The other day someone told me that they lived in a gated community and I asked, “which one?” and they named a lane on Karachi’s Zamzama Boulevard.
Now calling a road with a barrier at one end and a rifle-toting security guard at the other a ‘gated community’ strikes one as highly pretentious and a tad bit delusional. Definitions are important and people try to fudge reality by putting gates wherever they can find space in order to project privilege. A gated community is not just a place. It is an attitude. It is a way of life defined by exclusivity and entitlement that only people of quality can engage in.
And all people of quality are well-versed in the art of keeping everyone else out. My gated community. It is a pocket of prosperity into which entrance is devilishly difficult and exit is massively annoying. In fact, you can ascertain its importance by counting the number of non-residents arguing with the guards at the gate, trying in vain to get in without handing in their identity cards or car papers which are invariably lost or misplaced on the way out. I do confess feeling proud when a notice in my colony declared that the number of shouting matches and fist fights per week at the entrance was on the increase. This is wonderful because it tells me that undesirables are not allowed in so I am secure and more important than a whole lot of other people because I have entry clearance and they do not.
In addition to rules of access, the thing that makes a gated community important, and I mean of real consequence, is how many poor people it has displaced. People can’t just settle wherever they want to. Land is expensive and it belongs to those who can afford to pay for it.
So the people who have been forced to move, generally pick themselves up and settle as close to their original homes as possible. Which means that gated communities invariably end up coexisting with slums or shanty towns, which is another way to tell them apart from other impostor settlements. Contrast is important and often it is stark.
Outside one gate of my colony lies a jungle of concrete littered with garbage, where fruit sellers perch sardonically, watching like vultures the inhabitants in their expensive cars turn their noses up at the smell and disorder they have to traverse in order to access the world outside. Outside another gate, broken roads are flooded by gutter water. Carts sell stained blankets and soiled gao takyas (bolsters). Afghan boys, the ones who haven’t been deported, pick at the trash that we have thrown. All this is completely unnecessary and shows bad planning — after all, didn’t the planners of the Icon Tower complex build a flyover to bypass the vulgar hordes milling around Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazar? One hopes future projects can also replicate this mode where the poor and the rich don’t have to see each other at all and therefore neither is vexed by the other’s presence.
But that is the story outside. Inside, a housing project usually has all the basic amenities: grocery stores, water-filtering plants, meat and fish shops, dry cleaners, beauty parlours and the well-stocked pharmacy so that residents seldom need to venture out into the confusion of the rest of the world. Bigger schemes tend to include cinemas and golf courses but these are a bit vulgar — rejecting the intimacy of a small exclusive gated community for the inclusiveness of a mini-city.
I don’t mean to sound trivial but you can also judge the properness of a gated community by the animals it shows off. I’ll have to admit some jealousy when I found that Bahria Town Islamabad has African parrots, deer, camels, pedigreed dogs and a llama. I’m going to start a petition to acquire some more exotic wildlife for my gated community: we need to up our game in this respect.
In a land of haves and have-nots, a gated community is the ultimate haven of the rich and infamous. A lot of people resent gated communities and I understand their point of view. I even encourage it. After all, even public resentment is the cornerstone of privilege.
This article was published as part of a special editorial project '2016 In Broad Strokes' for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is the author of How it Happened.
The artist is a graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore.