I make a pit stop at the local bookstore. I have reached this neighbourhood unexpectedly ahead of time and so I decide to wait it out amongst books.
Three vans — full of school children are on their short study trip to the store as well and are seen running excitedly in the aisles. I try to find a solitary spot as I always do in a place of more than 10 people, not to any success. One teacher trying to break off a mischievous tussle between two rowdy boys passes me an awkward smile. I tell her I once went to the same school.
An hour later I’m still there. Two highly acclaimed and popular journalists enter the premises and know exactly which books to buy and where they would be placed. They engage in friendly banter over how much money they owe each other and leave as quickly as they came. I sit in the corner observing them, thinking to myself maybe I’ll get to see them later in the day again.
The driver picks me up as scheduled and I ask him to take me to Gaddafi Stadium. The road opposite the Liberty Roundabout leading to the stadium is blocked by barricades and I see a multitude of police cars and media trucks parked next to them. We drive close to a policeman and I inquire whether there is a possibility I can continue further towards the stadium. “No”, he says politely but firmly, “Asma Jahangir has died!”
Maybe he thought I had some other business going inside. I tell him I need to attend her funeral, and he asks me to simply walk.
I willingly undertake this long trek, interrupted by a number of makeshift check posts. The policeman manning the first one asks me where my car is and soon lets me proceed. He and his peers ahead are all uncharacteristically respectful and friendly today. Without traffic, I traverse a smaller roundabout and the road leading to the venue with ease.
The February wind still carries a chill, set against a bright sun shining down on us. The city had officially welcomed spring last week, and the weather was getting warmer. But it had rained the day Asma died, a universal outpouring of mourn, as the skies wept unabated in the lead up to her funeral. The cool and gentle breeze accompanies me as I enter the tall, squared archway marking the premise of the stadium.
There’s stillness all around, one I desperately searched for in the wake of her passing. I had been away on a weekend getaway trip with cousins when my sister gave me the news. I immediately disputed its veracity, bringing into question the credibility of our friend who posted the message. But despite my quick repudiations, somewhere deep inside it stung me. What if it’s really true?
I quietly checked for myself and confirmed her demise. I must have frozen, but none of my cousins — some much younger than me — seemed fazed by it. Why doesn’t their revelry break? Is the world not supposed to stop and shudder when a giant passes? Why were they still discussing their next meal and not expressing the fear of how difficult national life will be without her? I need to get back home, I had kept thinking to myself, irritated.
It’s only right that I’m walking on foot towards the venue. This tactile connection with land and its people — dirt, warts and all — is what Jahangir championed and never lost. And it’s also where she built her legend: Jahangir the street fighter, fighting General Zia’s oppressive laws on the Mall Road in 1983, covering it end-to-end again in 2007, rallying lawyers against Musharraf’s increasing tyranny whilst getting baton-charged. But today is marked by silence.
A team of young cricketers are holding a practice session as I amble by one of the manicured grounds, their collective noise never amounting to more than a flick of the bat. Birds and crows glide smoothly over us all, their chirp the only signal of time crawling by. I see a policeman in deep sleep in one of the vans, cap on his face, his life perhaps still embroiled in the poverty Asma helped alleviate for others. The sound-bite of her name comes from walkie-talkies near and far, but I hear nothing else after that.
The stadium eventually comes into full prominence, the flag of Pakistan fluttering high and proud. I come across a banner put up by the Chief Minister’s office paying lip-service respects to their one-time nemesis, emblazoned with a picture of her sitting on a motorbike behind a woman during a women’s marathon that was held a couple of years ago.
Known to be “brave enough to get angry,” her bright, lambent smile with her fist in the air is not what is usually associated with her public image. I sense myself choking up. What if somebody sees me? What will they think? I had not known her personally, had briefly seen her in flesh only once, and did not belong to the legal fraternity or the many disenfranchised groups she serviced selflessly all her life. I was not even of the same gender or generation as hers, but why did it feel like the floodgates of some visceral grief were about to burst open?
I try to navigate my sense of self as I tread past the final check post, and into the wide space outside the stadium where we now await her.
As with the neighbourhood earlier in the afternoon, I reach ahead of time. The place is largely empty and the few people I see are all men. Oh right, I think to myself, this is a funeral after all. Will the women even participate? Workers run abound setting up chairs and a huge panaflex sheet with her face on it. “All of the world salutes you,” it captions, perhaps incorrectly in grammar but never in meaning. Her image here is one we are much more familiar with, embodying stern conviction and striking grit. I take a seat and let the enormity of this occasion sink in.
Slowly but surely, mourners start pouring in. Black coats who worked alongside her, professionals who teamed up with her, students who learned from her. Seats are filling up, though none of the famous names are here yet. Neither are the women. “A huge void,” a lawyer seated next to me tells his friend.
