Freedom on the Line

Pakistani fishing communities struggle inside the nets of bonded labor

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All night it had rained: a furious, unseasonal rain from a wavering sky. God had lost all sense of proportion, the locals said, like a bus driver who crawls on a highway and flies over a speedbump riddled road. But the morning was clear, and the water in the river, swollen with run-off from the bordering mountains, swirled under the bridge and toward the silt ejector.

Here stood the fishermen, a dozen or so of them. Their shalwars, rolled up to their knees, ballooned on the surface of the water; their steel matkas gleamed in the sun. Nets emerged endlessly, like handkerchiefs from a magician’s breast pocket. Sloshing through the water, the fishermen stretched them taut across the channel. Then they waited. Hunting fish near the silt ejector, which flushes sediment back into the river, is against the law. But so are many other things.

From atop the bridge, a man watched the fishermen. Minutes passed. The men in the water stirred back to life. Men is a misnomer, really: many were little boys, helping their fathers and uncles and grandfathers. It was late April, nearly the end of the fishing season, and the river was mostly full of jhalli, a slender, inconsequential fish—small fry. Jhalli doesn’t fetch much in the market. The fish has too many bones: spiky ones that scratch the throat and feathery ones that tickle. Once dead, though, the creature is obliging. Its flesh flakes away easily from its spine and can be eaten with a smattering of salt. Upstream, in another language, jhalli means happy-go-lucky girl—unacquainted with the ways of the world, or perhaps just unbothered by them.

The jhalli in this river had likely already skirted death many times. Depending on where their journey began, they had survived the plunge from the spillway of Tarbela Dam, which stuns some fish and decapitates others; they had swerved past the moving gates of multiple barrages; they had dodged the jaws of bigger fish. The hulking Mujahid is a particularly pesky fellow-traveller. The story goes that it was introduced into local waters from China by Zia-ul-Haq in the eighties, who named it after his pet jihadi fighters in Afghanistan; the fish grows fat preying on native species—an allegory with the blunt force of a spillway plummet.

How had it come to this, that men and women fishing all their lives could barely eat fish themselves?

If a few jhalli managed to escape the meshy embrace of this first net, they would meet others up ahead. All along the Indus river—as it flowed south, swerved west and south again, a watery curlicue on the map of Pakistan—men and women were crouched on boats and banks, nets cast, waiting.

The fishermen by the silt ejector began plucking fish out of their nets. They tossed them into matkas or flung them onto rocks, where the fish flopped and flashed silver as life juddered out of them. The little boys kneeled into the water and felt along the edges of the channel with their hands, under stones and in crevices, to yank out any jhalli wedged there. More fish meant a little more money. Meanwhile, the man on the bridge kept watching. Some nets are less visible than others.

Banquet of Hunger

Sonaar Mallah liked to talk. His voice rose suddenly, like a flock of birds exploding into flight—and a soliloquy on the fish in the Indus, catalogued by weight and diet and bone density, spilled out: “Now, when it comes to taste, the number one fish is rohu. The king. Then, you have the viziers: morakhi, dambra, thaila. There is also mallhi. Yes. That’s good, too. Jhalli is smaller, but it has more heat to it, more heat than other—”

“He’s come up with an entire underwater court,” joked a neighbor.

“Jhalli is very good when you fry it,” offered Bashiran Mai. If her husband’s tongue ran a mile a minute, she was more reticent. Her voice was unexpectedly shrill, like pots clanging.

We were gathered under a Peepal tree in Sonaar and Bashiran’s courtyard. Reed baskets swung lazily from its branches; fishing nets drooped on a nearby clothesline. A little monkey loped up and down another tree trunk, straining its chain, scowling. If you cut out a map of Pakistan and folded it twice, horizontally then vertically, the center point would be somewhere near where we sat: Basti Allahwali, or Settlement of God, near the city of Taunsa. Originating from the same root word as thirst, Taunsa is an odd name for a city by the river—especially one as formidable as the Indus. It is even odder if you consider the name of the province in which Taunsa is located: Punjab, literally translating to “five waters.”

His train of fish-filled thought interrupted, Sonaar paused, looking troubled. He turned towards the family members and neighbors huddled around him. Flustered and conspiratorial looks were exchanged. Then he turned back towards me. Some fish could be arranged, should be arranged; it would just take a little time but really, no, no, it was no problem at all. This was the opening act in the tableau between guest and host, enacted endlessly in deras and dining rooms across South Asia.

Technically, Sonaar was telling a white lie. Most of the residents of Basti Allahwali were fishermen, among the oldest inhabitants of the region, but they could seldom eat fish themselves or offer it to guests. What they caught was the property of contractors, local businessmen who held exclusive rights to the river and who paid the fishermen puny wages. Still, Sonaar smuggled home the occasional jhalli: he would slip it beneath his clothes or stuff it under his cap, dangling it triumphantly before his family before dinner. The risk was absurdly high. The fishermen were supervised at all times by the contractor’s henchmen; if caught in the act at work, they would be fined an amount worth months of wages.

This was the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario involved being pinned to the ground and lashed. Or perhaps it was the other way round. A beating was brief, after all. A fine dragged you deeper into the quicksand of debt, setting you back months, if not years.

“I’d have fried some for you,” said Sonaar regretfully. “Fish I caught with my own hands.”

