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They don’t care about us

November 30, 2012

"Bells were ringing, insistent and raucous, and there was the smell of acrid smoke." – AP (File Photo)

Truth be told, he was tired of pounding the pavement. No connections to smooth his way into offices, or money to bribe greasy palms. The only son of his parents, he was aware of his responsibilities to them as well as his sister. But lady luck had not been on his side so far. Today though, he felt more hopeful than he had in a long time. After all, he had a degree from Karachi University and his life lay ahead of him, ripe with opportunities. In his white shirt, grey belted trousers and polished shoes, he felt confident. His interview at the denim factory yesterday had gone well, but there were so many other contenders. Did he have the “X Factor”? Well, if interviews were conducted on grades alone, he would have been employed by now. Or if he was a seth’s son, of course.

His mother hugged him as he opened the door. “Don’t be disheartened, beta. Allah rewards honest people, my heart says you will achieve a lot in life.” He smiled as she said a silent prayer. Seated in his favourite armchair, his father rustled the newspaper and peered at him over the rim of his glasses. How much older Abba was looking and how tired. He owed it to his parents to get this job. “Don’t stay out late. Come home as soon as the interview is over,” his father instructed. He hid a grin and groaned inwardly. When would his parents stop being so protective? After all, he was a married man now. He still got a warm glow when he remembered his wife’s pep talk, “You have nothing to fear. We are all with you in your struggle.”

He looked towards his wife of a few months and thought what a beautiful life they could share if he managed to get hired. It was his dream to work as a structural engineer at one of Pakistan’s premier institutions. He would work hard, make a name for himself, and get a bigger place for his family. As he stepped out, a cool breeze caressed his face and clouds dotted the sky. Karachi was so beautiful in winter. It was as if the bracing weather disguised the eyesores which dotted the landscape. Even the traffic jam was more bearable today, the hawkers less persistent, the beggars less strident. The killing humidity was gone and he drew in big mouthfuls of crisp air. On the way back home, he had to get Baloch ice cream, chocolate chip flavour. What could be yummier than ice cream in winter?

The office building loomed in front of him, the pale sun glancing off gleaming windows, the doors humming with activity. He craned his head to count the number of floors and marveled at the smooth façade. Looking at his watch, he smoothed down his collar and went inside. He knew in his bones that he would be kept waiting as always, but he did like to be punctual.

He took his seat and waited for the call, his resume balanced on the knees as his feet beat an impatient tattoo. His mobile jumped into life, startling him into dropping the file. He mouthed sorry to the irritated secretary. It was a call from the denim factory, much sooner than he had expected. He took the phone outside, listening intently to the disembodied voice. Hanging up, he stood stock still at the window overlooking the main road. Karachi had never looked so welcoming. His mother’s prayers had worked, he had got the job. He wanted to run out into the street and dance his heart out to one of Shahrukh Khan’s mast songs and eat aaloo walay samosas from Nimco.

He glanced back over his shoulder, maybe he should just leave this posh building and disapproving secretary right now. As if someone from his social strata or means would ever be able to work here! But he was not a quitter, never had been, so why should these people hound him out? Be confident, he repeated his mantra and walked back in. There were less people waiting now so he figured his turn must be coming up. His collar was itching and he was starting to sweat. Was it getting warmer or was it an anxiety attack? He could hear raised voices floating up as the secretary left the room in a hurry. From the window, he could see people gathering below, pointing upwards. Bells were ringing, insistent and raucous, and there was the smell of acrid smoke.

He pushed his way into the labyrinthine corridors, trying to find an exit. People were screaming and running, but he could barely see them because of the black wreaths of smoke. It was difficult to breathe and fear was beginning to clutch him by the throat. He propelled himself through abandoned inky rooms, searching for stairs to guide him out of this hell. Coughing and sputtering, he was veering right and left when he felt a gust of whispery wind. His choking lungs gratefully inhaled the fresh air as he hunted for the exit. But it turned out to be only a window. Swallowing his crushing disappointment, he leaned out, frantically waving to the people below, smoke billowing out behind him. Why were the fire engines not here yet, he raged. “Yeh hai Karachi, meri jaan!” his mind mocked him.

