I WAS reminded of a headline of this very newspaper as I pulled up near Cafe Taskeen during Wednesday’s scorching afternoon with a friend: ‘punishing heatwave’ — it may have been too hot, but it was just another day in this densely populated township.
What was different, though, for the residents of Orangi Town No 11½ was that although violence had not recently visited their impoverished neighbourhood, they had nevertheless raised more than 20 coffins on their shoulders on Monday and buried them one after the other in the local graveyard.
Such scenes of grief are common in this area, but as a result of the violence for which this area of Karachi is notorious. Peace, and that too during Ramazan, had never offered them such a reason to mourn. Their loss on this occasion was the result of the heightened heat index effect that has held the city in relentless grip for nearly a week. Loadshedding and power breakdowns have further plagued the people that are literally dying of the heat.
In a narrow street of a residential block called Chishti Nagar along main Shahrah-i-Orangi, dozens of people were busy reciting from the holy Quran under a black canopy. My friend introduced me to 24-year-old Mohammad Faraz, whose mother died of heatstroke on Sunday night — hours before a woman in his neighbourhood met the same fate.
“Ammi was quite weak but not suffering from any ailment,” he told me. “She was quite active usually but had not been feeling well since Saturday as it was too hot. The frequent power outages made the house like a baking oven. Her condition deteriorated and we rushed her to Qatar Hospital on Sunday evening, but she couldn’t survive.”
The reason for the death of Shakila Khatoon, his neighbour, was the same.
Faraz and his siblings were devastated, but further shocks lay in store for them.
“First we were turned away by the Edhi morgue because they could not keep the body as they had run out of space,” he said about what he called “the most horrible 13 hours of his life”.
“We moved to another place and managed to secure a space for a few hours. At our graveyard we met another challenge. The gravedigger refused to offer his services — he was already busy digging 13 graves. He refused to cater to more in the scorching heat.”
With no options left, he and his family used ‘connections’ and the ‘help of the area’s people’ to bury his mother by Monday afternoon. But many were not that lucky in this town, where a number of people lost their loved ones.
Bashar Alam of Raees Amrohvi sector, which is just two blocks away from Chishti Nagar, could only find place for his uncle’s remains in the Shah Muhammad graveyard in North Karachi some 17 kilometres from their residence,and that too after an exercise that lasted several hours.
“We are helpless when it comes to heat or any other natural change in the weather,” he said. “But I wonder how we make such a situation more disastrous, mainly for the poor in this city. It seems as if there is no government and no organisation. You don’t get electricity, you don’t get treatment at hospitals and if you die, you don’t get space to be buried.”
Such dreadful stories were not restricted to Karachi West district’s Orangi Town but also were occurring in the remaining five districts.
After meeting Alam we went to the Orangi Town 11 ½ graveyard, a couple of kilometres from the Raees Amrohvi block. It was 6pm by that time. A number of people, mostly youngsters and children, were offering Fateha next to the fresh graves that were covered with rose petals and burning incense sticks.
The temperature was on the decline but the stories I heard there from the survivors of those who had lost the battle for their lives amid the scorching heat and power outages were more than enough to leave me sweating.
“No one can imagine how we arranged for 30 kilos of ice to keep the body of my grandfather for six hours at the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital’s mortuary,” said Mansoor Ali while kick-starting his bike to return home after offering Fateha.
Ali, his four brothers and dozens of their neighbours did the rounds in Orangi Town, Nazimabad and North Nazimabad to finally arrange for the ice on the night between Monday and Tuesday. During this ordeal, they were offered help by a charity and a non-government organisation — but never by the government.
I tried to meet the gravedigger, but in vain. His assistant said he had taken a day off after three days of exhausting work.
“At one point we asked the people to help us as we couldn’t handle the work,” he said. “I’ve been working here for seven years but we have never faced a situation like this before.”
While returning home I received a text from a colleague: “Hopefully today there will be fewer deaths due to the heatwave in this blighted city of ours,” it said.
“Yes, fewer today,” I replied. “But the irony is that ‘fewer deaths’ in this city are attached with the word ‘hopefully’.”
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2015