way we were
April 9: Inside Tahir Plaza
Survivors recall the two hours they spent in Tahir Plaza as aimless shots rang out in the corridors and the smell of burning flesh and clouds of smoke emitted from the building.
By Sabeen Jamil
Charred bodies are nowhere to be found in room 616 of Tahir Plaza now. A few days after the tragic incident at the Plaza on Wednesday, April 9, the ill-fated lawyer Altaf Abbasi and his clients including newly wed Saeed Akhtar, his brother-in-law Dawar, 23- year-old Basit and two unidentified women either lay several feet below the ground or on some stretcher in Edhi Morgue waiting for their relatives to identify them. Covered in white sheets, the victims of Room 616 are not grabbing at smoldering iron bars behind the broken glass windows in hope of being rescued. They are not screaming "hamain nikalo", (rescue us), while aflame anymore. Yet, Tahir Plaza echoes with their calls for rescue and bounces off the apathy of the authorities.
"I was in my office on the first floor when the mob attacked," Jaan Khan, the 50-year-old In charge of Tahir Plaza recalls of the afternoon when the seven-storied building hosting around 200 offices of lawyers was set ablaze. Lawyers' offices were attacked by some 40, heavily armed miscreants aged between 25 and 40 around three in the afternoon. "They were carrying Kalashnikovs, TTs, glass bottles and some powdered explosive in plastic bags," Jan tells Kolachi. The miscreants split in groups, he says and spread all over the building with some of them remaining on the road blocking the main entrance, while others took the stairs and elevator to the first and third floors of the building.
"While climbing the stairs," recalls Jaan, "they were cussing at lawyers and shouting "nahin chorain gai (we won't let them go)." Jan adds that the arsonists on his floor forced people into offices and would "thrash, kick and hit them when they resisted," he tells Kolachi, pointing to the injury on his shoulder he got that day. Some blood is still crusted where he was hit by the gun.
Jaan, along with five other people was forced into his office where they locked themselves inside. "We locked our office from inside while the arsonists burnt corridors and chairs outside," Jaan tells Kolachi adding that the arsonists used powdered chemical in plastic bags to set the corridors on fire. Jaan and his companions remained locked in the office until heat from the burning corridors became unbearable. "We unlocked the office and managed to run outside," Jaan shares with Kolachi.
The arsonists from the first floor had gone out on the streets by then and were busy "arsoning and looting vehicles and pedestrians." Jaan recalls that smoke was churning out of the building when he got out. "They burnt everything," Jan says, "specially the offices which were structured in the middle of the building." He points out that the offices were burnt in a very systematic manner which could have caused the whole building to collapse. "I cut the main supply line of electricity to the building to avoid any possible disaster," Jaan shares with Kolachi.
On April 9, arsonists tried to destroy the entire Tahir Plaza. They not only burnt chairs and sofas in corridors but the locked and vacant offices of lawyers as well by throwing chemicals through smashed windows. "There was a lot of uproar caused by miscreants; shouting, burning and smashing windows," share Advocates Naheed Afzal and Chaudhary Shehzad who had their respective offices on the sixth floor, near the office of Advocate Altaf Abbasi in room 616 where six people including the advocate himself were burnt alive by the arsonists.
Lawyers on the sixth floor did not come to know about the mob attack till they heard uproar from other floors. Advocate Shehzad who was having lunch in his office heard someone shouting: "kuch larkay maar peet kar rahe hain," (some boys are agitating), while Advocate Naheed heard windows being smashed on the floors beneath his. Sensing danger, both advocates and other lawyers on the floor got themselves locked in their respective offices by seeking help of peons. "We thought," shares Advocate Naheed, "that arsonists, assuming we are not in our offices, will leave without harming us." Advocate Naheed was right to assume this; because when the miscreants reached outside his office they assumed he was not in and left after thrashing and kicking the door and swearing at him. Advocate Shehzad too was lucky enough to be assumed absent from his office by miscreants. However, Advocate Altaf could not escape the attack.
"There is a possibility that Altaf locked himself inside his office just as we did," says Advocate Naheed whose office in room 623 was just a few feet away from room 616. Advocate Naheed tells Kolachi that he is not sure how Altaf was locked in his room with his clients but is certain that, "arsonists detected the presence of people inside room 616 and burnt it."
There is next to nothing left of room 616 now. The four walls of room 616 contain nothing but the debris of legal papers, furniture and charred pieces of human flesh that one cannot discern from the ashes; the flesh is burnt blacker than black. Yet memories of the tragedy at room 616 are too horrific to be forgotten by the lawyers at Tahir Plaza.
