Sharifa Siddeeq, Baldia Town, Karachi
“How did you find his body?” The question hangs in the air. Neither Mohammad Siddeeq or Sharifa answer but simply exchange glances.
Outside, I hear the noise of the neighborhood: vegetable sellers, playing children, gossiping neighbors, passing trucks, bleating goats, and the sound of thousands of footsteps on pavement. Around us, sitting on the floor of a bare 10 by 7 foot room, the house dances. Each time a truck passes by the house, its walls shake, and the roof reverberates with a terrible rattling sound. Plumes of dust and smoke drift into the room through gaps in the walls and ceiling. It all seems hastily put together – bricks stacked on top of another brick, filled with cement, and a tin roof thrown over the top and held down with bricks. In Karachi’s edge neighborhoods, such homes materialize overnight. Mohammad Siddeeq told me that twelve people live and sleep here, with half of the children sleeping outside in the veranda which is also where they cook and do their wash. Two pieces of joined clapboard make the front gate leading out onto the street. A thick electrical cable reaches out to an electricity pylon – an illegal arrangement that most likely came after Mohammad Siddeeq’s promise of allegiance to a local political party. There is a fragility to the entire dwelling, as if it would simply collapse at the first push. And yet, it has been home to this family for over a decade.
“We didn’t find the body.” As Mohammad Siddeeq says this, I notice Samira’s eyes dart towards him, her face wearing a look of indignation.
“We spent three days looking for him – from hospitals to the city morgue.” Mohammad Siddeeq continuous cautiously, aware of Sharifa’s eyes piercing into the back of his head. They did not find him in the emergency rooms, and the cadavers at the morgue were burnt beyond recognition.
“We could not find…” But Sharifa cuts him short. “We did find him!” It is the first time she has spoken.
“I recognized the shape of his body.” She looks away. For three days she had looked – with the eyes of a mother searching the living and the dead, for signs that would give her what she desperately wanted: evidence of a son to care for, or to pray over and lay to rest. And she had found a body – burnt beyond recognition like the others in the ‘cool room’ at the morgue, that she recognized. The hair was cut, the birthmarks on the legs, the curve of his back; it had to be him she had said. She wanted to claim it, but the staff at the morgue refused to release the cadaver and requested a DNA test. That was over two months ago, and she was still waiting.
“It was my son.”
There are the facts of the night that he died; the greedy flames, the chaotic crowds, the confused and haphazard rescue operation, the desperate attempt to break the walls of the factory, the pleas and screams of those trapped inside, and the pleas and screams of families searching outside. And then there are the facts of his life; Shahbaz began working at a garment factory at the age of ten, paid Rs 1,200 ($12) a month salary to start, given Rs 500 ($5) a year as a raise in each of the thirteen years he worked there, and died at twenty-three that in the fire.
I write these numbers down, arranging them in rows. There is an unsettling concision to them: started at age 10, worked 10 hours daily, starting salary Rs 1,200, last salary Rs 8,000, worked 13 years, died at 23. A mathematics of exploitation. These numbers are the contours of a young man’s life lived at the edge of bare necessity. They also delimit the extent of his existence to the corporation, and to the state. Once dead, he has no meaning, nor any relationship to either. “I had to send my children to work.” Mohammed Siddeeq answers, his voice laced with resentment, when I ask him why Shahbaz began work at such a young age. He looks at Sharifa, who says nothing. “If the children didn’t work, how will we survive?”