Short Excerpt by Bina Shah: The 786 Cybercafe on Tariq Road

Short excerpt from Bina Shah’s book ‘The 786 Cyber Cafe’. 

Pages 315, PaperBack, ISBN 969-516-146-4.


Pakistan had been created in order to make a homeland for the Muslims of the Subcontinent, but the ethnic groups that lived in Karachi savaged each other like angry dogs without exception for the last twenty years. Muhajirs against Sindhis, Sindhis against Pathans, Pathans against Punjabis, Punjabis against Afghans. The riots and shootings and bombs that convulsed the city regularly were only the external trappings of the tensions.

For the common man like Ahmed Tunio, the discrimination played itself out in every arena: job opportunities, promotions, land disputes, water allocations, army commissions, even proposals of marriage within influential families. And the Punjabis and Mohajirs were at the very top of the order, having taken over and manipulated all the systems in order to serve their own interests, while the Sindhi man, immortalized by Shah Abdul Latif and the Sufi poets, was stuck, it seemed, at the very bottom.

Ahmed Tunio had eked out a life for himself in the city as most urban Sindhis did: by keeping a low profile, teaching his children to speak Sindhi at home and Urdu outside it. In this city, even the language that you spoke could be grounds for someone to want to kill you. Ahmed was resigned to a life of hard work with little chance of advancement, realizing that being Sindhi was a source of internal pride but external disgrace. For most companies and organizations liked to advance others on the basis of their mother tongue, their relatives, and the illustrious names that they could drop, rather than ability or skill.

Many years of this kind of life, cut off from his rural roots – for he had moved from Sukkur years ago – had turned Ahmed Tunio into a bitter man, and his children were often the brunt of that bitterness, increased since his wife had died of cancer last year. The remaining tenderness in his soul had been extinguished the same way the spark of life had gone out in his wife’s breast as she closed her eyes and let the last breath drain out of her body.

Ahmed Tunio had buried his wife with his own hands and never spoken of her since that day. Instead, he just grew more taciturn, alternating hours of silence with an acerbic comment, or a short command. His sons grew used to his demeanour and learned to lead their lives like living orphans. The moments, like these, when Ahmed reasserted his dominance as the father and head of the family, nonplussed them all, as if reminding them of a time when these things had had more than symbolic meaning.

Ahmed shrugged, turned away from his son and concentrated on making his tea. “You will regret not going to college, son.”

Ahmed Tunio never speak of Jamal’s career aspirations again. But over the next few months, Jamal found out for himself that the Karachi job market was not easy to break into, and not merely because he was a Sindhi.

Jamal managed to obtain a job as a clerk at the PIA office, but was soon sacked for taking too many days off. This was followed by a stint as a runner for an advertising agency; one day his flimsy motorcycle broke down, losing most of its vital parts all across M.A. Jinnah Road, and he was fired the next week on the grounds of not having “suitable transport”. A quick secretarial course landed him a job as a typist in a lawyer’s office, but he was replaced by a younger, sharper boy with computer skills and a degree in English.

Finally, Jamal ended up in the car business, or more specifically, the used-car business. Most specifically, the illegal used-car business. Karachi boasted a weak law enforcement system, and a thriving stolen car industry, with upwards of forty cars being lifted a day. Jamal found himself a niche there, running a tiny garage in Ranchor Lines that did paint jobs on stolen cars. Night after night Margallas, Suzukis, Nissan Sunnys, Toyota Corollas, most of them white, (white cars being easier to disguise than cars of a darker hue) were driven into his shop, license plates missing, registration books burnt, numbers filed off engine blocks.

Jamal and his team of mechanics stripped down the old paint and slapped on a new coat, usually blue or black, transforming stolen property into marketable items, before the cars were shipped off to far-flung regions of Balochistan and the Frontier Province, never to be found again.

This job kept Jamal in ready money for two years. In the whole time that he worked for the garage, he learned neither the real names of his coworkers or of his bosses. He just knew that the man who was responsible for the operation was called Chota, while his partners were known as TT, Tota Mian, and Chappu. They came in late at night, mostly on weekends, to supervise the work and make ribald comments to each other about the idiocy of the law, the inefficiency of the police, and the general ease with which they were pulling off this operation.

