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All that Karachi kouture!

If you step out for an evening in fashionable Zamzama, Karachi's equivalent of Greater Kailash or Juhu, all is well in Pakistan. Sunil Sethi writes.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2011 22:27 IST
Sunil Sethi

If you step out for an evening in fashionable Zamzama, Karachi's equivalent of Greater Kailash or Juhu, all is well in Pakistan. Here is Karachi society, decked out and dolled up, shopping furiously at expensive designer boutiques with names like Maria B and Deepak Perwani, before repairing to restaurants like Okra (Musharraf's favourite) or Café Aylanto to elegantly pick at its famous chicken in jalapeno sauce.

Of course, you've tanked up on drinks at home beforehand. Some of the most sought-after and spoilt men in Karachi are the city's bootleggers, their cell numbers inscribed across the gentry's hearts like Bloody Mary. Otherwise, our stylish hostess informed us, women's fashions change about every four months in Karachi. Last autumn, tight pencil pants worn high above the ankle were all the rage; now it's loose-cut ajar pyjamas, borrowed from traditional Memon women. It is de rigueur as uniforms, straight out of the Pinglish (Punjabi-English) patter in Moni Mohsin's bestselling Diary of a Social Butterfly columns and books.

This room is shrinking
Army uniforms may be less visible in public and on TV than at other times in Pakistan but political fashions are changing fast. Since Punjab governor Salman Taseer's assassination last month, people tend to be cautious about what they say, where and to whom.

The room for public discourse is discernably narrowing. There is an uncomfortable number of public figures, including in the media, who state that he had it coming for opposing the blasphemy law. More than 300 lawyers have offered their free service to defend his killer.

Sherry Rahman, former information minister and pillar of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who had tabled a bill in the national assembly seeking an amendment to the blasphemy law, had gone into self-imposed purdah in her palatial home in Clifton since Taseer's murder.

Two days ago, in an attempt to get a life, she stated that she supports the blasphemy law.

In other ways, too, free expression is becoming restrictive. Not long ago, Hammad Khan, a young filmmaker who made a movie called Slackistan, about the 'contented discontent' of young people in Islamabad, had his film banned by the censor board because of references to Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and for the use of the word 'lesbian'. But there is no recourse to appeal. "Since Taseer's killing, civil society has ceded space to the men in beards," a Karachi editor told me. "We are learning to speak out less and shut up a lot more."

Veni, vidi, visa
A Pakistani visa, at Rs15 a pop, must be the cheapest available in New Delhi. But it's not easy to get. Many Pakistani writers at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival had their visas held up till the last minute. Whether as a retaliatory measure, or because of home ministry hold-ups in Islamabad, Indian writers had a hard time getting to the second Karachi Literature Festival which I am here to cover.

Of the five Indians due on the Delhi-Karachi flight on Thursday, only three made it. I was one of the lucky trio. When I went to collect my visa at the Pakistan High Commission, the official assured me my clearance had been received. "Well-priced but much-prized," I quipped as he handed it to me the following day. He smiled weakly at my joke.

Sunil Sethi is the host of Just Books on NDTV. Over the next few days, he will be writing from Karachi and Lahore about the Pakistan we don't easily get to read, hear or see — the one in which 'People Like Us' live their daily lives outside the high-decibel hysterics of 'Breaking News' Pakistan.