Shin­ing a light on Pak­istan’s ‘In­vis­i­ble Peo­ple’

Se­nate chief’s book of wrench­ing fic­tion aims to stir con­sciences in clubs and draw­ing rooms

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­post.com

is­lam­abad — In Pak­istan’s vast and highly strat­i­fied so­ci­ety, tens of mil­lions of peo­ple en­dure daily de­pri­va­tion, hu­mil­i­a­tion and grind­ing toil for pen­nies. Oc­ca­sion­ally an es­pe­cially egre­gious case makes the head­lines, such as a re­cent scan­dal about the bru­tal treat­ment of a 10-year-old girl work­ing as a maid for the fam­ily of a prom­i­nent judge.

For the most part, though, the strug­gling masses re­main in­vis­i­ble. Some beg at traf­fic sig­nals as dark-tinted SUVs charge past, or silently sweep pa­tios at lux­u­ri­ous homes. Many more la­bor in brick kilns, wheat fields and at car­pet looms, far from the in­su­lated precincts of the ed­u­cated but feu­dal elite.

Mian Raza Rab­bani, Pak­istan’s Se­nate chair­man and a fix­ture in its es­tab­lish­ment, has sud­denly bro­ken ranks with his priv­i­leged class, pro­duc­ing a book of plain but wrench­ing short sto­ries called “In­vis­i­ble Peo­ple.” It is not a work of lit­er­a­ture, like his coun­try­man Daniyal Mueenud­din’s ac­claimed col­lec­tion of sto­ries, “In Other Rooms, Other Won­ders. Rab­bani is a lawyer, not a poet. But his ef­fort is a pow­er­ful, later-life cri de coeur that aims to stir con­sciences in clubs and draw­ing rooms across the coun­try.

His char­ac­ters sur­vive on the fringes of an in­equitable and cor­rupt so­ci­ety, help­ing to make it func­tion but rou­tinely suf­fer­ing cru­elty and in­jus­tice — at the hands of both pow­er­ful strangers and peo­ple just a notch above them. A boy whose mother dies is sold into servi­tude by schem­ing rel­a­tives. A poor man, falsely ac­cused of a shoot­ing com­mit­ted by a wealthy teenager, starves in prison while a mafia boss has del­i­ca­cies de­liv­ered to his lux­u­ri­ous cell. An in­jured mill worker is fired and re­fused help at a hos­pi­tal.

Death and abuse serve as rou­tine back­drops or ironic twists to sto­ries that ham­mer at the reader’s con­science. Some­times the pathos is too thick, the char­ac­ters too an­gelic or evil. A beaten child beg­gar tears open a cage full of birds, try­ing to free them, and is struck and killed by a limou­sine. But these are lit­er­ary flaws rather than ex­cuses for cyn­i­cal dis­missal. The cir­cum­stances and be­hav­ior have an un­com­fort­able ring of truth.

Rab­bani, a dap­per and self­as­sured politi­cian of 64, fa­vors mono­grammed shirts with cuff links and cir­cu­lates in a world of smoke-filled rooms and el­e­gant re­cep­tions. He is third in line to re­place the prime min­is­ter and is con­stantly called upon to set­tle po­lit­i­cal dis­putes or opine on weighty pub­lic mat­ters.

Yet when asked why he de­cided to write “In­vis­i­ble Peo­ple,” he had this to say:

“What prompted me was a feel­ing of help­less­ness, a feel­ing of de­spair, a feel­ing of frus­tra­tion, be­cause even af­ter achiev­ing this of­fice, this chair, I am still a slave of the sys­tem. Apart from cos­metic changes, I can do noth­ing mean­ing­ful to change it sub­stan­tially or to change the plight of the peo­ple who are in­vis­i­ble. In our so­ci­ety, it is still hands off.”

This ad­mis­sion may seem as­ton­ish­ing to an out­sider, but class bar­ri­ers and so­cial con­form­ity are deeply en­trenched in Pak­istan. Even lib­eral politi­cians have silent ser­vants and lands worked by peas­ants, and no one re­ally wants to up­set the sta­tus quo.

