Karachi

If you have part-time help in Karachi, get used to bus strikes, city-wide strikes, days of mourning for someone or other, usually of one dominant political party, who has been martyred supposedly for his or her beliefs. No one just dies or gets killed in Pakistan. Or even India for that matter, in recent years. They are always martyred. The sorrow of their passing must be felt in the most poignant way, through thwarting an entire people’s right to go forth into the city in search of their daily bread and butter. Petrol pumps become cordoned off, shielded by canvas screens. Shops, malls, supermarkets are shut down. Street vendors disappear. Buses cannot run. Unless the Bus Drivers’ Union has announced the strike itself to protest against inflated fuel charges or new taxes. In that case, the buses won’t run.

Part-time domestic help will not turn up under such circumstances. You might try pleading with them on the phone, relaying sob-stories of your own, for instance the kitty -party you absolutely cannot afford to miss but the dinner that absolutely must be arranged and the children who cannot possibly be left unattended while you attend to the first, and hope to have staff on hand to handle the second and third. Sometimes you might get lucky. Your charwoman may take pity on you, get out of her house, risking the ire of murderous party workers who have imposed curfews across the city, hail a rickshaw and report at work mid-morning.

Rickshaw drivers profit most from these strikes. Their fares rocket sky-high overnight because they are they only means of public transport. Don’t expect your charwoman to show up if you haven’t explained clearly that you will be picking up the rickshaw-wallah’s tab though.

For daily wage-earners as well as those who work part-time in the city, there is always a reason for alarm. Their nights are often filled with sounds of gunshots as goons from opposing parties use their neighbourhood as a battleground to settle old scores in. When the violence escalates, there are bomb blasts, abductions. There is the perpetual menace of blackmailing political workers who must be given regular sums of money to ensure they let you go about your daily business. The hard-working lower middle class, the backbone of any city, live on edge here, equipped with phones, at the ready for bad news. They leave work early so they can reach home before it is dark. They phone each other in case there is a chance of violence breaking out, in case something awful befalls a member of the family. They cannot move away, into new neighbourhoods because moving is expensive, rents even in these hellholes are astronomical.

That they still drag themselves out of bed every morning to face another day of this level of stress is miraculous.

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