Perween Rahman: Pyar

by Maniza Naqvi

PerweenPerween, once, I heard you called pyar. A play on two words, perhaps, love and friend: pyar. It was a perfect term of endearment for you. Your friends, those, who love you, those, who worked with you, those, whose lives are better because of you, those, for whom you are pyar—are devastated.

I too am devastated and I too am shattered even though I am at the margins of the golden circle of friends and comrades: my teachers, my role models, that very special group of mainly architects and urban planners in Karachi. A very special small group with thousands upon thousands of concentric intertwining circles created in three decades of careful planning and organizing and teaching, thousands of students and practitioners who will collectively defeat the assassins' conniving mean spirited brutality and act of murder.

There will be much written about you and some of it is here, here, here, here, here and here.

I remember in 1987 meeting Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan in Orangi when I worked in Karachi. And after spending an hour with me he directed me to you. So I climbed the stairs up to your office on the rooftop of that slim three story house whose interior was painted a hospital blue and there up there as though it were a bird's perch– I met you.

Perween Rahman—a slender young woman, long hair down to her shoulder blades, boney, gaunt—dressed that day in a slate colored shalwar kameez, silver bangles jangling on her wrists keeping time with the rhythm of her voice—a dust colored landscape of an architect's tools of trade spread out around her: maps, rolls of drawings, a large drafting table. I can never forget that moment–up there on the rooftop–the settlement of Orangi all around–the hills right there—clay colored. Welcoming, happy—graceful, passionately focused Perween Rahman with a tinkling voice… completely content and excited with her work—completely in her element, in her place, with her world spread out all around her, planner of all she surveyed, completely committed to what she was doing–changing the lives and living conditions of an entire locality—and later the entire city and towns and localities around the country–then an experiment in self help, self finance and governance in the times of a military dictatorship when the country was afloat and awash in foreign aid.

Perween it was clear then as it was in all of the last three decades, that you were having the time of your life! The first time I met you I could not help notice the sound of your voice as though your whole being and body were one instrument which sang because it was in its element, in the right place, bent to the purpose and meaning of what you loved. Your whole being hummed and sang and pulsated, breathing in the city spread around you, breathing it in and breathing out to it your commitment and love.

From that rooftop, then, Perween pointed out the lay of the land—there over there the main line—there over there the lanes that connect to it—notice these gutters beginning to be put in over there—and over there the households with home based schools, and over there those who borrowed micro credit and sewed cloth bags on piece rates for factories, notice the trees in every courtyard. And that afternoon, trying to absorb it—as I followed the arch of her direction, I looked out over the edge of the rooftop and saw the settlements, as an overwhelming rilli spread, I saw chaos where she saw simplicity and a finely organized intricate ecosystem of relationships. I had a sense of her complete confidence and unconditional belonging there and my own distrust of myself and my place and when I got home I wrote the Prologue and Epilogue of my first novel Mass Transit.

Perween understood that, all agency, was in people, in us. She understood this as an article of faith: that the collective cannot be destroyed. That it is made of love.

Perween was an architect and an urban planner. A keen observer of natural processes in communities and the environment she practiced and shaped an approach which was based on the understanding that social behavior, attitudes, politics, power, emotions of love, hate, greed and murder are determined and effected by physical structures. And the other way around. She practiced conversation, a constant conversation, and understood its constant tension which requires a careful cultivation of symmetry and an aesthetic of sympathy. She spoke the language of structures, of architecture, pipes, and gutters, beams and mortar, bricks and cement. She understood that civil works depended on the workings of civility and the meeting of interests of masons, dalals, land grabbers, land sellers, bricklayers and money lenders. She knew the legal and historical importance of mapping and documenting and the enabling activating power this could have when it was in the hands of the people.

She had studied over three decades the cause and effects of a sudden fire or disaster in a locality where sanitation and water pipes of the city did not reach—a fire in an unregulated settlement and the land grab that would soon follow in its wake. How greed initiates violence and disasters. And she set about helping localities and settlements regulate themselves—lane by lane house by house, mason by mason, dalal by dalal. She understood and practiced the concept that the key ingredients of positive change were organization and the harnessing of skills and interests—into collective action. It was never about the injection of money—it was about shifting the conversation from resistance to a natural flow in the direction of organizing—–it was about shifting the conversation and actions from money to what really mattered.

