In Memory of My Sister, Perween Rahman
By Aquila Ismail
She was a selfless and dedicated activist, a dear friend, a close comrade, a loving daughter and my younger sister.
Below is an account - largely imaginary, but also including factual details - of the chain of events leading to the moment Perween was shot.
That morning, she was up, as usual, at 7:30, greeted by birds chirping in her garden on bushes of red and yellow ixora, hibiscus flowers, swaying palms, clay figurines of ducks and elephants, vines and flowers, and butterflies and bees, for her bed was right alongside the window to the garden and the curtains were never drawn.
The cats who slept on her bed, one at her feet, the other by her head, began their call for food. She told them to be patient until she had washed her face and brushed her teeth. Telling them this was a complete waste of time for they never ever relented, so with her hair flowing, in her red linen nightgown, admonishing the cats, she headed to the kitchen to dole out their food. Added to the two permanent feline members of the family were three black kittens she had picked up on her way from office.
After feeding the cats, she made breakfast for Ammi and herself – one poached egg for herself, two toasts with butter for Ammi, and tea for both. They sat at the dining table in direct visual line with the dining room window which was abound with red, pink, and white fragrant jhumka flowers, yellow flowers of the radhachura, and trailing vines with heart-shaped leaves.
The table was surrounded by blue, rust and yellow pottery, vase, pitchers and plates, on the floor, on the sideboard, on the shelf with plants growing in bottles, brought from the numerous trips to towns and cities of Sindh and Punjab where she would go to meet her partners.
She was to go to Dadu in a couple of days to supervise the shelter program for those affected by the floods that submerged large swathes of Sindh and Punjab. She had told Anwar Rashid that they had to make time to go to Bhitshah to celebrate spring later in the month.
They had been there, as was their tradition, on new year's eve to pay homage to Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai whose songs to the seven queens of Sindh – Moomal, Sassui, Heer, Lila, Saroth, Marvi, and Sohni – spoke of their beauty and purity of heart through the ragas that bore their name. Anwar Rashid joked that if Perween had lived in the days of Bhitai Shah there would surely have been a raga for her, probably called sur muskurahat or the song of smiles!
Each time she went to the mazaar complex, she blithely climbed the steps to the main building of the blue and white floral embellished mausoleum. On the way, stopping by every vendor, sometimes to ask them how they were and always to buy something or the other from them, a ring, a set of glass bangles, discovered, as if for the first time, with accompanying trills of laughter, buying the umpteenth ring, the hundredth bangle, the thousandth cat figurine – all to be given to friends, team members and nieces.
This was her custom too in the bazaars of Uch Sharif, the lanes of Thatta, the bazaar in Bahawalpur, Thailand, Bandung, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Switzerland, Japan and everywhere else she went to talk about the model of people-government partnership through which sanitation, housing, education, and health for the poor could be obtained.
Breakfast over her sola singaar or beauty ritual, as she called it, commenced. Massaging her neck and forehead with Oil of Ulay, combing and tucking in her hair with a clip at the back, putting on her stone-encrusted silver rings and bangles, her looped earrings, her small, bead pendants, she carried on a running set of instructions for Ammi's caretaker, Mussarat.
“Give her Brufen. Her knees are painful today. Make her kebabs for lunch. Take her for a walk in the evening even if she protests…”
She wore a white chikan kurta and white shalwar with a maroon ajrak chadar over her shoulders and kohlapuri slippers on her slender feet.
“You look fresh today Baji,” Mussarat remarked, “At last you are wearing summer clothes…”
“I really feel colder than all of you especially in Orangi. The wind seems to tunnel there.”
That morning, her silver tiffin box in hand, bottle of water tucked under her arms, her turquoise and yellow cloth bag that she had recently purchased from Khaadi slung over her shoulders, she gave Ammi a kiss on the forehead, bent to pet Acchu who was waiting at the door, and got into the waiting car, sitting as usual on the back seat to the left. She rolled down the window and blew a kiss to the trio of Ammi, Musarrat and Acchu still lingering outside the door. They went in only when she was out of sight.
“Madam, today I could not get CNG for the car as the government has closed stations for the day. I bought some petrol instead,” Wali Dad told her as they set off.
