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A heartless society

Irfan Husain
Filed on September 13, 2007

AS THe political turmoil in Pakistan continues, itís easy to lose sight of small acts of cruelty that are committed every day. The truth can hurt, and often it comes from the young who have no axe to grind. My 18-year old stepdaughter Tabitha has been visiting Pakistan from England since she was about six.

Since then, she has travelled widely in Pakistan and met many people. Last summer, she spent part of her vacation doing voluntary work at Darul Sakun, a home for abandoned children with special needs run by Catholic nuns. Most of the Pakistani kids I know here are not even aware of this institution, leave alone volunteering to work there. So Tabitha is not an unsympathetic young Westerner who reaches a quick, superficial opinion about Pakistan after a brief trip.

After a recent visit, however, she confided to her mother that she hated coming to Karachi. ďI love Dadi and the family,Ē she said. ďBut I see so much ugliness and cruelty in the city every day.Ē

I knew that Tabitha often chafed under the many restrictions we place on girls in Pakistan: here, she was simply not allowed to walk to nearby Tariq Road, for example.

Unfortunately, she is right about Karachi being a very ugly city. Often, a drive through the city resembles a foray into a heavily bombed, battle-scarred urban nightmare. Piles of garbage lie uncollected on street corners; peeling plaster and paint disfigure walls and buildings; dug-up roads slow traffic to a crawl; and everywhere, there is a sense of despair and decay. Even the affluent areas of Karachi contain an overwhelming number of hideous houses and apartment blocks that cry out for a large charge of dynamite.

Without going into aesthetics, the fact that we are willing to live amidst so much filth and squalor is a devastating comment on our society. A simple matter like garbage collection and disposal seems beyond the abilities of successive city governments. Deprived of a decent system, most families simply dump their rubbish over their walls.

The state of Karachiís roads is a scandal. In most cities, any government that produces such anarchy would be voted out of office at the first opportunity. But here, ideological loyalty, not competence, seems to determine the outcome of elections. So we are condemned to suffer the same lot of intellectually challenged politicians who grabbed the city by the jugular some twenty years ago.

Most people who live in Karachi are in agreement about the ugliness, chaos and filth that are features of our daily lives. But cruelty? Having spent most of our lives here, we seldom notice how badly we treat animals. However, itís one of the things to strike a sensitive visitor immediately on landing in Pakistan.

For some reason, there has been an influx of monkeys that are tied to the wrists of boys begging at traffic signals around the city. Their sad, brown eyes implore you for help as they are thrust at car windows. Other beggars hold cages crammed with birds, offering to set them free for money.

Apart from this routine exploitation of animals and birds as props for beggars, there is the endless cruelty dogs and cats endure. A friend once observed that most boys here instinctively reach for a stone when they see a stray dog. I am often accused of being soft-hearted about animals, while forgetting the hard lives so many people are condemned to. But while people can vote or agitate, animals have no voice, no representatives to plead their cause. There used to be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but after the retirement of its (English) founder, the organisation became dormant years ago. A young activist is trying to establish something she calls the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (or quite appropriately, PAWS), but is having trouble getting support and volunteers.

While such individual initiatives are welcome, the sad fact is that our entire society is callous and cruel when it comes to animals. Children are taught to fear dogs, no doubt because of the prevalence of rabies. But as they grow up, they convert this fear into an unreasonable hostility that is evident in the violence they often exhibit towards dogs and cats. Somebody once said that a society should be judged by how it treats its animals. We would fare very poorly indeed by this yardstick.

I have often wondered at the viciousness shown by those terrorists who do not hesitate in hacking off the heads of their victims. Recently, a Taleban video showed boys decapitating two captives. How can any normal being be devoid of all compassion?

By looking after a pet, children learn to care for others. But by instilling an irrational fear of animals into them from an early age, we encourage them to be suspicious and wary. This often makes them violent and cruel. Unfortunately, our society bears witness to these traits.

We are mostly in denial about these harsh truths. But the fact is that our city and our society are aberrations, not the norm. Even countries poorer than Pakistan are not as violent and as ugly. Until we recognise that we lead abnormal lives in an abnormal city, we will not be able to improve matters.

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani writer based in London. He can be reached at irfan.husain@gmail.com


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