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Life after America

February 14, 2012

THE morning was bright and clear. Sunlight streamed into the windows of the prime minister’s secretariat. It was a historic day, a glorious day. The US and Nato forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan and ceased all operations inside Pakistan.

The skies over Khyber were free of drones; the streets of Lahore free of CIA agents. On the long table inside the secretariat, ministers clasped their hands together and smiled over pots of roses. Now that America was gone they could get down to the important business of governance, of solving all the problems that faced the country. They were going to begin by giving up their government-issued bullet-proof cars.

The giving spirit was not limited to them. Outside, the guards, whose guns were normally cocked in institutional arrogance as ordinary men and women came to beg for jobs had put down their weapons.

Instead of sneers and scowls, their faces showed concern. On this day they awaited the supplicants, eager to help them be heard. They did not yet know that with the exit of the United States, thousands of jobs had opened up, and many men long vanished had suddenly materialised on desolate doorsteps. There were no more unemployed, no more ‘disappeared’.

At the train station, not far away, there was more good news. Buoyed by the departure of the United States, all the railway employees had decided to show up on time, skip their breakfast break and tea break and newspaper break. All this charitable self-sacrifice had saved minutes and hours. All trains were on time. Some, much to the shock of the passengers riding in them, were even early.

It had been a bewildering day for them. Many travelling in the third-class compartment, the oldest, sickest and poorest; had been approached by ticket agents and given seats in first class. In this post-America Pakistan, the needs of the weakest were at the forefront of everyone’s concern.

In the government hospital at the other end of the city, there were still a few sick people, remnants of the dark days when America was still around, when muddled medicines and disgruntled doctors made survival for the sick unlikely.

Even the diseased lot had something to smile about. Because the end of America meant the end of sickness; all the nurses in the ward were in a great mood, their light-heartedness interrupted only by their solemn concern for the comfort and welfare of their ailing charges.

Like angels clad in white they flitted between the beds, inquiring if anyone needed anything, making sure that every patient was comfortable and had a vase of flowers by his or her bedside.

It took a while for the news of the historic departure of the United States to spread to the southern cities. It was mid-afternoon by the time it got to Karachi. But the hour of its arrival did not matter; the news met as joyous an embrace as it would have in the morning.

To mark the occasion, the city’s bus drivers decided that they would stop paying the police officers and simply start obeying the traffic rules. Because America had stuck around for so long, no one remembered these rules. Even this hiccup was easily solved as the police who had lost much income from forgiving traffic transgressions now took on the task of politely reminding everyone what they were there for.

In the alley of a faraway slum by the sea, a child played by a tap stuck in the wall. Because he was only a child, his curiosity was the same as it was before the departure of the United States, and now it told him to turn on the tap.

At this moment, something happened that he had never seen before: a fast, sparkling, forceful spurt of water burst out as if suddenly freed from terrible oppression. Thus, his small act revealed the watery bounty of a post-America Pakistan to an entire slum; everyone bathed that day, some for the very first time.

Not everyone was happy at the departure of the Americans. In the back of a large mosque in Lahore an emergency gathering of prominent religious scholars had been convened. It was an awkward meeting, mostly because it was such a surprise to all who had been summoned.

Before them sat piles of resolutions they had passed at a rally the day before when the Americans were still around. It was a long list with many parts and sub-parts: it demanded the departure of the US, the end of drone attacks, the return of Pakistan’s sovereignty, stopping loadshedding, a halt to corruption and many other things.

The men stood watchful and alert and a bit confused. Suddenly, aghast at their own silence, everyone began to speak at once, their words falling over on top of one another. Because it was their habit they called the departure of America a conspiracy but decided they would not denounce it.

They took out some red markers and began to edit the edicts before them. All that was needed was a bit of addition and subtraction; changing a few words to the past tense and reminding everyone that even if America was gone, it was still evil.

Because the natural rhythms of morning and night stop for no one, not even for historic days such as this, night fell on Pakistan just as it always did. The sun’s radiance was replaced by lamps and lanterns.

If the day had been extraordinary, so was the night, untouched by the fear of the robber, or the neighbour or the power cut. As the prime minister and the guard and the boy in the slum and the nurse in the hospital lay down to sleep, they smiled. This was life after America, and it was wonderful.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.