For two years Jamal lied to his father that he was working in a reputable car showroom off Korangi Road. He explained his late-night hours to Ahmed by telling him that the cars arrived from the docks in the early hours of the morning and his job required him to be on the premises to open the underground lockup so they could be stored quickly and safely. “You know how unsafe it is these days, the car business,” explained Jamal apologetically.

Ahmed snorted at the unsuitable profession his son had landed himself into. “A car showroom. And not even a proper salesman, but a chowkidar.”

Jamal, knowing full well that he could not disclose the real nature of his job to Ahmed, kept uncharacteristically silent. Ahmed waited for the usual floods of protest, then, surprised for once to hear nothing, went on. “Look at your brother, studying to be an engineer. That’s what people do when they’re serious about life. Not selling cars to rich morons in Defence.”

Jamal sighed. No one could live up to the standard set by Abdul, who had been a brilliant student in school, and lived up to his early promise by winning a scholarship to NED University. Abdul’s academic perfection – the same sadistic principal who had caned Jamal with such glee spoke in whispered tones about Abdul, even suggesting that he was a borderline genius – was enough to drive anyone to a life of crime. But Abdul, rather than being a smarmy know-it-all father’s favorite and teacher’s pet, was a gentle, sweet, bookish young man with a kind thought for everyone and a kind deed to match it. Jamal had been the recipient of both thought and deed too many times to truly hate his brother.

Jamal took heart, however, in their youngest brother, ten year old Mustafa, who so far had shown no signs of academic promise, and instead devoted most of his spare time to copying the dance moves performed by hot Indian actors on Zee TV and the Sony Channel.

For a paint job done on a stolen car, the illegal garage charged twenty thousand rupees. The cost of a regular paint job was between ten and twelve thousand, but the illicit nature of this business drove the charges higher. The money was paid in envelopes by the mysterious figures that drove the car into the garage, cash, always cash that the taxman could not trace. Jamal had the responsibility of collecting the envelopes and handing them to Chappu, who was the financial backbone of the company. Chappu arrived at the garage once a week for the money and Jamal handed it over to him, receiving a few thousand rupees a week as his cut.

Late one night, when Jamal arrived for his shift, he found the garage shuttered and sealed with a huge padlock and chain. Jamal looked around, confused; the garage was never closed. In the shadows of another shop nearby, one of his coworkers, Sami fidgented nervously, chewing on a toothpick.

“Oey, Sami.” This was Jamal’s usual greeting to his colleagues.

“Ssssh!” hissed Sami. “Be quiet and come over here!”

Jamal jogged over to Sami, who pulled him into the niche next to him with a shaking arm. “What’s going on? Where is everyone?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Sami’s teeth worked maniacally on the toothpick as he spoke. “The police came and raided the garage today in the afternoon. They picked up Chappu and TT from their homes – Tota Mian and Chota managed to escape – and they came here and forced them to open up the garage. Found the cars. Took them over to the thana. The CPLC got a tip and told the cops. Seems someone’s been talking.”

Jamal raised his hands in innocence. “Well, it wasn’t me.”

“I know, I know. I think it was Khanum.” He spat the toothpick out in disgust. “He always had the discretion of a megaphone. Anyway, that’s the end of it for us at least.”

“So why did you come here to wait for me?”

Sami looked up at the night sky, still clear, despite the clouds crossing over the moon. “I thought I’d warn you, because they’re surely going to watch this place from now on. Not tonight, as they’re probably out celebrating their big catch, but they’ll come back, to see if they can repeat the feat. Didn’t want to see you end up with Chappu and TT. They’ll think you’re the one that sold them out, anyway, since you’re more fancy than the rest of us.”

Jamal felt a sudden rush of gratitude for Sami’s loyalty. He hadn’t enjoyed working in the garage, but a strange bond had been born between himself and some of the others there, Sami included. They sensed they had become the dregs of society and the least they could do was maintain some dignity between them. He gave Sami a handshake, and then they hugged, like brothers. Sami slipped away into the night, and Jamal headed off in the opposite direction. They never saw each other again.

The entire episode was not a total loss; Jamal had managed to save up sixty thousand rupees, a sum that would have made his father stagger and fall over backwards had he known about it. Ahmed Tunio would never have given his son credit for being able to save sixty paisa, let alone sixty thousand rupees. Money ran through his hands like sand, and he was always coming around and asking to borrow the price of a cinema ticket or a meal from Ahmed, or Abdul, who was careful with money.