Rab­bani’s anger is po­lit­i­cal as well as per­sonal. He is a life­long loy­al­ist of the Pak­istan Peo­ple’s Party, founded in the 1960s as a so­cial­ist re­form move­ment. A framed por­trait of its late leader, Be­nazir Bhutto, a for­mer prime min­is­ter who was as­sas­si­nated in 2007, sits next to his of­fice desk.

As he de­scribes it, the ideals of the Bhutto fam­ily, and the ac­tivism they fo­mented among stu­dents, la­bor groups and in­tel­lec­tu­als, were quashed by the Is­lam­ic­themed dic­ta­tor­ship of Mo­hammed Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s and never re­cov­ered. Rab­bani, then a stu­dent ac­tivist, was ex­pelled and spent two for­ma­tive years in prison.

His fa­ther, an air force of­fi­cer and young aide to Pak­istan’s demo­cratic founder, Mo­hammed Ali Jin­nah, in the 1940s, taught him “the im­por­tance of em­pa­thy and the dig­nity of la­bor.”

Rab­bani’s party is out of power, but he is a re­spected se­nior leader of the in­sti­tu­tional op­po­si­tion. De­spite the trap­pings of suc­cess and the dou­ble stan­dards that abound in Pak­istani pol­i­tics (the Bhut­tos, for ex­am­ple, were feu­dal land­lords as well as so­cial re­formists), he has kept his re­bel­lious cre­den­tials pol­ished — and his gray­ing hair in a dis­creet, trade­mark pony­tail.

And al­though Pak­istan’s econ­omy is en­joy­ing an up­turn, Rab­bani’s sub­ject is still very rel­e­vant. In a coun­try of an es­ti­mated 200 mil­lion peo­ple, the per capita in­come is on a par with that in Su­dan and Hon­duras. In­come dis­tri­bu­tion is highly skewed, with the rich­est 10 per­cent en­joy­ing 28 per­cent of the na­tion’s wealth. Only 58 per­cent of adults can read, one of the low­est rates out­side Africa. Thirty per­cent of the pop­u­lace lives in poverty, and 25 mil­lion chil­dren are out of school.

“This has noth­ing to do with re­li­gion. Ev­ery­thing is about the cut­throat econ­omy now. Peo­ple live in cozy co­coons and can’t see that out­side a storm is build­ing,” he said in an in­ter­view this month his sen­tences ca­denced from years of pub­lic or­a­tory. “There is no jus­tice. Peo­ple can­not meet their ba­sic needs. There is only so much they can ab­sorb un­til they ex­plode.”

“In­vis­i­ble Peo­ple” opens with a blurry pho­to­graph of an el­derly scav­enger sleep­ing against his sack on a piece of rocky ground; it ends with one of a bare­foot woman, hud­dled on a side­walk amid scrolls of barbed wire. They are not named and do not need to be. The au­thor’s hope, he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion, is to “lay bare the hid­den evil that sur­rounds us” and “touch some com­mon core we all share.”

When Rab­bani’s book was launched in the cap­i­tal last month, he an­tic­i­pated that some peo­ple would be of­fended by its por­trayal of up­per-class cal­lous­ness and cru­elty.

“I knew I would be tread­ing on a lot of toes, so I asked a few friends to be ready to de­fend me at par­ties,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to one re­port, snide com­ments were heard in the au­di­ence that per­haps his in­vis­i­ble peo­ple were govern­ment spies. Some crit­ics sug­gested that his char­ac­ters were mere fic­tion, to which he replied that “the names and lo­cal­i­ties might be fic­tion, but the ex­pe­ri­ences are true.” In­stead of hav­ing guest com­men­ta­tors at the launch, he placed seven empty chairs on the stage.

Yet Rab­bani said he was also pleas­antly sur­prised when a woman ap­proached him and said that she had been moved by his story of an urchin who washes car win­dows out­side an ex­clu­sive pri­vate school and day­dreams about a fu­ture he can never hope to have.

“She said it made her re­mem­ber when she was a girl be­ing picked up from school and would see the boys try­ing to wash cars,” Rab­bani said. “When she read the book, for the first time she thought about them from the other side.”

If even a small seg­ment of the elite is “be­gin­ning to ques­tion things,” he added, “per­haps that is the light at the end of the tun­nel.”

T. MUGHAL/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mian Raza Rab­bani says he ex­pected that some would be of­fended by his book’s por­trayal of up­per-class cal­lous­ness and cru­elty.

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