"I can't sleep," shares Advocate Naheed who has not yet recovered from the tragedy even after four days. "I heard women scream for help from Room 616," he remembers painfully. The whole time that he remained confined in his office, he heard nothing but screams of people burning in the adjacent room and the uproar of arsonists smashing windows and firing aimlessly.
Advocate Naheed and Shahzad remained locked in their offices for what seems like ages and had themselves unlocked only when the smoke filled their rooms, clogging their lungs. "The smoke was too thick to breathe or even see anything," recalls Advocate Naheed, adding that when he got out almost 50 per cent of the corridor facing room 616 had burnt, "and the rest was burning with leaping flames."
Both advocates believe that the arsonists must be somewhere on the third floor. Therefore to save their lives, they went to the seventh and the last floor of the building where, "about a 100 people had taken refuge by locking themselves," says Advocate Shahzad, adding that refugees included women lawyers as well.
"We were in a state of chaos," Shahzad recalls "we called the police and fire brigade for our rescue but none came to our aid," Shahzad alleges. He tells Kolachi that people called their families as well, as most of the city was unaware of the attack on Tahir Plaza till then. "My father got extremely worried when I told him that I was trapped in my office amid fire and arsonists," Shahzad says. During their one hour stay on the seventh floor, almost everyone was convinced of a painful death on the roof of Tahir Plaza by the hands of miscreants or congestion by the smoke and "in the absence of any help or rescue from authorities."
However, with the efforts of Jaan Khan and the watchman of the adjacent under-construction building, approximately a 100 people on the seventh floor of Tahir Plaza were saved from dying tragic deaths. "After cutting off the electricity," Jaan tells Kolachi, "I masked myself with a towel and got back in the building." Jaan says that he kept on unlocking people on the fourth floor and upwards. Since there was a thick cloud of smoke in the building and "there were still some miscreants destroying furniture of the mosque on the fourth floor," Jaan had everyone come up to the seventh floor. "The watchman from the adjacent under-construction building," Jaan tells Kolachi, "set up a ladder against the wall."
The refugees on the seventh floor climbed the ladder to the six-storied building adjacent to Tahir Plaza and thus saved their lives. "It was not until 5 'o clock that the entire building was evacuated," says Jaan, adding that despite frequent calls, neither police nor fire brigade reached the plaza on time. "Rather," Jaan recalls of when he returned outside city courts after 5 o' clock, "they arrived when we were done rescuing the stranded people." As a matter of fact, the stranded people themselves had to put a ladder for the rescue of those who were trapped on the first floor of Tahir Plaza. Advocate Saleem Sheikh actually had to jump from the window of his office on the second floor to save his life and received serious injuries as a result.
Four days have passed to the tragic incident at Tahir Plaza. The bodies of the victims have been removed from the building, identified and buried by their relatives and the injured have and are being treated at hospitals. After another few days, the debris from the room 616 will be removed with the memory of the tragedy fading away from the minds of Karachiites.
Yet, as long as the walls of Tahir Plaza carry the pungent smell of charred human flesh, Karachiites will remember the apathy of authorities who couldn't save those six people from being burnt alive.
journey to development
Promising development work is being carried out in Hyderabad, but that it is being done without a master plan, is a cause for concern.
By Adeel Pathan
Development is important to promote not just modern and comfortable living, but also for progress of the society. Infrastructural development requires a lot of investment; with all the resources invested being managed properly to make the project a success.
Master plans play a pivotal role in the development of any city; they do, after all, provide a blue print for any development project that is to be undertaken. Once a team of professionals has devised the master plan, it is approved by elected representatives for implementation.
Hyderabad, despite being the second largest city in Sindh has often been neglected as far as development is concerned. However, development activities have been seen taking place in the city recently, at a decent pace.
Hyderabad was provided with the Hyderabad Development Package worth 10 billion rupees along with other packages in 2003 during the tenure of PPP backed District Nazim Makhdoom Rafik Zaman. The actual execution of the package began after Muttahida Qaumi Movement backed District Nazim Kanwar Naveed Jameel assumed charge in 2005.
The MQM led district government initially faced a hard time when record breaking rainfall forced life in Hyderabad to come to a standstill. Normalcy returned to the city only with the support of law enforcement agencies including the army. Citizens still faced great difficulties due to standing water for weeks.