But Jamal had been clever enough to wheedle his living expenses out of his father’s generosity; his earnings from his job went into the savings account in the National Bank (Shaheed-e-Millat Branch). Of course Jamal didn’t have this account in his own name, but one of his friends had unwittingly lent his name and NIC card to Jamal one afternoon when he left his wallet on the table of the restaurant where they were eating lunch.

Jamal was going to use this money towards his cybercafe. This was the dream he had saved up for. This was why he had breathed paint fumes, spoilt his nights, slept heavy-headed through his days for two years – so that he could set up a proper business of his own.

Karachi in the 1990s was a wasteland of failed opportunities; the salaried class was on its knees under the burden of heavy government taxes, and the only people who could afford to set up franchises and industries were the already super-rich, super-corrupt industrialists and feudals.

Then, the Internet came to Pakistan.

(How did a country like Pakistan allow the Internet to enter its shores? The government likes to claim that the arrival of new technologies and trends in Pakistan are always due to its vision, the forward-thinking nature of its policies and plans, its ability to sense a turning tide. But anyone who has spent any amount of time in Pakistan knows that things will happen only after a bribe has changed hands, a few lakhs or crores shifted from one bank account to another while eyes close and consciences take a temporary holiday.

In this manner, factories have been built on finances that do not exist, nobody dares stop the local police sergeant from sheltering his cows and buffaloes in the disused primary school, and hospitals are allowed to go on operating even though rats compete with residents for corridor space.

The coming of the Internet probably didn’t take more than a few officials from the telecommunications ministry to hold out their hands and see how much money stuck to their palms. The official line goes something like this:

“The Government of Pakistan, under the august leadership of the Ministry of Telecommunications, realized that the Internet was the emerging technology of the future. So in order to be on the Internet bandwagon, the Government took this on a war-footing and utilized the synergy of a nation to gain a win-win situation, whereby today we can now see that 5000 villages and cities in Pakistan are now connected to the Infromation (sic) Superhighway.”

The truth probably goes something more like this:

Scene: the PTCL Headquarters, Islamabad, October 1994.
Time: Eleven a.m., just after the officials have arrived at office
Characters: PTCL Official 1, PTCL Official 2

PTCL Official 1: Yaar, I have heard about this new thing in America, called In-ter-nat. What do you think it is?
PTCL Official 2; Inter-what? I failed that exam years ago. (Sips tea). Oey, you stupid peon, this tea is cold. (Throws it at peon’s head). Bring me another cup. Go feed your mother this slop. (Peon runs to fetch another cup of tea).
PTCL: Official 1: Not Intermediate, fool, Inter-nat. It is a new method of communications that runs on computers. You use your telephone line and this thing called mo-dam.
PTCL Official 2: Madam? Madam who? Is her business in Pindi? Those Isloo prostitutes are overpriced – so I hear.
PTCL Official 1: Arre, kambakhat, mo-dam, not madam.
PTCL Oficial 2: (Slurping tea) Acha, baba, acha. Anyway, so what is on this Inter-nat?
PTCL Official 1: Everything in the world. E-mails, telnat, all information about all things. It is a new program called browser which shows you all information in graphical and textual format.
PTCL Official 2: So what? We can’t have it in Pakistan. It sounds too foreign for our market.
PTCL Official 1: Well, there are already private companies who want to bring it here. One called Digicom. More to follow. The applications for license and NOC are already on my desktop.
PTCL Official 2: (eyes shining) You mean…
PTCL Official 1: Yes indeed. I have been given the onerous task of sorting through and deciding which ones are… suitable. Of course it will be for considerable amount of consideration…
PTCL Official 2: Oay, lucky mian!
PTCL Official 1: Yes well my wife has said she wants a vacation in London this year or she will make my life haraam. So but there is only one problem.
PTCL Official 2: What problem can this be?
PTCL Official 1: Well, on this Internat there are very many objectionable items. Dirt and vulgarity and so on. Some of the maliks (gesturing upstairs) are worried that this Internat might not be suitable for our awam.
PTCL Official 2: It sounds bad.
PTCL Official 1: Vary vary bad. Violence there is too, pages on how to build bombs and kill Jews, but that is of no consequence. It is the obscenity and vulgarity that worries our maliks (pointing upstairs). So, they have asked me to find a person who would be able to sit on computer all day and look for such sites and make a full report to the PTCL commission who will decide whether or not to bring this Internat to Pakistan.
PTCL Official 2: bhai… You have been like my brother since I joined and without your name, I would never have gotten to where I am today.
PTCL Official 1: I know. And I know I can expect your full cooperation in this matter. So would you like the job?
PTCL Official 2: Oh it is too great an honor!