“What can we do about this Wali Dad? It’s okay. Just that it will cost us a lot more. But, we will see …”
While talking to Wali Dad she was rummaging through her bag looking for her mobile phone.
“Wali Dad, I seem to have forgotten my phone at home. Can we turn back?”
By now, morning had unfurled itself upon the city. In the strong, generous sunlight, the city landscape looked like a field of houses, with diverse shapes, the sad roads reaching out to the commercial part of town not yet filled with the noisy bustle that fills it during the day. They had turned right onto Abul Hasan Ispahani Road, flanked on both sides by tall apartment buildings and had already crossed the back gates of the NED Engineering University.
“You never forget your phone Madam, what happened?”
“Today I was getting so many calls and I asked Ammi to put it off…she must have put it somewhere and I forgot to pick it up.”
“I was also wondering why you had not started calling. You do that every day…answer all your missed calls…We will lose at least 30 minutes in turning back…do you want to do it Madam?”
“Yes! Please let us hurry…”
They reached the house and entered the gate. The guards were surprised.
“How is it that you are back so soon? Is there trouble on the way?”
“No…no I forgot my phone…”
She rang the doorbell three times in her characteristic manner to signal that it was her.
“Baji, what happened…?
“Nothing, Mussarrat I just left my phone...Where is it?”
“I just finished dusting the lounge. I did not find it. Look again in your bag, Baji. Maybe it is in the side pocket.”
She looked again and found the phone.
“Oho! If I had looked carefully, I would not have to turn back…Everyone must be waiting for me at the office…”
“Maybe it was so I could hug you again, my sweety…” Ammi embraced her.
She gave Ammi a tight hug and kissed her cheeks.
“I will be back early today, I promise…”
Ammi went up to the door to bid her a second goodbye and lingered at the door long after she had gone.
Along her route to the office, the city had taken on the aspect of its people who for the past year had become fearful, gaunt, and furtive. Karachi had always been a vast field in perpetual turmoil from a storm of interests beneath which whirled along a crop of human beings, more often than not, reaped by death and mayhem.
This city seemed to sit on the coals of the earth, at the mouth of hell, with smoke and fire where everything gleams, crackles, evaporates, dies out, then lights up again, with shooting sparks, and is consumed. Life had never been more ardent or acute, throwing up fire and flame from its eternal crater.
That Wednesday morning, on March 13th, she decided to ask her mapping team to start mapping a particular Goth in Gadap. With land value becoming high in Karachi, the city's development was fast expanding into peripheral towns, so the Goths in Gadap, Bin Qasim and Kemari were threatened with eviction. Eviction from their homes is something she knew about.
The walls that give shelter are brutally demolished and become heaps of rubble and everything is thrown to the mercy of the the open sky…just like she had been in February 1972 in Bangladesh. The soldiers of the newly-independent country had dispossessed her parents and three siblings and taken them to a field to be sorted out – the men sent to prison, the women to a camp way down the river Sitalakhya. Perhaps this is what made her react so strongly to any news of dispossession.
As usual, the first thing she did in her office was to discuss with her joint-Director, who sat in the same room as her, the progress of ongoing work and future plans.
“Did someone go to check out that hydrant outside Beach Luxury Hotel? I saw it when we left after the KLF. We were in the car driving out from the hotel when I saw it under a large old banyan tree.”
“How do you manage to spot these things?”
"It's uncanny, is it not? Also, send someone to the one on the road to MalirCantt…”
“How did you spot that? You never take that road…”
“We were trying to get to Apa's house through the way behind Safoora Goth as the roads were blocked by protestors demanding justice for the killings of Hazara Shias in Quetta…that was such a cruel, barbaric thing to do…”
“I know. Ashraf went to the one near Beach Luxury, but was spotted trying to photograph and he left…You know it is becoming riskier and riskier to document these illegal hydrants…”
“I know, especially after Kamran Khan aired his program on our research. But he did not take our name, so maybe it is not so bad that people have become aware of the magnitude of the water problem and that it can be solved by stopping this illegal sale of water. It is incredible that this sale generates 50 crore rupees for the mafia while the budget of the water and sewerage board who own the water have a budget of five crore rupees…”
“Don't you think these people can find out who was behind the research…and now that militants have begun to take a share from the tankers supplied to the industries in Site and Baldia, it is even more dangerous…they are right outside our gate, you know…”
“Okay, let's just add the two hydrants to our list and not send the team to stake it out. You are right, we should become more discreet…”
“I think we should not document any more of the hydrants and concentrate on our housing program for the Goths…I was approached by the Goth elder to also map his village…”
“This is so great …we have secured housing for so many people… 1,000 villages have gotten their lease now…this will change the perception that these are empty tracts of land for anyone to lay claim on and sell for profit…”
“But the elders might want to sell it to people…”
“That is okay…it is their right to sell their land rather than be thrown out. At least they will get a good price for it. And you know how much money these land grabbers have. They seem to be the only ones with so much money.”