Progress was made afterwards with proper planning and active support from federal as well as provincial government. Work on as many as over 1000 schemes in almost every sector including water, sewerage, road development, education, health, sanitation, solid waste management, beautification projects as well as construction of flyovers and bridges has been initiated and is visibly in progress.
The first flyover in Hyderabad is about to be inaugurated shortly. Work on more than four flyovers has already kicked off in a bid to improve traffic flow in Hyderabad which is becoming congested due to rising number of vehicles in the city.
In the water sector, filter plants have been constructed and according to district government officials, nearly 80 per cent of the citizens of Hyderabad are getting clean and filtered drinking water. This figure seems exaggerated as a large number of areas in Hyderabad are not being supplied clean drinking water.
Sanitation and sewerage has always been a bone of contention in District Hyderabad and development work in this sector was also taken up. Many schemes are currently in progress besides construction and improvement of state-run schools, opening of new hospitals and healthcare centers.
"Yes progress can absolutely be witnessed in the city, but alternative routes should be provided for the comfort of commuters," says a citizen who is facing problems while traveling owing to closure of many roads because of the construction of flyovers and laying of water and sewerage lines.
This also deters smooth flow of traffic. "Many development schemes were implemented simultaneously thus disallowing public to move easily on major roads and arteries," says another commuter exasperated with the frequent traffic jams which have gone hand in hand with the development work.
District Nazim Kanwar Naveed Jameel while stressing on the importance of master plans in development, points out the backlog of development work in the district.
"You must be aware of the fact that a master plan is a must when strategic plans for future development are made. However citizens were already suffering due to necessary development not being undertaken in the city," says the nazim. He argues that if a master plan had been waited for, "no development work could have taken place in Hyderabad." He informs Kolachi though that 70 per cent work on the master plan for the city has been completed and now a consultation process is underway.
Abrar Kazi, convener of Sindh Democratic Forum (SDF) does not agree with the nazim's assertion. He believes that the plan should come before any executions do. Kazi is also skeptical of some of the bridges and flyovers that have been constructed in the city.
The forum headed by Kazi also held a dialogue recently which demanded halting the work on four flyover projects and bridges while terming them as wastage of funds. According to SDF, traffic flow at these points will not increase for another 10 years.
Kanwar Naveed Jameel has a counter-argument though. He informs Kolachi that development work was carried out only after taking on board and discussing the matter with elected representatives and stakeholders.
To the allegation of opponents of not obtaining an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the projects, he says that EIA of projects coming under the development package have been obtained.
Though the master plan is being processed, elected representatives have not been taken on board to have their say in the matter. The plan is still to be presented to the district council for final approval. The consultation process, for both the ongoing development work as well as the master plan has been less than satisfactory. The fault with the process lies within the fact that concerned quarters as well as citizens; who actually have more of a stake in any kind of development, have not been taken into consideration or consulted.
When carrying out mega-development projects in the city, quality of execution should be of prime importance. Efforts to minimize any problems for citizens should be ensured while the work is going on and lastly, but importantly, development work should be completed on time, or it becomes more problematic than what it had set out to correct.
There are concerns that the new government at federal and provincial levels may create hurdles for the execution of projects in Hyderabad. But the District Nazim feels that no government is against development, hence there is no threat of hurdles being created and development works should be efficacious as they have been formulated after consultation with concerned authorities.
– Photo by the writer
The way we were
Of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group
By Kaleem Omar
One never knows what is going to pop up when and where. I say this because a long-lost portrait of famed British writer Virginia Woolf, who hated sitting for paintings, recently went on display at the Charleston Museum near Lewes, in West Sussex.
The portrait, which shows Woolf sitting in a chintz-covered armchair in the library at 52 Tavistock Square in London, was painted by the writer's elder sister, the celebrated artist Vanessa Bell. It was exhibited at the Leferve Gallery in London in 1934 before being sold to a private collector and was not seen again for nearly 74 years.
Woolf, who had a long history of mental illness and lived for many years in the West Sussex village of Rodmell near Lewes with her husband Leonard Woolf, drowned herself in the nearby River Ouse in 1941. She had previously turned down a request by Britain's National Portrait Gallery to sit for a portrait.
She revealed in private letters to her nephew Quentin Bell why she did not want to sit for the National Portrait Gallery. Imagining its future fate, she wrote: "They keep the drawing in a cellar and when I've been dead 10 years they have it out and say 'Does anyone want to know what Mrs Woolf looked like?' No, say all the others, and then it's torn up." Luckily for posterity, she later agreed to sit for her sister.
