Rafia Zakaria

It’s a white building in a city of brown and gray. The mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, is made of white marble. It rises up, domed and pristine, in the middle of a park known as Bagh-e-Jinnah, or the garden of Jinnah. It is not a green garden, for that is an elusive color in beige Karachi, but it has patches of vegetation. Closer to the building, there are sometimes even flowers. Rising up from a marble platform, the mausoleum is flanked on each of its four sides by cadets of the Pakistan military. Erect and stern, they stare ahead into space, as little kids skitter about them, trying to make them laugh. It never happens.

Inside, under the high-ceilinged central chamber, the grave of the founder of Pakistan is encircled by a black fence. It is against these railings that visiting foreign dignitaries and reverent local ones are shown laying wreaths on important days. They come regularly, on Pakistan’s Independence Day, on Defence Day, on the Founder’s Birthday, and on the anniversary of the day he died. The wreaths are round circles of flowers unlike those at the grave of any ordinary Pakistanis. These are a legacy of the British for whose dead colonial officers the simple subcontinental practice of scattering petals was deemed inadequate, or perhaps too messy.  It lives on at the Founder’s Grave today, where only neat round wreaths of flowers are permitted as homages. Unbeknown to most, the raised coffin-shaped structure enclosed by the fence does not really contain the remains of the Founder of Pakistan. Those lie in a chamber below, accessed by a separate staircase that leads to another room, one which holds the actual grave of the Founder of Pakistan. Like so much else in Pakistan, the Founder’s grave is not what it appears to be. 

The real grave is underneath the visible one, in a subterranean chamber that is kept continually locked. Only the caretakers of the mausoleum have access to that area, and can be opened only by them. It is, by this limitation of access, a private space, where no one can enter unless permitted by the guardians. This last link in the chain of reverence, however, was recently revealed to be broken. It was the end of February 2014, a time when Karachi’s winter, which also passes for Karachi’s spring, slips unsmilingly into its thankless summer. A whistle-blowing television show on one of Pakistan’s news channels obtained a cell phone video taken by one of its staffers. The video had recorded a shocking negotiation. In the recorded conversation, one of the caretakers of the shrine and the man in question haggle over the price of renting the private locked room below the public shrine. The man wants a private space to take the woman accompanying him; the caretaker is happy to oblige. He promises to leave them alone in the room with the Founder’s actual grave for at least half an hour. The price that they agree on is 2500 rupees, or about $25 dollars. “No one will bother you,” insists the caretaker, promising to make the space available for future instances as well.

Airing the footage raised the expected outcry. The host of the television show, who has in previous recorded expeditions outed gambling dens, robbers, sellers of watered down milk, and pilfered pills, organized a protest outside the mausoleum. That this sacred space, the Founder’s final resting place, was being used for romantic and probably illicit trysts drew a crowd. The show’s cameras followed show staff as they accosted the superiors of the caretakers who had handed over the keys. The renting out of the Founder’s grave room has been an organized operation, the whole thing implied, with cuts divvied out to colluders from top to bottom. The administrators had thought perhaps that no one would know, save the dead founder—and he, of course, could not tell on them. If he could talk, he would of course have a lot else to say about Pakistan.

There are few public spaces in Karachi where couples, even if they are married, can have moments of privacy. In this sense, Karachi, purported to be the fastest growing mega city in the world, is different from others of its kind. The shrinking of private space, the intensively shared two or three rooms of middle class apartments leave nothing for the development of intimate relationships, even if they are of the very licit kind. Against that is an increasingly public space that has no toleration of the public-private so common in the large cities of the rest of the world. Couples, especially those not towing a line of children, are inherently suspect in the realm of streets and stores, so much so that any space, even a mausoleum, begins to have utility of a different sort, when viewed from the desperation of those craving private moments. In public everything intimate is illicit and this attack on the intimate, makes intimacy itself homeless, in both public and private.

It isn’t the only place in Karachi with secret uses. At a busy intersection, far from the mausoleum and its subterfuge, is a traffic island, which has been cultivated into a small park. It is an odd place for a patch of green, plopped as it is between snarls of traffic, the comings and goings from the city into one of its more affluent suburbs. The strip is only big enough for a patch of lawn, some bushes of bougainvillea, Karachi’s faithful flowering beauty. There is also a small cement building, no larger than six or eight feet square, which houses a water pump that ostensibly supplies water to the surrounding establishments and the little garden itself. Like the errant guards of the mausoleum, the keepers of the pump house have been known to negotiate transactions in which the little room is rented out for the hour or the half hour. If the presence of a grave is not an impediment to those who availed the former, the presence of the pump does not disturb those who make use of this particular enclosure. 

These secret spaces are littered all over the city, underscoring its contradictions and the chasm between what is acceptable and what is available, what it wants and what it wants to see. When the controversy arose about the misuse of the Founder’s Grave room, the talk was of corruption and the illicit intents of both those who used the space and those who rented it. No one seemed to construe the situation in terms of the transformation of public space in the city. Indeed, the social constrictions of eliminating the female and the intimate from the public sphere necessarily pushes them into the private and where that cannot be found; the unseen, whether in a room with a grave or a shed with a pump takes its place. The emergence of this Karachi suggests a new sort of distortion between the public and the private and a new price to be paid for the intimate moment; if it can exist at all.  Extricated from the moral dimensions by which they are judged, these secret spaces, some of them kissing places, represent a testament to this confusion: the need to order the public sphere, and the inability of the private to accommodate what gets pushed out, hidden away, in the mausoleums and pump houses of an uncertain city.