Around three and a half years ago, we moved out of a densely populated apartment building near a road that was rapidly becoming a major thoroughfare, into a building with far fewer apartments and in an area which (at the time we were house-hunting) seemed relatively far more peaceful. There was a park with a decent walking track close by, and more wonderfully, a cricket stadium bang in front that afforded not just a verdant view, but also a feeling of expansiveness in a city fast losing its open spaces.
The only jarring element in an otherwise tolerable landscape was the presence of the Mazaar on the other side of the stadium, the final resting place of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and the scene of much frenetic activity. Considering that it is a landmark of our city-by-the-sea, a foreign visitor might be surprised that it isn’t…well…prettier. Let’s just face it, shall we? A squarish building atop a small hill, covered in geometrically placed blue and white tiles, topped by a pistachio green dome and a fibreglass-awning covered flight of steps leading up to it, isn’t what you’d call aesthetically pleasing. Especially when compared to the more magnificent Mughal-era monuments gracing old Lahore. Would a discreet face-lift hurt anyone?
The first night we spent after moving in unfortunately coincided with the Urs of Abdullah Shah, and we found ourselves unable to sleep till around four a.m due to the raucuousness of devotional songs blaring out over the loudspeakers and the beating of clamorous dhols all night long, and we couldn’t help wondering what we had let ourselves in for. The area didn’t seem all that peaceful after all.
But the next day was much quieter, and we gradually got used to the Thursday and Friday night crowds and noise and the visitors from far-off rural areas camping out on the sidewalks around the park with their portable stoves and babies, giving us a glimpse of the masses who came to pray fervently at the shrine in their hordes, within the precincts of posh Karachi.
Every day I work in my kitchen (the balcony of which overlooks the Mazaar) to the lively sounds emanating from there. Until we install sound-proof windows, we might as well live with this background music in our lives, occasionally drowning it out with some of our own playlists of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones, Dire Straits or Chris Rea.
Over the course of the last few years, when homegrown terrorism has swallowed up people and regurgitated suicide bombers, we have as a nation witnessed innumerable terrorist attacks, whether it was girls schools being blown up, religious processions, military or police infrastructure, political rallies, and most astoundingly (in an Islamic Republic) mosques and shrines. The Data Darbar incident was shocking and appalling, but ultimately not very surprising if we stop to think about the growing intolerance within the ranks of the more fundamentalist amongst us (and I do mean the T-word).
However, these were events unfolding in the newspapers and the tv screen, remote events, happening in some other part of the country, some other part of the city. So when the first blast reverberated with a frightening loudness on that fateful 7th October Thursday evening, I jumped out of my skin thinking maybe the building roof just caved in. We stumbled out of various rooms, Huz, Amu and I, bewildered, and more than a little scared. We headed for the balcony door, dragged it open and looked out for clues to what might have transpired outside. Nothing was immediately visible, except a bit of smoke near the Mazaar and the loudspeaker noise seemed to be replaced by muffled sounds of wailing and fear. Within a couple of minutes, as we stared at the area in front of the shrine, there was a strange flash of light followed by a tremendous second explosion, that shook us to the core and made Fuzzy dash for cover under the bed. That was when we realised this was definitely not a transformer explosion or an unusually loud truck tyre bursting.
Miraculously, the doors and windows survived the bombs. No such luck, unfortunately, for the swarm of people gathered at the Mazaar to pray to the saint who preached love and peace and tolerance fourteen hundred years ago in Raja Dahir’s Sind.
Ironically, though merely yards away from the scene of the crime, we relied on television and the news networks to show us what was happening just outside. At the same time, concerned messages were pouring in on our cell phones (and our Facebook walls) and friends and family tried frantically to get through to see if we were okay and safe. We often use the Mazaar-route to come home, and I had been planning a grocery trip in the evening that would have required me to drive by that road. Later we learned that at least eight people had lost their lives and many others had been injured.
Soon enough, the immediate shock wore itself out, the dead and injured were carted away, the entire area was cordoned off, traffic was diverted, and all fell eerily silent around the Mazaar. No drums, and no more devotional music tonight. It had never been this quiet in all the years that we have lived here and it felt surreal to be standing in my kitchen, chopping onions to cook something for dinner, when just a few turns of the clock earlier there had been decapitated bodies and limbs strewn over the streets…so very close to home.
But that, my friend, is how life moves on in our violent city, where the next day the maid turns up to inform us that two children from the eight people that were killed in the suicide attack, were in fact, her next door neighbours in Neelum Colony, a ghetto of Seraiki-speakers, a large number of whom can count on a free meal that is a regular feature of the nearby shrine.