One of Steve's friends was a cross–dressing Pakistani TV star who specialized in political satire, who spent the entire evening loudly mourning Benazir Bhutto, who for him had a kind of movie–star glamour. (Not everyone agreed, and several others pointed out that in Pakistan she had become a byword for corruption and unfulfilled promise.) His mother, a woman of formidable intelligence and alertness, was a former politician who now traveled the world sitting on the boards of multi–national NGOs, and was learning to play the sitar. Her other son was also a TV star, but of an ESPN kind, traveling around the region engaging in extreme sports for his own show. In the same room were also a glamorous transsexual and a small mop of a dog called Versace, and probably several others, but I was having difficulty keeping track: everyone smoked, everyone drank, and my protests that whiskey gave me a migraine were treated with polite disbelief.
The following day was sufficiently quiet and anticlimactic for Steve to decide that in spite of everything he would throw his traditional New Year's Eve party, if on a reduced scale. A dozen guests, maybe. A tradition to uphold, after all.
Wait, those aren't fireworks are they?
I was in no state to take part. By six in the evening I decided to retreat to my room, turn the light off and nurse my headache.
As the evening went on Steve periodically tapped on my door to make sure I was okay. I heard the front door open and close several times. Voice spoke, then laughed, then someone broke out the show tunes and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Cabaret" rose up the broad stairway.
I drifted in and out, then abruptly woke to hear the night being battered with explosions. Thinking quickly, I grabbed my watch from the nightstand. Midnight. Phew. It wasn't the armed uprising everyone was afraid of, after all, just the standard New Year's Eve fireworks.
But wait… Where was the usual whizz or whoosh before the bang? This wasn't fireworks—this was gunfire.
That fat, single Blat! close by must be a shotgun, maybe even next door. Those shorter, sharper percussions, coming in repeated pairs, must be a handgun, a few houses away. And that staccato drilling sound could only be a weapon on full automatic, firing off half a clip at a time, maybe down at the end of the block.
I leaned toward the window, straining to hear whatever was going on. I felt like a radar dish.
After a few minutes, I began to relax a little. True, I'd never actually been in an armed uprising, but this didn't sound like an armed uprising ought to sound. Every so often the gunfire was buffered by laughter or cheers. Snatches of casual conversation drifted in with the odor of sewage. No, I was pretty sure that what was going on was the old–fashioned way of celebrating the arrival of the New Year, the method that we have replaced by fireworks. All the same, I found myself wondering where all those bullets were coming back down, and I remembered that a friend of mine had been shot in the shoulder one New Year's Eve in Brooklyn, when a spent round fell right through her leather jacket.
And at the same time I realized that this couldn't possibly be an armed uprising for another reason, and in fact there could never be an armed uprising in Pakistan of the kind everyone was afraid of, the kind where the scruffy poor, finally sick of corruption and injustice, make for Clifton and Defence as if for the Bastille. That could never happen for the simple reason that the rich own all the guns.
The gunfire outside wasn't a sign that South Asia was turning into Beirut—it was the servants and the guards and, who knows, maybe even the teenage sons of the wealthy engaging in conspicuous consumption of the ammunition that was never in short supply. In fact, now I thought back to that first evening, the reason why the news footage showed people on the streets waving sticks and boards was a sign that sticks and boards were the only weapons they had. The serious weaponry was in the hands of the rich and the army, and it was a sign that the post-assassination threat was receding that those weapons were falling back into their roles as the heavy-metal toys of right-wing recreation.
I lay back in bed, and almost at once heard rousing New Year cheers breaking out in the living room beneath me, and up the stairs drifted the opening song from Hairspray.
To be honest, I detest show tunes. But as the house began to shake slightly with all the leaping and dancing downstairs, I couldn't help thinking that at least one small, eccentric corner of Pakistan was in safe hands tonight.
Tim Brookes is the director of the Professional Writing Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a longtime essayist for National Public Radio, and a writer for National Geographic. His book A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow was chosen by Booklist and the New York Times as one of the best travel books of 2000.
Photos by the author except where indicated.
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