In his mind’s eye, he relived the horrific scenes when the garment workers in Baldia had melted in the inferno.  He had to find a way out. With a sigh of relief, he noticed media vans and reporters milling about in the crowd. Surely someone would help him get down to safety if he drew their attention? Adrenaline pumped though his veins as he read the TV logos of ARY, Geo and Aaj. Now help would come. He looked down at the concrete ledge directly under the window, but it was too far and it would not cushion his fall. He needed a ladder or a mattress or a rope.

He thought of his family waiting in anticipation. He would not give up; if this was one of life’s tests, he would pass it somehow. He took a deep breath and clambered out of the window, placing his feet on the slim ledge below. It was difficult to maintain a precarious foothold in the shiny shoes, his hands felt clammy and his heart was racing. He looked towards his right, then to his left, people were beginning to gather in larger groups, and the cameramen were now focusing their cameras on him. The State Life Building glistened around him as the pale sun lit him up, making it easier for the cameras to track his desperate fight for life. He touched his forehead to the glass in despair as tears blurred his vision.

He looked down again, but the cameras were still whirring, no doubt zooming in and people were watching silently. It reminded him of the monkey dance at Seaview. He had become a tamasha, just like that chained monkey. Everyone was waiting with baited breath for the finale. He wondered if his parents were watching this breaking news live. His dreams were slipping away from him, but the media was intent on increasing their channel ratings so they could proclaim that their cameraman was the first to film this exclusive. His grip was faltering, but he was determined to hold on for the sake of his family and the dreams they had seen for him. Had? Why was he thinking in the past tense? Have, he muttered as he scrabbled to find a firmer foothold as the floor above belched out jet black smoke.

No sign of the fire brigade or ladder. Was there a light of anticipation now in the eyes of the cameramen? Their body language had become more excited as they watched him clinging to the side of the building. They reminded him of vultures encircling for the kill. “Why do they not help, for Allah’s sake?” he cried aloud. His hands were now aching from the strain of hanging from the eighth floor, his lungs were burning and his mind was so tired. In a blinding flash of clarity, he knew the finale the people were awaiting. They wanted him to fall. The cameraman was already licking his lips in anticipation of accolades from not only his Bureau Chief, but also from the Director News. No matter who won the media battle for cheap sensationalism and gutter press, he was destined to lose. What right did they have to critique politicians when their behavior was no less criminal? Images of his family and friends flitted through his mind like a film unspooling on tape. He wanted to hold them tight and never let go, yearning for his mother’s cool hands on his aching head. He looked down for some sign of rescue, but there were more crowds of useless people and media closing in. He had been dangling without any aid for 20 minutes, his hands were cramping and he could hear his friends joking yaar, even Tom Cruise couldn’t have done this for MI 4.

For the first time in his life, Owais quit. He gave the media the spectacle it had been baying for. His hands loosened and he flew through the air, landing with a bone crushing bang on the jutting concrete ledge.

Owais Rasheed did not survive to see his hurtling body being encircled in a red noose and shown repeatedly on ARY, Aaj and other channels with ARY crowing it was the first to bring amazing footage of the death leap. The cameraman was in seventh heaven as his boss patted him on the back. ‘Kiya shot tha, bhai …Our TRP’s have gone through the roof! Now go to his house and ask his parents ‘how did you feel when the boy jumped?’ Do you know his sister saw him jumping right on our channel?’

When the media rushed to interrogate his family, they found the father sitting in his armchair, glancing at the door, waiting for the son who would never come home now. Owais was 24.

Maheen Usmani is a freelance writer. She has reported on various subjects, ranging from socio-political issues to womens' rights to sports, travel, culture and counter terrorism.