And the powerful centers of money which tried to speak to her in terms of “targeting” the poor, and other such brutalities, she politely refused their advances, inviting them instead to stay and learn from the Orangi Pilot Project's approach of managing and implementing and creating meaningful change and cost effective services at a fraction of their inflated cost calculations.

Perween, the architect reminded me of a potter who touches clay in motion, gently placing her finger along its rotating surface on the wheel, a gentle, still manner, changing the shape, defining it with the natural flow of its own movement. She watches the movement. She observes with one purpose, to observe, to first do no harm. And later she taps the vessel, finding the exact points where, if tapped it rings and sings.

Perween carried forward the torch of collective action based on observed reality using the flow of natural forces for meaningful change, lane by lane, gutter by gutter, lateral pipes and mains one at a time. Organizing, training, documenting.

Perween was not given to vague concepts and paragraphs of confusion of “doing good”—of “protecting the needy, the vulnerable”. She was the superlative member of a beloved group of likeminded torch bearers, mostly architects and urban planners and others.

There are parts of the world where the wealth of a person is measured by the number of people who come to the funeral–the number of people who truly mourn the passing of a person measures their wealth. It cannot be bought, it cannot be paid for. It is not about money. It is a currency of kindness. The greater the kindnesses, the more, one matters, and the greater the mass.

And the funeral for Perween would have reflected the mass she has created that she was always present for. Pity those, who were absent at her funeral.

We remember a person in fragments. We rescue what's stolen or shattered in fragments. Piece by piece we rescue. Thousands will do that for you and I want to do that too. We met last on February 16, 2013 as you came out of the book launch for your sister's book Of Martyrs and Marigolds. A hug, a kiss, a holding of hands. See you soon yaar! Perween you live on.

On the flight from Karachi to Lilongwe I had contemplated the theater that the clouds present and had wondered if this was what after all becomes of us—air and shimmering clouds. I must've landed in Malawi, just at the time when your spirit would have taken flight in Karachi. I received the news of this a few hours later. And as the night progressed, I lay on the bathroom floor in the intervals from when I hugged the porcelain belly of the toilet bowl, watching the yellow bile I vomited make its way down into its depth, thinking only: This cannot be.

“Buy”, the saying goes, in places where they leverage and arbitrage “When there is blood on the streets.” Perween, your blood, makes for a buyers paradise. You blood makes things more exciting, more interesting, more attractive, more irresistible as a sale. In a barrage of bullets; in a hail of bullets; it's a barn sale of assets. In the parlance of places where profits are made and asset values are too attractive and interesting to be ignored, public sector asset prices are so low that it is a bonanza of easy pickings—of land, utilities, power and water, you name it. There's a city with a blood splattered sign board across it, “Closing Sale! Everything Must Go at Rock Bottom Prices”.

And you are dead. Murdered. Can this be? No. No. No. The bullets that killed you, killed Karachi too. You had taken on forces too ugly to sit back and let you. Land mafias don't take kindly to the meticulous detailed documenting of their land grabbing. So you were murdered near a police station.

Don't get confused, I'll be scolded, this is about extremism. Yes. Don't get it wrong, I'll be cautioned, this is about mafias, including land mafia. Yes. Don't get confused, I'll be informed, this is about too many weapons. Yes. Don't get confused, I'll be told, this is about money. Yes. Whatever it is about—Perween, what those brutes don't know Perween, is that they cannot touch you. You are. You will be and you will grow. Your gentle, unembittered, uncynical, unsarcastic, laughing brilliant self, will be a way of being. Your laugh, your voice, your way of being, your work—your serious, systematic approach to planning will continue through thousands of practitioners who've learned from you. You achieved in your life time of fifty six years what most never could even begin to grasp in many, many more years.

Yours is a life lived well. Yours is a life complete and fulfilled. A life full of love and friendship, a life of purpose and of living and working on the principle of first do no harm. Well done Perween! And you, Perween, are pyar. You create, you inspire, you build—you mobilize activate, you motivate, still, you go on. You regenerate.

Perween you are epilogue, you are prologue. We must all die. The difference between you and most others is, that you will live. Perween, you will live on in memory, forever at the height of your achievements, forever brave, forever true.

Perween, sister, daughter, aunt, teacher, colleague, friend and a mother to an entire city and movement you are indeed an architect and a planner. You knew the structure of where you would live. You knew the shape of your house: Our hearts.