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DAWN - Features; April 10, 2006

April 10, 2006

No place to walk in Karachi

By Maheen A. Rashdi


KARACHI: In the blistering heat of the afternoon, an eight-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother accompanying her, become the target of foul-mouthed abuse hurled by a Honda Civic driver, who whizzes past them in full speed just as they attempt to dodge the car while crossing the road on Sharea Faisal. They continue jerking left and right, taking hesitant steps in between rushing cars. They aren’t alone, as others too are doing the same juggling act while trying to weave their way through cars whose average speed limit is 60kph.

Pedestrians in Karachi have no rights whatsoever. Ours is a city of cars only and an inspection of the road development work clearly shows no provision being made for pedestrians in the future. With deaths in accidents on Karachi’s roads recording phenomenally high statistics, each new case seems to make us more apathetic and ends up de-sensitizing our humane tendencies rather than spurring us into immediate action. Last month’s death of the policeman who got run over by a bus because the bus driver refused his summons to stop when he was caught breaking a signal, was a gruesome realization of the vulnerability of any and everybody on foot in the city.

Just days before the policeman’s murder in the line of duty, a nine-year-old boy had also been crushed to death by a speeding lorry on Mauripur Road. Riots had broken out in the area and newspapers carried headlines of the incident, but to what effect? If at all, the incidents gave more power to the transport mafia, as despite the arrest of the driver in the policeman’s case, no legal or traffic overhaul took place to make life any more secure for pedestrians or any more difficult for public transport drivers.

If a public hanging is carried out for even one of these drivers who routinely play with people’s lives on a mass scale, it would be an effective deterrent. But we live in a so-called civilized society where such barbarism will bring out the activists even though evil behaviour thrives in our set up and social misconduct is the norm.

And the city’s developing infrastructure designed to cater only to the affluent class is adding to the high-handed behaviour on the roads. All the new overhead bridges or the underpass that we boast off have totally overlooked pedestrian concerns. On Sharea Faisal, the vast strip has been made signal free to ease VIP movement, but for the pedestrians who constantly keep jumping in front of cars, driving has been made even more dangerous.

At the Clifton underpass entrance and exit points, it is the same case as cars coming out of the tunnel are caught unawares by people attempting to dash across the road. While drivers tend to hurl abuses at such foolish and near death attempts, what other way is there for those on foot to get to the other side? When these junctions used to be cross-roads and had signals, the pedestrians still had a chance of getting sufficient time to cross over. But now the city is being transformed into a ‘cars only’ zone and pedestrians are left with no place to walk.

It is also impossible to park a car in one place and walk over to an adjacent arcade around the Clifton underpass without life threatening consequences. So even if the distance is half-a-mile short, people have to move about in cars and add to the traffic jam.

Under-construction underpass sites presently include Sohrab Goth, Liaquatabad, Gharibabad and Nazimabad, amongst other areas and none of these have walkways included in the grand plan. When these construction projects are taken up by the civic authorities and the construction contractors, they should be duty bound to consider all probable movement in the area, taking cars, motorcycles, public transports and pedestrians into account. It is relatively a simple provision to add an underground pedestrian walkway. The underground walkway in Saddar, built a couple of decades ago, is still serving its purpose. Infact, it remains clean and well lit since there are shops in the underground space doing small-time business and the owners probably ensure its maintenance. (There are two other underground walkways in the city —- one at Liaquatabad and the other one at Nazimabad Chowrangi but they are not being maintained properly).

The onus of ensuring walking space lies totally with the city government as the grandiose revamping projects are under their ownership. They could engage the businesses around the area to aid them with pedestrian facilities, as walking space directly effects the daily turnover of the shops, offices and arcades situated in the vicinity of the overhead and underground bridges. And while many projects are still in the under-construction phase, this step must be taken immediately.

But first, the common man’s issues need to become a priority with those handling the governance. With the VIP culture claiming people’s lives, it is obvious, that the lower and middle-income strata – despite comprising the majority population – has little worth in the Karachi revamping plan. The rebuilding is simply a PR gimmick in accordance with the softer image being portrayed. Why else did the last security measure to protect the Governor’s House inmates result in cordoning off the pavement for all pedestrians? Bold red strips of tape had been wound all around the pavement to disable those on foot from using it. The Governor’s House environs include a public school where mostly children from the nearby Police Lines area are enrolled. Coming from a low-income locality, these children don’t travel in cars but make their way on foot to their school, passing through the pavement to get to their institute. Though the barrier was removed after two weeks — probably after much complaining — these children were seen walking during that time on the main road covering the fairly large gap by braving speeding cars zooming past in both directions on the Governor’s House Road.

Whereas measures should be taken to make the road crossings near school zones extra secure – as is the norm all over the world – counter measures are taken in our country to expose the children to a greater hazard.

With the mayor himself blithely unaware of his civic duty and blatantly exposing children to dangers outside his residence, there is little to wonder about the state of affairs around the rest of the city. But the rising death toll of pedestrians cannot and should not be passed over as just another ignominy of the state of affairs. The city government must reconsider its building plans for bridges and create ample space for pedestrian manoeuvring while there is still time.

Going off key with our ingrained prejudices

TWO Hindi journalists cornered Arundhati Roy the other day. They claimed they admired her work, but wondered why she had not written in Hindi. “I will write in Hindi,” she replied in broken Hindi, carefully constructing the sentence. “But why don’t you first try asking the question in Malayalam?” The result was withering. The Hindi chauvinists showed a clean pair of heels and that was the end of their petition.

