existence attempts to plan for calamity. Insurance after all is the human defense against the inevitability of catastrophe and those that buy plans put their faith in preparation for the worst, the evaluation and weighing of risk, in sensible ways.  In the 10 floor edifice erected for this purpose, there was none to spare for Owais Baig.

The ironies and metaphor of Owais Baig’s death in a city where the angrier, hungrier ate up so many more in such recent memory are not in the situation alone. The question of his solitary end are those of the moral duties of the rest of us, as circumstantially implicated in the crime of living in Karachi as he was in dying in it. Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle posited that the appeal of Greek tragedy was in the deliberate and intentional seaming together of characters and circumstances. It was in the “imitation of circumstances.” If history deals with the particular, tragedy deals with the universal, Aristotle opined; the order of cause and effect in the Universe taken out of the chaos of the world and expanded in fiction such that watching humans can weep for them.

Owais Baig's death was real and perhaps because it happened in a Karachi so lush with death, few tears could be found in this dry November for the dead man, his end mingling with those that died just before and or will die soon after.

Perhaps some enterprising playwright, in the city’s future will find in the hurtling facts of Owais Baig’s death the Aristotelian mechanics of plot, thought and diction such that the metaphor of a man who so signified the city, a man in search of a job, a man dressed to impress, a man who hung from a ledge and hoped for a rescue can be iconised as someone separate and distinct. If it happens, perhaps those in Karachi who watched but couldn’t weep, wouldn’t weep, could be converted to a new calculation of sympathy which amounts to more than a shrug when only one man, in 18 million dies.


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.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (41) Closed

