Rashida Bibi, Baldia Town, Karachi

RAA_JIP_10242012_BaldiaTown_0065 (small)The photograph Rashida Bibi hands me is faded, scratched and frayed. Light leaks streak across a scene that shows four people – Rahima Bibi, her husband Mohammad Nasser, her son Mehrab and her mother Rashida, sitting together, smiling and laughing looking the camera. It is a scene from a visit to the tomb of  the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and a popular picnic and recreation spot in the center of Karachi. There is a breeze. I can see it in the way the dupattas are being held onto heads. There is pleasure, reflected in the faces and casual embraces they hold each other with. I look at Rahina Bibi more closely – the strong lines of her face, the stoic, unsmiling face, and the hijab that defines her sense of decorum and dignity. Her husband Mohammad Nasser has a playful smile across his face, his arm casually thrown around his wife’s shoulder as he peers mischievously into the camera. It is a special day. The tomb lies a good two-hour journey from Baldia town, a Karachi slum settlement. It is a special day. A local photographer captures the moment. It is the only photograph of the family. They look happy. They look like a family. It was some two years before the fire that killed Rahina. The light leak reminds of me a flame.

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 reveal the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also provide a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have weakened worker organization and resistance, and created a vulnerable and exploitable workforce to serve specific economic and political interests.

On September 11, 2012, Rashida Bibi’s daughter Rahima and her son-in-law Mohammad Nasser died in the fire. They leave behind a thirteen year old son, Mehrab.

RAA_JIP_10242012_BaldiaTown_0029(144)Rashida Bibi and I sit in the one room that is the entire house. A TV sits in a corner. The stove demarcates the cooking area, a pile of pots, pans, and utensils stacked on top. Dishes, pots, cups and plates are carefully stacked on the shelves on the wall. Bedding is packed under the metal bed frame, the only piece of furniture in the room. Everything is in its place, neatly arranged and organized. I imagine the one room being transformed for its many uses at different hours of the day. At night it is a bedroom as bedding, pillows and blankets are pulled out from under the bed and rolled out onto the floor. In the morning the bedding is put away and kitchen utensils, pots and pans spread out on counter tops and a sheet spread on the floor where they will eat. Later the room is transformed, as the kitchen equipment is put away on hanging shelves and baskets, into a living area where they can watch television or receive the occasional visitor. Clothes hang on hooks on the walls and behind the door. Evening meals need yet another change, as the bed is pushed back, and the routine of setting up the kitchen begun once again. At different days of the week it is also a laundry room, a play room, a study room, and a private bedroom for the married couple. When I had arrived earlier to visit Rashida Bibi, the room had been made into a funeral parlor.

We talk about the night of the fire. Her thin, bird-like body slumped on the bed. Her face wears the entirety of her seventy years, and perhaps even some more as a result of the death of her children. She tells me about the panic that gripped her heart when her neighbor ran towards the factory telling here that there had been an accident. She explains how she knew her child was dead even before her grandson came home later that night to confirm it. There is no emotion in her voice. She is spent from telling and re-telling this tale for weeks. She delivers it with just a hint of frustration. She speaks about the chaos, the confusion, and ultimately, the sense of helplessness that overcame her. And remains so. The facts are the same as I have heard elsewhere. The telling however is different each time.

“I burn every day.” She says. “My daughter burned once and died. I die every day.”

Her eyes stare at me, as her hand pulls at mine as if to make sure I am paying attention.”

“She was a brave woman. She was a dreamer.”

I will learn more about her daughter later, and finally understand what she meant. I ask her about what happens now – the only people earning money for this family of four, are dead. “Nothing happens now.” She answered dismissively. “Its finished.” She says, lowering her voice. “I am nearly seventy, and have no means of income.”. Her eyes turn to look towards the door. “His life is finished.” She gestures towards her 13-year old grandson who is sitting quietly out on the veranda. “He will leave his school and go to work at a factory somewhere.” She adds, fixes her dupatta. “There is really no other option. We are two, and we have nothing.”

The circle closes in on itself.