In the years after the portrait was painted, Woolf further cemented her dazzling reputation as an innovative writer. Her novels are considered revolutionary as they pioneered literary modernism. She is considered a leading modernist, and one of the greatest innovators in the English language.
Modernism in the cultural historical sense is generally defined as the new artistic and literary styles that emerged in the decades before 1914 as artists rebelled against traditional efforts to portray reality as accurately as possible and writers explored new forms.
As a modernist, Virginia Woolf experimented in her works with the stream-of-consciousness technique, underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters, and the various possibilities of fractured narrative and chronology. In the words of one critic, she pushed the English language "a little further against the dark," and her literary achievements and creativity are of influence even today.
Stream-of-consciousness denotes a literary technique which seeks to describe an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes. Stream-of-consciousness writing is strongly associated with the modernist movement.
Among the most famous works to employ the technique are James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" – a fine spun tribute to the complexities of social interaction on a single day in London in 1923, ending with a shallow society hostess's glittering party. "Mrs Dalloway" is regarded as one of the boldest novels ever written about the effects of the First World War.
But Virginia Woolf had her critics too. Writing in the New York Times magazine, Claudia Roth Pierpont says: "The literary critics Queenie Leavis, who had been born into the British middle class and reared three children while writing and editing and teaching, thought Virginia Woolf a preposterous representative of real women's lives: 'There is no reason to suppose Mrs Woolf would know which end of the cradle to stir.'"
Yet, as Roth observes, "no one was more aware of the price of unworldliness than Virginia Woolf." Her imaginative voyages into the wavering lighted depths of such works as "Mrs Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse" were partly owed to a freedom from the literal daily need of voyaging out – to the shop or the office or even to the nursery. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, believed that without the aid of her inheritance his wife would probably not have written a novel at all.
For money guaranteed not just time but intellectual liberty. "I'm the only woman in England free to write what I like," she exulted in her diary in 1925, after the publication of "Mrs Dalloway" by the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard had set up in 1917 to free her from the demands of editors and publishers.
Some members of the younger generation may know of Woolf only through the 2002 Hollywood movie "The Hours", a drama about three women of different generations whose lives are interconnected by the novel "Mrs Dalloway". Nicole Kidman plays the role of the famous British writer, Julianne Moore does the part of a frustrated housewife who loves the work of Woolf, and Meryl Streep appears as a lector whose nickname is Mrs Dalloway. Miranda Richardson plays Virginia's sister, Vanessa Bell. Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Ed Harris and John C. Reilly also star.
The movie was directed by Stephen Daldry. The screenplay was written by the well-known playwright David Hare. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning 1998 novel of the same name by the American writer Michael Cunningham. The film was nominated in nine Academy Award categories and won a Best Actress Oscar for Nicole Kidman, who changed her voice to a low growl for the role and wore a false nose to look a bit like Virginia Woolf.
The film follows Woolf's creative process in writing her 1925 novel "Mrs Dalloway" and how her book greatly alters the lives of two fictional women, one from the 1950s and one present-day. The women's three lives interweave, as the housewife, the modern Manhattanite and Woolf all try to cope with loss.
Loss was something Virginia Woolf knew only too well. She was born on January 25, 1882 in London, as the daughter of Julia Jackson Duckworth, a member of the Duckworth publishing family, and Leslie Stephen, a literary critic and founder of the "Dictionary of National Biography".
Her mother died when she was in her early teens. Stella Duckworth, her half sister, took her mother's place, but died two years later. Leslie Stephen, her father, suffered a slow death from cancer. When her brother Toby died in 1906, she had a prolonged mental breakdown. From that time on her mental health was precarious, her periods of derangement intensified by the strain of her writing.
Following the death of her father, Woolf moved with her sister Vanessa and two brothers to a house in Gordon Square in London's Bloomsbury district, which would become the centre of activities of the legendary Bloomsbury group.
And what a group it was! Its members included some of the most glittering intellects of the Twentieth Century: Woolf herself; her husband, political theorist and writer Leonard Woolf; artist Vanessa Bell; E. M Forster, one of the world's best novelists and author of such literary classics as "Howards End" (1910) and "A Passage to India" (1924); artist, writer and critic Roger Fry; biographer Lytton Strachey, author of the world famous "Eminent Victorians" (1918); John Maynard Keynes, probably the best-known economist of all time and author of the seminal book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" (1936); and the flamboyantly unconventional artist and writer, Nina Hamnett.