“Do you think they get it from selling drugs?”
“Yes, and also from extortion over the Nato trucks and the Afghan transit trade…all these are a continuation of the war economy. Anyway, let’s see what our latest figures on our secure housing program…you know, I am so proud that we were able to help so many people…”
“We will meet over lunch today, will we not?”
“Yes, yes…I told Musarrat to make extra vegetables today. We might have a couple of people joining us…”
If Mussarat asked Perween what she would like for lunch, Ammi would answer, “Why are you asking her, you know if she has her way she would only eat daal. Make her some bhindibhaaji.”
“Baji, why don't you eat some chicken or kababs. I can quickly fry you some kababs.”
“No, no, don't do that. You know I don't eat meat. So stop trying!”
“Your mobile has been ringing constantly. Whoever is trying to contact you is getting desperate,” Ammi had said that morning.
“I saw the number…it is a strange one. Seems to be from a pay phone.”
“Why don't you answer?”
“I will if the person calls again once I am on my way…”
Her conversation with her joint-Director over, she pushed back the cane and wood chair that she had used as her office chair since she joined Orangi Pilot Project in 1982 first as an unpaid intern, within a year to becoming joint-Director and then Director, and picked up her beige and orange cloth bound notebook, took a gulp of water, and headed to the accounts section.
The accounts had to be meticulously handled and every rupee accounted for. After instructing the accounts officer to send funds to their partners in Shahdadkot for the shelter project, she crossed the sunny corridor again to the mapping rooms.
On the way, she stopped for a few minutes to look at the plants in the quadrangle in the center of the building. This space with steps all around had been used in the past to put up plays and soirees where women and children of the community were invited to participate. There had not been an event for years now for fear of the extremists.
The mapping room always gave her spirits a special lift. As she stepped into that room, she looked, with great satisfaction, at the maps that plastered the walls of the room and rolled-up cartridges of maps, the drawing boards, the young men and women at work. While presenting the mapping programme in Bangkok on the 26th of February, she had said that they were the Ninja Turtles of mapping.
“Really Madam, you actually said that.”
“Madam, ever since you got the Google map software for us, our work is so much easier.”
“Show me the last map you made for the flood areas…you did take into record the livestock did you not? This will help us with our village development project…”
“Are you going to link with Rashid bhai's partners who give credit to women for livestock?”
“Yes, that is our plan. Hope it works out. Ever since the floods, I feel that we have to do something for the uplift of the villages. Their misery is beyond acceptable…”
“Madam, please come and sit with us…” the portly Naheed popped into the mapping room and called out.
“You look so fresh today,” Naheed complimented her when she joined them.
“Spring is here and I love the smell in the air. Come to think of it, I do feel like new today...must be the white I am wearing…”
“Oh! We do love the clothes you wear, always so ethnic, beautiful, and so modern…”
“I have a private fashion consultant, you know…”
“We know, we know…your niece, but it cannot be just that. You have always worn such attractive clothes and always khadi and cotton. Maybe you got it from Doctor Sahib…the khadi I mean…”
“Maybe, but I am not so austere. I love colours and patterns and look, this chadar is made of the natural dyes that are traditionally used for ajrak.”
“It really suits you.”
After lunch, tea in ceramic cups was served from the small kitchen. Team members and staff used the kitchen to warm their food, and sometimes the girls from the health team cooked khichri for their lunch. Generally, everyone brought food from home.
“Madam, come and take a few bites with us.”
She got up and went over to the adjoining table and took a piece of naan and dipped it in the curry.
“Very tasty, Ashraf. Did your wife make it?”
