I first saw Abdul Jabbar when I joined LUMS eight years back as a freshman. I last saw him yesterday when he opened the gate for me as I was leaving for home. I, in my car, air-conditioning on full blast, thirsty as hell because I was fasting. He, on foot, fanning himself with a handkerchief, calm and content. I waved goodbye. He smiled and waved back. Abdul Jabbar has probably served as a security guard at LUMS for over twenty years. I may have spoken to him a few times in the last eight years, albeit to argue over a parking spot, ask why the entry queue is becoming slower by the day or comment on the draconian rules introduced by the new security in-charge. I don’t know him, or any of the other guards beyond that. I just know that he’s a Pakistani responsible for keeping my Pakistan safe everyday. I’m not.
Muhammad Asif had been at it for three hours when I went upstairs to ask him if he needed anything. He is a carpenter. I was getting married. He had been sent to install wooden floor panels in my new room. Again, it was the month of Ramzan. The light kept going out, forcing us to run the fans at slow speed to conserve the UPS charge. I entered the room appreciating the shiny new wood panelling and half-asked Asif if he needed anything. He smiled at me, said: ”Nai, Sir. Roza hai.” and got back to skilfully trimming the panel edges. Looking at his forehead dripping with sweat that he mechanically wiped every few minutes with a handkerchief slung over his shoulder so the drops wouldn’t fall on to the panels, I could only marvel at his dedication. I stood there for the next two hours in growing disbelief and watched him work. Not a minute wasted. Not a word said. Who is this Pakistani?
It was midnight when I realized that the air-conditioner was not working in my room at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Bhurban. I dialed the front desk. In minutes, two young engineers showed up. “Sorry, Sir. Aap itna late tung huway,” said one of them and quickly went about dismantling the unit while explaining the problem to me. Since guests like myself don’t bother turning of the air-conditioner when they leave the room, they keep running 24/7 at full blast. As a result, frost accumulates and chokes the evaporator. Using a chisel and hot water, they had to manually remove pieces of frost from the front as well as the back of the unit. One of them actually pushed his neck inside the unit to ensure that nothing was left at the back. By around 1:30am, they were done and the air-conditioner was back to blowing cold air. Throughout that one hour or so, they kept apologizing for the inconvenience caused at this time of the night. I kept wondering: shouldn’t I be apologizing and, in fact, thanking them for providing this service at this time of the night? I didn’t even ask their names. After all, it’s their responsibility to keep our air-conditioners running. Not mine.
The doorbell just rang. I had to get up from my comfortable sofa, go out in the sun (and 40 degrees heat!) for a fleeting moment and open the gate. It was our gardener, a young boy. Our conversations have never extended beyond his cursory greeting and my perfunctory response. I don’t know his name. I don’t even know how he does his job. The other day, he had to remind to leave the gate open because he had to connect the hose to the tap inside to water the lawn outside our house. Right now, he’s mowing that lawn in that heat. But it’s his job. Gardeners like him are responsible for keeping Pakistan’s lawns trimmed and proper. Not me.
For the first one year, I wondered if Shahid had a voice. I always saw him taking orders from the department secretaries, faculty members and researchers. I always saw him delivering mail and transporting furniture. I always saw him making tea, fetching biscuits and then clearing the cups and saucers, ready to serve the next meeting. I always saw him running errands. I never saw him talking. Then one day, while cleaning my table, he noticed some leftover food and asked if he could take it. Shahid is the helper at the Department of Computer Science at LUMS. We used to have two helpers until LUMS decided to reduce costs and fired the other one. Shahid now has to do double the work. He makes great coffee. He comes in on Saturdays to listen to music and browse the internet. I have never heard him say no. I have never seen him waste time. He is a Pakistani.
Those are all Pakistanis that I am not. They are Pakistani in ways that I am not. They are directly making Pakistan function in ways that I am not.
While it is thoughtful to thank Allah for blessing us with better opportunities, it is also important to realize the role of these Pakistanis in our mission to “fix” or reform Pakistan. It’s unfortunate that the privileged Pakistanis (like myself) who are most vocal about fixing the country — donors, consultants, talk show hosts, politicians, critics, journalists and more — are those not directly responsible for keeping it functioning. We can afford to take time out to “fix” the country while the Pakistanis described above have no option but to keep doing their job to make ends meet. It seems as if we are virtually living in two different countries!
Who gave us the right to reform their country?