THE lockdown debate has turned into an even heavier exchange of argument with the easing of restrictions. The officials, the shopkeepers, the media, which has long turned into everyone’s favourite whipping boy for living with the curse of permanently flawed judgement, are all surprised by the torrents of unmasked non-aliens let loose in the bazaars.
Once again the historical refrain has been recalled as the most convenient explanation of the situation: ‘we had no idea that the people were going to react the way they have’. A more moralistic enhancement on the same disclaimer is where officials and others who apparently deem themselves responsible are found reassuring themselves: ‘we cannot do anything if the people at large are bent upon violating the rules’.
These bustling markets must be a source of revival of a wish to live life in a certain manner that we are all used to. It is quite clear that this is a tonic we cannot do without, and there will be little point in giving too much importance to those who advocate austerity as a mark of respect for the individuals fighting or who have lost their lives to this pandemic. We have been fighting those to change our way of life, from hardboiled bigots to terrorists. There’s no way a virus is going to stop us from hopping down to my favourite shop. Unless of course there’s an official ban in place to protect the very life at the centre of our way of life.
The bazaar becomes us. We are the bazaar. What happens backstage is none of our business.
It is no coincidence that the shopkeeper has been most vocal in demanding that our lifestyle may not be snatched away from us in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The shopkeeper is, fortunately for him and us, among the few who have not let any new forces stifle their voice. He represents overwhelmingly a world that exists at a distance from the one that has been almost completely obliterated by the changing realities around us.
The shopkeepers want the markets opened. The traders threaten they will be breaking the government curfew on business come what may — the papers and television are full of such dire warnings ever since a halfhearted, confused lockdown was sought to be put in place in the country.
In more recent times, you might have noticed on television respectable-looking gentlemen, said to be representatives of shopkeepers, visiting equally grand government functionaries. Sweat dripping from their forehead, they did appear to convince the most under-pressure authorities that it was imperative to ease the lockdown restrictions. They are our (sole) representatives too. They help us sustain a lifestyle we have been so jealously fighting to protect for so long.
The bazaar becomes us. We are the bazaar. What happens backstage is none of our business. The millions who put in efforts to keep these front shops in the markets supplied with the goods are hardly ever seen. They remain undisclosed even during this Covid-19 season. There are protests at some squares in big cities — by traders who are kind enough or clever enough to use the word ‘mazdoor’ in their slogans for the most dramatic effect. These protesters include informal labour, the most exploited of all labours ever, but to talk about entities such as trade unions you are talking about an altogether different world and different life and living code.
The trade unions have made an appearance during the Covid-19 pandemic. The doctors have demanded that minimum security standards be maintained. There has even been some talk about adequate monetary compensation for working in these particularly dangerous times. Also the pilots’ union has been seen asserting itself to make sure some kind of standards are maintained on special flights to bring back stranded Pakistanis. A few weak voices have been raised for maximum possible security cover for journalists. By and large, the mazdoor or the worker as the picture emerges in your mind remains out of the picture except for making faceless appearances in figures that experts are so fond of playing with.
There’s talk of opening factories. Actually some factories have been opened and if you go to Lahore’s Quaid-i-Azam Estate you will run into a lot of these unrecognised, unmasked and not sufficiently removed from each other workers that nobody actually wants to meet since everyone is obsessively caught up in the bustling bazaar debate. He has economic needs and just as security of job is his biggest worry at a time when so many industrial hands have been sacked, concerns about having to work in an environment that is fraught with health hazards are high.
There is little chance that our fetish with the more visible world of the bazaar and the economic necessities that govern mass industrial production will ever allow us more than a superficial look at some of the most crucial issues the labour force is faced with here. The mazdoor will in all likelihood continue to make an impact in innovative ways outside his usual mould of an efficient worker demanding a fair deal for his effort. One of the scariest images emerging as a consequence of the economic hardship brought upon Pakistanis by the lockdown has been that of a worker going after the rich armed with shovel and hammer and what not. That’s been a ‘successful’ citizen’s nightmare alright.
There have been stories doing the rounds about how the hordes of out of work were ready to mug the hardworking better achievers in life en masse and then maybe paint it as a revolution. The hopes of a great transformation in a post-corona world have been given a severe jolt with our first dash to the fancy shop after the gates were opened. The solution has been spelt for now and for all times to come. We must let the intimidating, murderous mazdoor toil in his world if we are to prosper and flourish in ours.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2020