farrukh Dec 02, 2012 03:45am
Sad moment for humanity and specially for Pakistanis. We have so many death related "breaking news" due to so many new channels we feel happy knowing at-least I am alive and death is somewhere else. Losing our soul in the process!
kimi Nov 30, 2012 03:03pm
is this an accident???? have u gone nuts?? this is a murder of a person my a mob of senseless and cruel people who had all the time in the world to make movies and criminally gossip about a young guy hanging above.. n we all are equally responsible for his death. shame on all of us pakistanis
Shahryar Shirazi Nov 30, 2012 08:49am
My mom called and told me about it. Shame on Pakistan is all I can say.
ahad Nov 30, 2012 08:58am
Excellent read.
Imtiaz Balouch Nov 30, 2012 11:56am
Just seen the news today and I was really shocked that people who were standing over their have time to make the video but they don't have time to put some clothes. Also, there is a garment store in Madina City Mall and behind Madina City Mall there is also Rex Market as well. If that Guy was hanging for 20 minutes, I think that it will take 10 minutes to gather some clothes for him.
Talha Dec 03, 2012 04:40pm
I really appreciate the authors spotlighting this devastating event. Indeed we have all become so heartless. May his soul rest in peace.
Israr Nov 30, 2012 04:22pm
Shame on all of us because I think I would also be just a part of the crowd if I had been there. Shame on all of us for choosing to be governed by people for whom lives of ordinary people come way down their priority lists.
adfds Dec 03, 2012 04:49pm
One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic
Khalid Nov 30, 2012 11:09am
Why not people standing watching helpless man to die acted. 20 min are enough. They can keep a lot cloths/ bags and empty boxes of cloth and other soft items on the ground as preventive measure to minimize the impact of fall. All around that building there are lot of cloth market. It is a shame for all of us complaining about rescue help or fire tender to reach.
nisar Nov 30, 2012 04:14pm
Truly .. a Shameful act by us ..... im speechless .... ashamed of my self .. n my countrymen .... May his soul rest is peace ... Aameen
Khurram Nov 30, 2012 04:58pm
Tragic in deed, but the fact of the matter is that the life of a poor/ordinary man does not carry the same value in our society as somoene with wealth and status. I wonder if the reaction of the people standing beneath would have been the same if the CEO of the same insurance company was dangling from the ledge. All criticism is justified because a valuable life was lost and many more affected as a result but what is the lesson to be learned here? Are we suffering from a tragedy overload and turned numb after witnessing such atrocities being committed all around us? Will the authorities take any notice other than just appearing for a photo op and passing customary instructions for an inquiry? Yes, accidents do happen all around the world but the difference is that people learn from their mistakes and take constructive actions for improvement. Everyone's life should be valued and cherished. Don't let this be just another bit of news. The only person we need to change is oursleves and the rest will get better. Don't forget that we'll all be held accountable in the "Supreme" court of the Lord Almighty. Long live Pakistan.
Suraiya Nov 30, 2012 04:58pm
What is wrong with us?
tahseen khan Nov 30, 2012 09:14am
A very sad moment for us. I really feel very bad because there is no value of your life in Karachi. No was there to rescue him. May God grant his family comfort. Ameen.
Shakeel N Nov 30, 2012 11:05am
Ture, accidents take place everywhere on earth, but rescue is provided too. It is shame because even thought he was hanging for more than 20 minutes and cameras were covering him live. No one come to help him, neither from authorities nor from public. I wish Karachi had Rescue 1122 as well like in Lahore. Believe me this department is doing great here in Lahore.
Zaheer Nov 30, 2012 06:28pm
Shame on me
Zaki Haider Nov 30, 2012 11:03am
@ A Rehman Khan: Sir, accidents do take place avery where on earth but those are 'accidents'.. authorities have literally let him fall... no help whatsoever!!! this is ridiculous... outside Pakistan, I have heard many people are saved even when they try to suicide and in this part we have made videos from our mobile phones... how can we see a man dying so easily :(
A Rehman Khan Nov 30, 2012 09:33am
We express our heartfelt grief over the sad incident taking the young man's life. But why shame on Pakistan? Accidents take place everywhere on earth.
Insaf Nov 30, 2012 04:01pm
Indeed shame on Pakistani authorities as well as the cold and stone hearted people who are standing and watching him for 20 min.Even more than shame and shame to the media who were made the coverage of this tragic situation,they are true culprits and more responsible than any one else and the silent spectator who take out there mobile and made film rather than go and arrange clothes, tent, sheet from nearby to put on the place of landing.I just says that outside countries even an bird or ant got the rescue. ALLAH will give Sabir jamil to Owais family and muqfarat to him. Amin
Abbas Nov 30, 2012 09:53am
sigh...what have we become! what have I become! Reciting prayers for owais is the only thing which I can think of doing right now :(
Saira K. Nov 30, 2012 04:31pm
What a heart breaking and beautiful piece.
Emaan Nov 30, 2012 10:08am
Such a tragic story. But my question is, while he was hanging there for fifteen minutes, where was the help?!
Khan Dec 01, 2012 01:02am
May Allah rest his soul in peace and give his family sabar-jameel. Ameen it's heart wrenching.
FAizan Nov 30, 2012 06:22pm
Feeling very depress after watching this incident on tv everybody standing there is responsible for his death actually its an murder by all of them who are just watching him and making video.That was really shame full act by all of us that is the reason our country is facing too many problems CNG,Terrorism,Inflation,Target killings etc bcz Allah is not happy with our acts.May Allah bless Jannah to Owais Baig.
Saqib Nov 30, 2012 06:45pm
You are right that If the CEO in his place the result is different, It needs a Rescue force in Karachi as it is in Lahore, whose only aim to save life not safe things...
Aamir Dec 01, 2012 06:33am
Tragic death...!!! and shameful reaction of people standing out there and watching him hanging for 15 mins.... shame to all media persons who were just covering the live photages for the publicity of there channel..... I dont know where was the fire brigade truck is... fire station is just 8 to 10 mins far from the place........ shamefull act... realy shameful... we all have to thnk about the things happening around us, we have to be more responsible and loyal to our country, we all have to think about all human in our country.....!!! otherwise we'll lose our identity, we'll lose our country.. please please be responsible.... try to envisage whats happening, and what will haapen to us in future if and only if we act like this.......
Imran Dec 04, 2012 11:13pm
Tragic and even more so that the hundreds who watched from below did nothing
NONY Nov 30, 2012 07:55pm
a hundred or thousand dead men cant help a single living human being !!!
Waqar Nov 30, 2012 08:11pm
Saadat Dec 03, 2012 07:52am
An excellent portrayal of an aspiring young mans death. Owaise who had conjured dreams of a respectable livelihood.I feel sorry for the poor soul but detest the apathy & callouness of our civic agencies & the public at large. No one made an effort to save him.Tarik
Adil Jadoon Nov 30, 2012 10:33pm
We donot understand the value of a human life and are completely devoid of empathy. Maybe it is our upbringing or our desensitization that keeps us from feeling sorry for the man. Perhaps it is a mechanism to inhibit the restlessness and anxiety that builds in us with every death or crime that keeps us from standing against this and demanding respect and accountability.
Nehal Dec 03, 2012 06:18am
we are not a nation we are just a crowd, just like so man people standing there and making movies and not doing any effort to safe such a precious life.... very sad... very sad indeed.
Aq Dec 03, 2012 06:19am
just a few questions, did no one see him hanging, why no one helped him, during his 20 minutes wait for death, did he not shout for helped, there must be something which could have done to save him, why was it not done. All questions and no answers, because death is now a norm especially in karachi, all of us have become silent specatators, wiating for our turn, is there any thing we can do about it, is no one accountable?
Ahmar Qureshi Dec 03, 2012 05:55am
My words dedicated for Owais Baig; "On the City streets, I have searched for the Peace. In the "City of Lights", A Quest for respite. Caught by the inferno, My Life; I have fought for thee. A "Leap for Life" to the "Ground Beneath"! May Allah place the soul of Owais Baig in Jannat-ul-Firdaus Ameen
tehreem Dec 03, 2012 05:16am
Very well written. This is so tragic on so many levels, that I am really left speechless.
Gerry D'Cunha Dec 02, 2012 11:35am
how many times have we shed tears on such matters taking place in the whole of pakistan? have we learned any lession or are we still awaiting for more tragedy to take place and shed crocodile tears. shame on this nation!!!!!!
asim Dec 01, 2012 03:50am
I think better response would have been " shame on us" as we as a nation are corrupt,senseless and heartless. Pakistan has nothing to do with it.
Adnan Dec 01, 2012 08:46am
shameless nation with senseless pride!
farrukh Dec 03, 2012 08:38am
that day was the day of death of whole pakistani nation.may allah forgive us.
ayub Dec 01, 2012 04:51pm
Their is something drastically wrong with our up bringing and our response to situation. Our social fiber is completely torn. I am speechless, i just don't know what to say !!!!!!!!
Deadmantalking Dec 01, 2012 05:57pm
Dear Asim, your statement implies that Pakistan is separate from its people! Is this why Pakistan is in such a bad shape?
Hiba Iqbal Dec 01, 2012 08:21pm
What about his folks, left to mourn his death?I'm sure he hoped to make a career out of selling insurance to people and there must be a family waiting for his return to come and tell them he got the job.Who knows if he was sole bread earner in the family.I don't even want to imagine the horror and shock for them.I guess I'm still human.