Cultural prejudices can be both consciously acquired late in life or injected into our blood stream very early. Moreover, the prejudice may not always be confrontational. “My family also cooks meat once a week. And my grandfather used to speak very good Farsi,” a friend would confide to me in school, often without any apparent reason but always in a harmless, possibly reassuring way. The fact that the boy’s Punjabi Hindu family had migrated from Lahore under tragic circumstances dawned on me many years later. Apparently he believed that all Muslims ate meat everyday and if left to themselves they all privately preferred to speak in Farsi. So the boy was being nice to his Muslim schoolmate.

At another level a typically friendly discussion between Indians and Pakistanis these days has a fair chance of pondering on the talents of Lata Mangeshkar and Noorjehan. The discussion may not even dwell on nationalist mindsets. In fact, there is a fair chance in these days of thaw and bonhomie that a generous Indian interlocutor would concede that Noorjehan was a more accomplished singer than Lata, and vice versa.

So there’s no standoff. Everyone gets to be nice and civilised. There may be the occasional sour puss like Jagjit Singh, the Indian singer, who says he doesn’t want Pakistani musicians to come here because their government doesn’t invite him. But barring minor hiccups, everything else looks hunky-dory. Or does it? Look carefully, and you would perhaps see that much of the India-Pakistan cultural discourse moves along a regional affinity that binds only a part of the two countries. The discourse is dominated by Urdu-and- Punjabi-speaking communities.

How many music enthusiasts in Pakistan, or for that matter in India, have heard Anusheh Anadil’s Baul music from Bangladesh? It was a culture after all that both had once laid claim to own. How many north Indian connoisseurs of Indian classical music have heard of Aruna Sairam’s bhakti compositions? Both are unbelievably magical singers. Both have a stunningly beautiful stage presence. And while one sings sufi music in Bengali and the other is an exponent of bhakti music in Tamil, they both at once relate to the finest sensibilities of South Asian music.

Let me put it bluntly. We have heard several generations of outstanding musicians from Pakistan. And Pakistanis have heard a good many Indian musicians. Now listen to Anusheh and Aruna, call them over, and give them a platform. There’s another little known singer you should hear from India.

Pakistan’s defence point person in the Delhi mission, a merry man who takes pride in claiming he has no time for music, sat riveted to Vidya Shah, when the youthful singer presented a delightful array of Holi songs at a private gathering recently. Seek and ye shall find, say scriptures. That’s the gospel truth in this case too.

There was a time in the early seventies when avid listeners in Delhi, Lucknow or Aligarh would be glued to Radio Pakistan’s music service over a crackling and hissing shortwave transmission, just to hear a faint bit of Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum. Begum Akhtar in India was getting old, and there was no one on the horizon to carry on her legacy of ghazal singing rooted in classical music.

Abida Parveen and others of today’s generation have missed that joy of being sought and found on simple radio sets that tried, failed or succeeded, often depending on the weather, to catch those rudimentary transmission waves. Today, plenty of CDs and music cassettes are available of most musicians, barring perhaps the three I have mentioned, on both sides of the border. And yet there remain daunting prejudices that continue to confront the world of music and its myriad patrons in South Asia. Sometimes this prejudice is ordained by religion.

Music is not everyone’s cup of tea. If Mughal Emperor Akbar patronised Tansen’s musical genius his great grandson Aurangzeb ensured that the legacy was buried literally a hundred feet deep under the ground. Regardless of what Francis Fukuyama believes, the Akbar-Aurangzeb approaches are more likely to define Muslim cultural moorings in South Asia than any outcome of Islamic-Christian-Jewish-Hindu chemistry.

To begin with, the region has a fair share of orthodox Muslims whose peers, much like Shakespeare’s Cassius, have no ear for music.

Mercifully there is the larger gamut of Muslims that the orthodoxy angrily dismisses as ‘grave worshippers’. They are called thus as they consist of millions who throng the shrines of mystical preachers spread far and wide across South Asia, swaying to their musical tradition but also striking an amazing harmony with their religion’s piety and worship. Anusheh comes from the tradition of Fakir Lalon Shai of Kushtia.

Today, while western cultural magistrates seem to be trying hard to determine whether Shias or Sunnis are more fundamentalist Muslim, they sadly seem to have very little knowledge of Hafiz Shirazi’s liberal legacy in Iran, which was nurtured and sustained scrupulously during Ayatollah Khomeini’s maligned regime. Similarly, in the qasbahs of northern India, musical traditions of raagdaari gharanas get interwoven with the stories of triumph of good over evil in the battle of Karbala more than 14 centuries ago.

In Mustafabad, in the northern Indian district of Rae Bareli, the late Chhakki Mian’s flourish with raags he learnt under the legendary Faiyaz Khan of Agra Gharana is still remembered and missed sorely during Muharram. His recitation of soz was studded with the finest repertoire of raags. His compositions in Gunkali or Jogiya for the morning majlis, would progress to various forms of Saarang at noon, gliding past a Bhimpalasi or a Piloo in late afternoon or early evening, and finishing with an array of night raags — Yaman, Chhaya Nat, Jhinjhoti name them. But Chhakki Mian’s music all but died with him in Mustafabad. Aruna Sairam, Anusheh Anadil and Vidya Shah have a reasonable chance to reverse the trend, as the response of the Pakistani defence adviser showed.

****

ENVIRONMENTALIST leader Medha Patkar, completing two weeks of her fast on Sunday against the further elevation of the height of a dam that has already submerged scores of villages, has challenged the case of attempted suicide slapped on her by police after she was whisked away to a hospital.

“Those who commit crimes always blame others. So many farmers are committing suicide. Would the government blame the farmers or does the blame lie with the state? If the state files a case against me, I will file a case against the state — for the murder of the Narmada Valley, murder of humanity and murder of justice,” she said from her hospital bed.

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