Known as the Queen of Bohemia, Nina Hamnett was a friend of Modigliani, Picasso, Serge Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau, and once danced nude on a Montparnasse cafe table in Paris just for the "hell of it."
From 1905 Virginia Woolf began to write for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf and published her first book, "The Voyage Out" in 1915. In 1919 appeared "Night and Day", a realistic novel set in London, contrasting the lives of two friends, Katherine and Mary. "Jacob's Room" (1922) was based upon the life and death of her beloved brother, Toby.
With "Mrs Dalloway" (1925), "To the Lighthouse" (1927) and "The Waves" (1931) Woolf established herself as one of the leading writers of modernism. In these works she developed innovative literary techniques in order to reveal women's experience and find an alternative to the male-dominated views of reality.
After her final attack of mental illness, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her Sussex home on March 28, 1941. Reality had caught up with her at last and proved too much to bear.
Working nine to five
By Ayecha Ahmed
Ayesha was born and bred in Karachi and has learnt that life in a big city can often be tough. Having lost her husband a few years ago, Ayesha is the sole breadwinner for her family of eight; herself and her seven children. She works literally every second of the day, as a domestic helper by day and seamstress by night. Though her days are spent working hard, as are most of her evenings, her life is not without the little joys she looks out for herself. Strong and independent, women like Ayesha stand as a testament that there are many people living in this city who will work hard at sustaining their lives as well as their family's, without resenting the hard times that befall them.
Kolachi: How long have you been living in Karachi?
Ayesha: I was born in Karachi and have not lived anywhere else.
Kolachi: What do you do for a living?
Ayesha: I do domestic chores for a fee in a few houses and supplement that income by stitching clothes for people in my neighbourhood during the evenings.
Kolachi: What is a normal day like for you?
Ayesha: I start out from home at around six in the morning and reach the first house I work for at eight, there I perform chores like cleaning, washing etc. and am done before 11. Then I set out for the other houses and am done by three in the afrernoon.
Kolachi: How do you spend your evenings?
Ayesha: My evenings are spent at home, most days I have stitching jobs. They help me make more money, the times when there is no stitching are pretty lean.
Kolachi: Are you educated?
Ayesha: No. This is why I have to struggle so hard just to get by. Seeing my own hardships, I have decided to get my children educated at least.
Kolachi: Are all your children in school?
Ayesha: No, just the younger four are in school. Before their father died, I did not really consider education as being too important. After he passed away, I realized one must have some kind of educational background, simply to meet at least the minimum requirement of any job. Besides, when I am too old to work any more, my children are whom I will rely on to support me.
Kolachi: With so much work and so much on your mind, do you ever relax?
Ayesha: I have some friends whom I spend time with when I have the time. Or I watch television. I just love Star Plus dramas and the Pakistani drama Kajal.
Kolachi: Where do you like going when you have free time?
Ayesha: I don't really going out, but when my pocket permits, I eat bun-kebabs as I find them very tasty. Food makes me forget my troubles for a little while.
Kolachi: Do you like living in Karachi?
Ayesha: Yes of course. This is my city. What I love the most about Karachi is the way days cool into pleasant evenings.
Kolachi: Is there anything you wish would change?
Ayesha: The noise and the traffic! Since a large part of my day is spent commuting in buses, the noise makes my head hurt and exhausts me. The traffic here is getting out of hand; there are so many road accidents and no initiative to fix this problem.
Kolachi: As a woman, do you find it hard to spend so much time commuting on roads?
Ayesha: Initially, yes. Back then I had no experience and the smallest form of harassment upset me. I would get very scared.
Kolachi: How do you deal with it?
Ayesha: Now if anyone says anything to me I strike back with a tart reply. A woman has to show she is strong and confident; otherwise everyone will feel they can get away with treating her any way they like. Unfortunately sometimes women have to go out and fend for themselves, it is very important to realize that random things and people should not be allowed to intimidate or upset you.
Kolachi: Did you not thinking of marrying again after your husband passed away?
Ayesha: I already have seven children. Another marriage might have meant more children, which would just have been impractical.
Ayesha is impressive with her pragmatic thinking and confident take on life. She realizes that her life has turned out a certain way and she must make the best of it. At the same time, she finds her comfort in small things; the weather, good food, mindless television. Taking the hardest times in the breeziest of strides, such is Karachi's character.
-Photo by the writer