The Parking Lot
By Rabia Ahmed
There are some sensitive topics in life that we choose to ignore, but they remain part of our social fabric and eventually become a daunting reality from which we cannot run away.
One such topic pertains to the rights of the minorities in Pakistan. In her debut novel The Parking Lot, Lahore-based writer, journalist and blogger Rabia Ahmed delves into the cruel realities of the darkness enveloping the lives of those represented by the white in our country’s flag.
The plot revolves around the Christian community living in Yusufabad, a run-down section of Lahore choked with small, decrepit houses, narrow lanes and lines upon lines of jumbled wiring entangled with plastic bags. A construction firm, the Salatin Group, plans to build a glittering shopping mall in the vicinity. The government has allowed the property developers to take over land granted to the church and the neighbourhood of Yusufabad itself will be razed to make a capacious parking lot for the mall’s visitors.
The people are understandably thrown into a panic at the thought of losing their homes. To ease their takeover, the developers assure the residents that they will be duly resettled elsewhere, but how can one take them at their word? Operating out of the Middle East, the Salatin Group doesn’t have the cleanest of records and, when earlier building a luxury hotel in Islamabad, it was sued for encroaching upon land belonging to a local school.
A well-written debut novel casts an eye at the ugly realities of the lives of minorities in Pakistan and the exploitation of religion, but also at class divisions within its society
Against this backdrop, we are introduced to the protagonist, 28-year-old newspaper journalist Hina. With her father deceased, her mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, one sister married off and the other about to be, Hina must make some crucial decisions about selling the family home where she has lived all her life. As such, she is sympathetic to the plight of her housemaid Uzma, who lives in Yusufabad. Hina thus decides to investigate the construction scheme and write about the forcible evacuation of the minority community.
Alongside, readers are given a look into Hina’s troubled past, courtesy her father. The deceased Jamshed Khan is nothing more than an unpleasant memory, but his controlling presence lingers in the family dynamics. A strict man with very decided views on maintaining appearances, he had decreed that his wife could work only as a volunteer at a street school because “in his mind, being involved in a charitable project was what the wives of rich men did with their spare time and money.” Whether he was indeed rich, or simply pretentious, is something readers will find out.
Through both these threads — Hina’s personal life and the Yusufabad takeover — the author makes a point of bringing to the fore how class prejudice is disguised as ‘more acceptable’ religious intolerance. It is quite clear that religion is simply a scapegoat, but since it is useful in inciting hatred, it serves the purpose well.
For instance, when the Christian maid, Uzma, gets hurt, she asks for water. Hina fills up a glass only for the Muslim maid Roohi to snatch it away and pour the water into an old, dingy glass reserved for Uzma. Yet, when Sue — the non-Muslim English daughter-in-law of Hina’s maternal aunt — pays a visit, Roohi serves food in the ‘good’ china. When questioned, Roohi’s defence is that “Uzma is Isai.” When told that Sue is also ‘Isai’, Roohi is silent.
Then Hina makes the wild discovery that her father was married before he met Hina’s mother, and that his first wife, Sakina, was Christian. The two had a daughter, Esther, whom Jamshed Khan abandoned. Again, it becomes obvious that, in the great scheme of things, religion is but a fall guy. Hina’s uncle states it flat-out: Sakina was “not a white Christian like Sue, but a poor, local, Punjabi Christian” and for social-climbing Khan, the “dark Christian” child he had fathered would not have “desirable results.”
Hina meets Esther and is deeply impressed when she learns of the services her newly discovered sister is doing for her community. She has grown up to be a doctor, her education funded secretly by Hina’s mother. She is also co-owner of an old ambulance that she has converted into a mobile clinic, which she and her friends drive to Christian colonies in Lahore to provide free medical treatment to the poor.
The story takes yet another turn when Uzma’s brother Tahir, a pastor at Yusufabad’s church, is accused of blasphemy. The basis of the accusation is a blocked drain in the Christian colony, its filthy overflow enraging the Muslim residents of adjacent colonies.
Is religion being used as an excuse again, this time by government officials uninterested in doing their job? Or is it a ploy by the Salatin Group to spark unrest that will work in the developers’ favour? It certainly comes in quite handy for the imam [prayer leader] of the nearby mosque, who compares the residents of Yusufabad and the dirty overflow from the clogged drain to the devil because, apparently, both are causing the Muslims to slip and lose their way.
In creating a story that stirs emotions, Ahmed employs dialogue that compels readers to face realities that people consciously ignore. When Hina asks Esther if it is “hard being a Christian here”, Esther replies, “Yes, it is, very hard. It’s the combination of Christian and poor that makes it even harder. If I were Christian and like you, it might be easier.”
The storyline of The Parking Lot is quite to-the-point as the author remains focused on the message she wants to send. However, this intensity of focus is unfortunately diminished by the plethora of characters populating the book. To be fair, nobody exists in a bubble and perhaps this is how the author envisioned her narrative: a multitude of people sharing their views. But it would have been better had she consolidated some characters into one and eliminated others altogether for a crisper, tighter pace.
Nevertheless, The Parking Lot is a well-written book that Pakistani readers can easily relate to, more so if they choose to open their eyes to reality, however ugly it is.
The reviewer is a columnist, currently working at a business management institute in Karachi and author of the novel Divided Species.
He tweets @omariftikhar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 6th, 2022