“No Madam, she is in her mother's house for delivery…”
"Wow! Ashraf, I can't believe you are to become a father…hope everything goes well. Don't forget to bring chamchamsfor us when the baby arrives…”
“As if you eat sweets, Madam…”
“I will…for sure.”
On her way home that evening perhaps, she had contemplated as it deserves to be contemplated – the deserted street, a street that was full of people and yet deserted. Perhaps she felt the car slowing down to go over the bumps.
Perhaps, she looked over her shoulder as her blue Corolla entered the narrow lane outside her office to be sure no one was following her. It was time for dusk to cast its shadows on the streets of Orangi.
Perhaps, she saw the young man, sitting in the platform at the tea stall, with long curly black hair under a grey cap, free flowing beard, short, dark-grey qameez, and voluminous shalwar. Perhaps she saw him take his mobile phone from the pocket of his waistcoat and click on the buttons to make a call.
Perhaps, she heard him say, “The bird has left the nest…” Perhaps she thought “Why is he talking about birds?” and then perhaps she thought of the bulbul pair that nested in her garden of fragrant blossoms and wondered if Acchu, her black cat, had not upset them too much.
Perhaps, she saw the birds that flock at dusk before darkness seals their way and gazed at the few clouds already scattered by the wind that had come to carry off the day.
The lane was not well lit, and silhouettes of the leafless trees against the sky, lit by lines and specks of shades of orange of the setting sun seemed ghostly, but nothing appeared to be threatening. Not to her.
“It's late. Wali Dad,” she said to her driver, “Ammi will be angry…”
“Madam, she is used to your timings. When do you ever go home early…times are not good…I keep telling you to leave before dark…but you do not listen…”
“I know, Wali Dad, but we have to work and I could not leave those women who came from Badin before helping with their work…they have to go back tomorrow...besides, Anwar Rashid also works late and never leaves me alone in the office…did you get the vegetables Ammi told you to get?”
“Yes I did…”
Directly in front were the Manghopir hills that bound her city, her Karachi, to the west. This was a city to which she had come as a teenager, thrown out from East Pakistan, the land of her birth, when the great Partition was undone, and Bangladesh emerged from its ashes!
On the hills the buildings, rooted in granite, raised up upon steep slopes, an avalanche of houses heaped indiscriminately together, woven together by years of forced migration, a refuge from within and outside the country. The colours in the haphazard houses, out of sight of the sun, gradually took on their grey tones. There was something cold about that diversity of grays. A mild unease slumbered in the streets.
Then, perhaps, she leaned back on the seat and closed her eyes. She was tired. The day had been long. Just ahead on the corner, the yard selling timber for construction work was deserted. It was filled with echoes. The car turned left onto the main road. High up in the lonely night, an unknown lamp shone behind a window.
Everything else in the city was dark except where feeble rays from the streetlamps hesitantly rose and, here and there, resembled the palest earthly moonlight. In the black of the night, the different colours and tones of the houses were barely distinguishable, only vague, abstract, making up the irregularities of the unruly whole.
Of late, this road had deteriorated with large potholes and the stormwater drain that divided the two sides of the road had filled with plastic, silt and garbage. They were heading towards Banaras Chowk, which was one of the two entry points to Orangi. The Pirabad area lay ahead. Anwar Rashid's white Corolla was just ahead.
Perhaps she saw the man pillion-riding a motorcycle, his face hidden by the triangular-folded scarf tied in a knot at the back of his head, take out a pistol. Perhaps she heard the four shots and the sound of glass shattering.
Perhaps she felt the searing pain in her delicate neck, perhaps she remembered her Ammi was waiting for her, as the spewing blood stained red her white, delicately embroidered qameez.
There was no way to judge the depth of silence that followed that shot. Perhaps, it was as if the earth existed in a vacuum. There was no sound, not even of her own breathing or the beating of her heart, as if the very sound of consciousness had been stilled. Perhaps, just when the pause ended, she knew in that instant that she had been eliminated.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…the dark shadow of a city, the declining light on the edge of dusk ebbed away into those unexpected evenings, to the sound of motorcycles and vans fenced in by the melancholy of the surrounding streets, and above, the high branches of the tree, vaulted by the ancient sky in which the stars were just beginning to reappear.
(Aquila Ismail is Perween Rahman's older sister. At present she is pursuing justice for her sister's murder in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Dawn)