Two months later, PTCL Official 2 gave a full report to the PTCL Commission on Internet that the Internet contained much valuable information, and not allowing the public of Pakistan access to such information would be a crime of the greatest order. The government decided to permit the Internet in Pakistan. Tenders were invited from companies who wanted to become Internet service providers, which made PTCL Official 1 a very rich man.)

IT businesses began to open all over Pakistan. Now, every street boasted not just a restaurant or a beauty salon, but a computer training center, software developing house, or Web business. The government encouraged such schemes, reducing taxes and allocating funds, although officials in the telecom industry less profit-minded than Official 1 and Official 2 undermined every advance by dusting off draconian telephone laws from the time of the British Raj to halt the use of the new technology.

Still, the IT business eventually found its feet, after an awkward start. And the best part was that you could set up a computer business with a minimum of equipment (unbranded computers, pirated software, stolen phone lines) and a maximum of bravado (“Want to Go to AMERICA? Learn Java and You Will!”).

Suddenly, everybody and his uncle wanted to open an institute to teach Java, set up an ISP, get into Web design. If they weren’t running IT businesses, they were getting IT qualifications and talking their way into H-1 visas straight to America. Jamal had seen the lurid ads in the newspapers: “Jump Onto the IT Bandwagon!” “Join the Information Superhighway!” “Miss IT and Miss Out!” “Please Allah and Learn the Internet!”

Jamal wasn’t a computer whiz – at first he had only known IT as the local English word for a transsexual. But he asked the right questions and soon taught himself what it was all about, thanks to endless hours spent picking the brains of Ahmed and his friends at the university. More than that, Jamal fancied that he had a knack for business. He didn’t regard his paint-shop work as illegal so much as undignified. He wanted to be more than just a lackey for car-thieves. He wanted to be an entrepreneur. For Jamal, who was a very tiny minnow in an oceanful of sharks, a cybercafe was the best business he could think of.

Jamal knew he could put the whole thing together. The technical expertise would come from Ahmed, who was now in his final year at NED. The rest of financial backing would come from their friend Yasir’s father, who ran a large chemists’ shop on the Stadium Road and had a good deal of money lying around that could be put to good use. Jamal himself would be the frontman, the boss, the man who made it all happen. With a little bit of luck, a lot of patience, and plenty of bribes, Jamal knew the cybercafe could be up and running within a month.

Jamal arrived at his destination just then on Tariq Road, in front of an empty storefront squeezed in between the Naz Beauty Parlour on one side and the Jungle Jim Toy Store on the other. The store had once housed a “Mithai Mart” but was now empty, its floors bare, its windows gaping openly onto the street. The sign for the Mithai Mart had been half scratched off, giving the whole place a derelict look.

But when Jamal looked at the tiny space, he saw none of this. As spoilt, eager children pushed past him to get their grubby hands on the cheap Chinese toys in the toyshop, and women emerged from the parlour, newly coiffed and made up to turn and simper at him, Jamal stood there on the pavement like a man in a dream, seeing none of them. Instead, he saw rows of clean, shiny computers, a girl sitting behind a reception desk, a cafe in the corner with not just bottles, but cans of Coke and Seven Up. He saw students sitting around tables, chatting and sharing notes about Web sites and applications to schools abroad. He saw himself in the back room, which would be converted into a marvelous office complete with his own personal PC.

And on the front of the store, he saw the sign that he would put up to announce to the world that he, Jamal Tunio, had left the underworld of seedy carjackers and no-hope jobs, and come into the world of legitimacy, of serious business, of money-making on a decent scale:

The 786 Cybercafe.

It was neat, it was clean, it was even scientific and religious. For 786 was the numerical code for “Bismillah”, In the Name of God. What better name was there for a cybercafe than that? Especially for someone who wanted to leave a chequered life behind, and go forward in life on the right path, the straight path. Yes, the 786 Cybercafr was the way to go about it. Jamal Tunio thought it was the best idea he’d had in his entire life.




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