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(Only) one dead: The Math of Tragedy

November 30, 2012

Owais Baig went to the State Life Building on Abdullah Haroon Road for a job. It was an ordinary day and he was an ordinary man. He was dressed neatly in a crisp shirt and ironed pants as so much of the randomly selected world on one of Karachi’s streets would discover just over an hour later. One and a half hour later, the senseless meeting of two wronged wires would start a fire. The smoke from the fire would start filling up the hope and trepidation filled room where Owais Baig waited for his turn at impressing someone enough to be rewarded with a job.

One hour later the unthinkable would happen and of the 800 or so people in the building, one man, Owais Baig would know the least about how to leave. In the panic of entrapment, only he would try the fire escape instead of the stairs. Only one man, Owais Baig of Gulistan-e-Jauhar, would hang for over 20 minutes from the ledge on the State Life Building, waiting for one of the three snorkels in a city of 18 million. Only one man’s 10 fingers would give out as he clasped its edge. And only one man would fall to his death on the hard, unforgiving streets below, his bones crumbling against the asphalt, his blood spattering on the sidewalks worn by the steps of so many souls.

“One man dies in State Life Building Fire”, the headlines would scream the next day, their black decisive letters sitting on top of a picture of a brown building and a man in a white shirt and crisp pants, caught in the midst of his fall. Ironies and metaphors abound in the death of Owais Baig.  He came for hope, armed with education in a city just waking up from mobile outages and Moharram mourning. His last moments were spent clasping on to the barest of hopes; on the ledge of a building whose existence attempts to plan for calamity. Insurance after all is the human defense against the inevitability of catastrophe and those that buy plans put their faith in preparation for the worst, the evaluation and weighing of risk, in sensible ways.  In the 10 floor edifice erected for this purpose, there was none to spare for Owais Baig.

The ironies and metaphor of Owais Baig’s death in a city where the angrier, hungrier ate up so many more in such recent memory are not in the situation alone. The question of his solitary end are those of the moral duties of the rest of us, as circumstantially implicated in the crime of living in Karachi as he was in dying in it. Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle posited that the appeal of Greek tragedy was in the deliberate and intentional seaming together of characters and circumstances. It was in the “imitation of circumstances.” If history deals with the particular, tragedy deals with the universal, Aristotle opined; the order of cause and effect in the Universe taken out of the chaos of the world and expanded in fiction such that watching humans can weep for them.

Owais Baig's death was real and perhaps because it happened in a Karachi so lush with death, few tears could be found in this dry November for the dead man, his end mingling with those that died just before and or will die soon after.

Perhaps some enterprising playwright, in the city’s future will find in the hurtling facts of Owais Baig’s death the Aristotelian mechanics of plot, thought and diction such that the metaphor of a man who so signified the city, a man in search of a job, a man dressed to impress, a man who hung from a ledge and hoped for a rescue can be iconised as someone separate and distinct. If it happens, perhaps those in Karachi who watched but couldn’t weep, wouldn’t weep, could be converted to a new calculation of sympathy which amounts to more than a shrug when only one man, in 18 million dies.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.