“It was so sudden,” he replies, shaking his head.
“I’m here at madam’s funeral,” another man speaks into his phone.
Silence yet pervades. I’m jolted out of my thoughts by a large group of people emerging in the far distance. I know the convoy has arrived. Hundreds of nameless, faceless workers representing the myriad organisations who sought her out, now as orphans forever in her debt for making their lives a little less entrapped, carrying huge bouquets for their saviour, chanting slogans. Behind them is the ambulance carrying Asma Jahangir, surrounded by scores of women, mostly shrouded in black, returning their champion sister back to the people. Of course, that’s where the women were, had been. Who else could Jahangir arrive with? And soon enough, there are as many women as there are men in this harmonious melting pot. It is unprecedented.
Some of them are told by the organisers that there is a separate enclosure for females on the right side behind a tent. They refuse. Of course, this is Jahangir’s funeral. They take up front row seats next to media cameras where they’ll bring her body.
Another activist with scorched skin wearing beaded, colourful jewellery surprises her friends, blood-like tears in her red eyes, declaring, “I’ve come from Islamabad in solidarity.”
I spot my old, school principal talking to other familiar women, a fiery and famous band of lifelong girlfriends, mostly elite urban Lahoris now all in their late sixties, who founded progressive institutions like the school I attended and the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) led by Jahangir herself. They are all wearing yellow dupattas with empowerment slogans scribbled on them. Together, they had stared down dictators and taught us all the importance of democracy and human rights when there were none. Here and now, decades later, they seem humbled and truly ready to pass the baton.
We all gather as the cot carrying her body is being brought forward. And what an assembly it is! I see Pashtuns in their red caps — her swansong audience — standing next to celebrities who have all enthralled the public over the years, women in burkas and women sporting cropped hair, smartly dressed lawyers, and non-conforming activists, mighty politicians, and incapacitated common folk. I see Christian nuns joining in, and later would spot a turbaned Sikh waiting for public transport outside the gate. There is some pushing and shoving, but all in love: everybody wants a piece of their hero.
They announce that the last rites will be performed by Syed Haider Farooq Maududi, a man whose surname divides rather than unites, whose father’s teachings in part birthed tendencies in society which Jahangir dedicated her life to eradicating. Farooq’s dissimilarities with the senior Maududi are all well publicised, but none could symbolise those more than his act today.
The men seem to have taken their places, but the women are still marching ahead with Jahangir. Where are they going? I stand on my toes and try to catch a glimpse of the moving body. Barely over five feet tall, her corpse, draped in white cloth, seems so fragile and thin. I marvel that a woman who took only this much space utterly engulfed the minds of gun-toting dictators in fear, banished cruel perpetrators away from their victims, and affected our national discourse for decades.
But then I hear her roaring voice, now only radiant in the atmosphere around us, vibrant and resounding in its message of justice, loud in its rationality and as clear as the blue skies today, and she doesn’t seem so tiny after all.
Adjusting to these heaving shuffles, men are asked to make room for the opposite sex at the front. Of course, this is Jahangir’s funeral. In death, as in life, she has no time for quaint mores and primeval edicts. When they gave her lined paper, she had written the other way. It is at once understood that women will stand shoulder to shoulder with men in bidding her a religious farewell. Nobody dares counter this. Nobody could.
And then, her prayer ushers in two minutes of silence. As Maududi blesses her soul with peace, I surrender myself to a divine epiphany. That this right here is a consummation of what Asma Jahangir strived for all her life: fruition. That women stood anchored next to men, that Pashtuns fashioned their red caps with pride, that the Baloch were welcome in another province, that the Sunni prayed with the Shia, that the disabled were cared for by the powerful, that the minorities were accommodated within majority ranks, that the liberals grieved together with the conservatives.
For these momentous two minutes, at this juncture in history, everything has coalesced into unison — Maududi, WAF, men, women, red caps, yellow dupattas, lefties, right-wingers, Pakistanis, foreigners, Muslims, the others — that we have, for this hard-fought yet fleeting blip in time, realised a federal, egalitarian, representative, pluralistic and peaceful Pakistan. Jahangir has won, but we have lost Jahangir.
Her cot is loaded back into the ambulance for her final journey and people start filling up the streets on all sides, leading to various circular exits. Without a shepherd, everybody is moving in a different direction, back to the caves of their prejudices, biases, sects and miseries, distancing themselves further and further away from the open centre that just bound us.
As I trace my steps back towards the archway, I notice the flag of Pakistan atop the stadium again. Still fluttering in the wind, perhaps a little less high, less boisterous, for a giant is passing beneath its shadow.