Ghulam Nabi, Baldia Town, Karachi

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What does it means to be a father – to be a caregiver, a worrier, a provider, a protector, a friend, and a sanctuary to a child? This was the question confronting Ghulam Nabi almost every day since the death of his wife. As he looked down on his two sleeping daughters – eight-month-old Zainab and five-year-old Muqaddas, he was asking himself questions, and grappling with problems that he had not considered before. How does one prepare the baby milk? How often does she need to be fed? Where will they spend the upcoming Eid holidays? How will he find money to buy them new clothes? What about the presents? What will the girls want this holiday, if anything given that recent loss of their mothers? Where are their school books? Do they need new notebooks and pencils for the new term? Who mends their clothes? How does one wash them? Where did their mother keep the family photographs? Will they be safe in the city on their own? Or when walking to and from school?

On September 11, 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory, in Karachi, Pakistan. A major industrial operation, Ali Enterprises had just weeks earlier been given a prestigious SA8000 safety certificate by the industry funded Social Accountability International (SAI). The fire led to the deaths of nearly 300 workers, and left many thousands of family members homeless and penniless. 

The stories of the families of those killed that night show the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also give a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have led to creating a vulnerable, and easily exploitable labor force. They show the uses of the law to serve specific economic and planning interests, and weaken worker organization and resistance.

Ghulam Nabi’s wife, Nasrin Naz, died in the fire. She left two children, Zainab, eight-months old, and Muqaddas, who is five-years old.

“It is easier to raise boys here.” He says, without clarifying. But I think I know what he means: girls are vulnerable in these neighborhoods, and need a man’s protective presence. “I will have to take them, and bring them from school each day, which will be difficult if I am to also work to put food on the table.”

There are dozens of family photographs on the walls and on the small refrigerator standing in one corner. They show the Ghulam Nabi, Nasrin and the kids at picnics on Hawk’s Bay beach, at the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, at playgrounds, shopping centers, restaurants and birthday parties for the girls. Nasrin smiles and laughs in each of them. There are also more formal photographs – studio portraits, next to the candid and personal photographs; one from the engagement, one from the wedding, and a family photo of the four of them together. Nasrin not only worked at the factory, but also managed the household. The finances, cooking, decor, children’s clothing, schooling and care where her realm. And now his, and he seems lost. Fatherhood, until that day of the fire, had been easy, asking little more than affection and play. Now it was the source of worries and premonitions that would not let him sleep. “I sit and watch the girls all night.” It had become a burden.

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There is a darker underbelly to love – fear, worry, paranoia, and pain, and Ghulam Nabi is experiencing all of them. What once evoked joy, now only evokes suffering. His love for his daughters has become anxiety and worry. His love for his deceased wife is nothing more than a constant, stabbing pain that never to leaves him.

“It was a love marriage.” He had told me. In this neighborhood, with its tightly knit families, and close-knit ethnic ties, marrying for love is a choice not made lightly. It can have severe consequences. Either he and Nasrin left their families to be together, or they were already alone in this heartless city when they had met – lost and in need of someone. I never asked Ghulam which was his story. They had met at work, and fallen in love. That was eight years, two children, and thousands of factory floor work hours ago.

”I see her everywhere.” He casts his eyes around the room.“We did everything together – the shopping, picking up the children, cooking…everything.” They had managed to put together a decent life and could earn nearly Rs 40,000 ($400) in a good month – a considerable sum and one with which they could dream of bigger things. And they had dreamed of them – plans for a larger house, and a different future for the girls – Ghulam had proudly showed me Muqaddas’ school report – she had scored at the top of her class.

Now, unemployed for over a month, it was all quickly falling apart. Expenses are building up – the rent, the school fees, groceries, electricity and water bills are due. The girls are no longer in school. The landlord has forgiven the rent for the time being, but for how long, Ghulam isn’t sure. The girls are with the neighbors. Friends are helping with the job search, and the immediate needs of the house. In the mean time, he is trying to hold on to things that he knows he cannot.

“I have lied to the girls about their mother.” He tells me sheepishly. “I haven’t told them about her death.” When I meet his daughter, Muqaddas, a few days later, she tells me that her mother is away performing the Hajj. The ten-foot by seven-foot room where I had met him earlier is exactly as when I had seen it last. It has become a shrine to his wife and to a life that is slowly but definitely fading away.

“But I know that she knows that her mother isn’t coming back.”