ISLAMABAD — In Pakistan’s vast and highly stratified society, tens of millions of people endure daily deprivation, humiliation and grinding toil for pennies. Occasionally an especially egregious case makes the headlines, such as a recent scandal about the brutal treatment of a 10-year-old girl working as a maid for the family of a prominent judge.
For the most part, though, the struggling masses remain invisible. Some beg at traffic signals as dark-tinted SUVs charge past, or silently sweep patios at luxurious homes. Many more labor in brick kilns, wheat fields and at carpet looms, far from the insulated precincts of the educated but feudal elite.
Mian Raza Rabbani, Pakistan’s Senate chairman and a fixture in its establishment, has suddenly broken ranks with his privileged class, producing a book of plain but wrenching short stories called “Invisible People.” It is not a work of literature, like his countryman Daniyal Mueenuddin’s acclaimed collection of stories, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Rabbani is a lawyer, not a poet. But his effort is a powerful, later-life cri de coeur that aims to stir consciences in clubs and drawing rooms across the country.
His characters survive on the fringes of an inequitable and corrupt society, helping to make it function but routinely suffering cruelty and injustice — at the hands of both powerful strangers and people just a notch above them. A boy whose mother dies is sold into servitude by scheming relatives. A poor man, falsely accused of a shooting committed by a wealthy teenager, starves in prison while a mafia boss has delicacies delivered to his luxurious cell. An injured mill worker is fired and refused help at a hospital.
Death and abuse serve as routine backdrops or ironic twists to stories that hammer at the reader’s conscience. Sometimes the pathos is too thick, the characters too angelic or evil. A beaten child beggar tears open a cage full of birds, trying to free them, and is struck and killed by a limousine. But these are literary flaws rather than excuses for cynical dismissal. The circumstances and behavior have an uncomfortable ring of truth.
Rabbani, a dapper and self-assured politician of 64, favors monogrammed shirts with cuff links and circulates in a world of smoke-filled rooms and elegant receptions. He is third in line to replace the prime minister and is constantly called upon to settle political disputes or opine on weighty public matters.
Yet when asked why he decided to write “Invisible People,” he had this to say:
“What prompted me was a feeling of helplessness, a feeling of despair, a feeling of frustration, because even after achieving this office, this chair, I am still a slave of the system. Apart from cosmetic changes, I can do nothing meaningful to change it substantially or to change the plight of the people who are invisible. In our society, it is still hands off.”
This admission may seem astonishing to an outsider, but class barriers and social conformity are deeply entrenched in Pakistan. Even liberal politicians have silent servants and lands worked by peasants, and no one really wants to upset the status quo.
Rabbani’s anger is political as well as personal. He is a lifelong loyalist of the Pakistan People’s Party, founded in the 1960s as a socialist reform movement. A framed portrait of its late leader, Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007, sits next to his office desk.
As he describes it, the ideals of the Bhutto family, and the activism they fomented among students, labor groups and intellectuals, were quashed by the Islamic-themed dictatorship of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s and never recovered. Rabbani, then a student activist, was expelled and spent two formative years in prison.
His father, an air force officer and young aide to Pakistan’s democratic founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in the 1940s, taught him “the importance of empathy and the dignity of labor.”
Rabbani’s party is out of power, but he is a respected senior leader of the institutional opposition. Despite the trappings of success and the double standards that abound in Pakistani politics (the Bhuttos, for example, were feudal landlords as well as social reformists), he has kept his rebellious credentials polished — and his graying hair in a discreet, trademark ponytail.
And although Pakistan’s economy is enjoying an upturn, Rabbani’s subject is still very relevant. In a country of an estimated 200 million people, the per capita income is on a par with Sudan and Honduras. Income distribution is highly skewed, with the richest 10 percent enjoying 28 percent of the nation’s wealth. Only 58 percent of adults can read, one of the lowest rates outside Africa. Thirty percent of the populace lives in poverty, and 25 million children are out of school.
“This has nothing to do with religion. Everything is about the cutthroat economy now. People live in cozy cocoons and can’t see that outside a storm is building,” he said in an interview this month his sentences cadenced from years of public oratory. “There is no justice. People cannot meet their basic needs. There is only so much they can absorb until they explode.”
“Invisible People” opens with a blurry photograph of an elderly scavenger sleeping against his sack on a piece of rocky ground; it ends with one of a barefoot woman, huddled on a sidewalk amid scrolls of barbed wire. They are not named and do not need to be. The author’s hope, he writes in the introduction, is to “lay bare the hidden evil that surrounds us” and “touch some common core we all share.”
When Rabbani’s book was launched in the capital last month, he anticipated that some people would be offended by its portrayal of upper-class callousness and cruelty.
“I knew I would be treading on a lot of toes, so I asked a few friends to be ready to defend me at parties,” he said.
According to one report, snide comments were heard in the audience that perhaps his invisible people were government spies. Some critics suggested that his characters were mere fiction, to which he replied that “the names and localities might be fiction, but the experiences are true.” Instead of having guest commentators at the launch, he placed seven empty chairs on the stage.
Yet Rabbani said he was also pleasantly surprised when a woman approached him and said that she had been moved by his story of an urchin who washes car windows outside an exclusive private school and daydreams about a future he can never hope to have.
“She said it made her remember when she was a girl being picked up from school and would see the boys trying to wash cars,” Rabbani said. “When she read the book, for the first time she thought about them from the other side.”
If even a small segment of the elite is “beginning to question things,” he added, “perhaps that is the light at the end of the tunnel.”