From Debt to Death

How had it come to this, that men and women fishing all their lives could barely eat fish themselves? The fishermen of Taunsa were unanimous: they blamed the contract system, promulgated into law in 1961. Though colonial legislation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did not tightly regulate access to the region’s rivers—they were more concerned with banning explosives, poison, and other harmful fishing techniques—unofficially, the colonial logic of revenue extraction was more or less in practice. In post-independence Pakistan, the contract system has been formalized—ostensibly to raise revenue for a cash-strapped young nation. Every summer, the government divides the rivers into distinct parcels of waters, selling fishing rights to the highest bidder. All fish became de facto property of the winning contractors, so local communities—who had been fishing in these waters for centuries—are left with no choice but to work for middlemen, instead of directly selling their catch in the market.

The contractor dictates the terms of this relationship. He decides how much to pay the fisherman for each kilo of fish caught—and it is nowhere near a livable amount, swiftly ensnaring fishing families in a vortex of debt. Consequently, the contractor governs every aspect of a fisherman’s life. He floats loans and directs fishermen to handpicked local stores, where they are provided rations at inflated prices, which they agree to pay off through their labor; he even arbitrates family disputes and arranges marriages. Debt doesn’t end at death; it passes on to the next of kin. An estimated six hundred thousand fishermen live on or along the fiver rivers that flow through Punjab. Today, the majority of them labor under this form of debt bondage.

This is why, in lieu of fish, Bashiran had brought out a hookah. She set it by the charpoy, and drew a long, gurgling drag. Her husband was a sinewy man with jittery energy; she was rounder-faced and slower-gaited, with pensive eyes and a dawdling smile. In local and imperial lore, the fisherwoman is a fiery, resolute figure. She suffers no fools: the sun is setting, her wares are perishing, no time for dithering. An entire corpus of eighteenth-century illustrations depict London “fishwives” as exemplars of the working class, a foil to the feeble English elite. In one cartoon, a flotilla of exasperated fisherwomen sail across the English Channel to invade France, while their prime minister watches sheepishly from his castle. One of them grins jauntily, chin raised, hands on hips: We’ll pepper you scoundrels!

Closer to home, the fisherwoman is at the at heart of the founding myth of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, now home to over fourteen million. A long time ago, one leapt into the sea to yank her son from the clutches of a fish and gave the city her name. Of the seven folk heroines of the land, one is a fisherwoman: Noori, who married a king but remained wedded to her old way of life. (Her tomb lies in the center of a lake.) But when the nineteenth-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, fluent in twenty-nine languages yet a racist extraordinaire, chanced upon the fisherwomen of the region, all he could see was their sun-seared skin. “Macbeth never saw such hags,” he wrote, “as you see in the old Mohání.”

Bashiran, grandmother to dozens, was a more modern heroine, made for less mythic times. There were no sea-monsters to slay now, no kings to marry. But there was a high-walled edifice hundreds of miles away—the provincial high court—to which she travelled the previous summer and on whose door she had knocked, to ask: Does it have to be this way?

This was in August 2018, the start of the fishing season. Arrangements had been made for the yearly auction of the Indus waters—tender notices published, bids by local bigwigs prepared—when Bashiran, an unlettered woman of few words, filed a writ petition with two others, challenging the very premise of the contract system. After all, why should the river and its riches belong to the highest bidder? Why should a middleman profit off their labor?

The high court judge admitted the petition. As proceedings commenced, he issued a stay order: the legal equivalent of a time-out, no action permitted while the case was underway. The government, against whom the suit was filed, could hold no auctions, sell no waters. Over the years, attempts to overturn the system had failed. But with one high court judge’s signature, and the sheer pluck of three individuals, the fishermen were all suddenly, wondrously, but possibly only temporarily, free. The system was effectively suspended.

Conscripts of Modernity

There are more than eighteen million bonded laborers in the world, according to the researcher Siddharth Kara—over four out of every five in South Asia. There is no consensus on why this form of entrapment is most prevalent here. The most common explanation, invoking the caste system, feels unsatisfying—after all, an economic and social underclass exists everywhere, at risk of being sucked into a spiral of debt and control. Debt bondage has historically occurred throughout the world: sharecropping in the post-Civil War South, manorialism in medieval Europe, similar set-ups in the Japanese shogunate, in ancient Egypt and in Rome. More recent examples of forced labor from outside South Asia include the continuing use of convict labor in the United States; Canada’s seasonal guest worker program, involving seasonal migrant labor from Mexico and the Caribbean; and the resurgence of the gangmaster system in the UK, which provides seasonal labor to the agriculture, shellfish, and processing and packing sectors. Contrary to the assumption that a “fully functioning” capitalist enterprise needs free workers, these cases prove that modern markets can coexist, and even thrive on unfree labor. Today, profits of more than fifty billion dollars per year are made off the back of bonded labor.

For the fishermen on the Indus and its tributaries, debt bondage is not an ancient blight—it is a feature of the modern world. In fact, their ancestors had fished freely for centuries, as empires rose and fell around them, and the modern nation-state quaked into existence. Bashiran called her father’s Indus khulla, open, a descriptor more often used for the sea or the sky. The river was open in terms of both access and water flow—when the latter began to be regulated using dams and barrages, so did the former. In Taunsa, construction on the Indus began in the 1950s with the erection of a barrage, a dam-like structure that diverts river water into irrigation channels.

Taunsa barrage was completed in 1958. From above, it looks like a bracelet on a blue-grey wrist. The structure’s primary function is to divert the Indus waters into four major canals, but it is also a road and a rail bridge, a crossing for oil and gas pipelines, for telephone cables and extra high voltage transmission lines. Twentieth-century modernity in a nutshell.

A coastal fisherman near where the Indus river drains into the Arabian Sea once told me a story about the palla, which swims upstream to lay eggs. He said the fish changed color on its way there and back, from slinky black to spangled silver, and acquired a red smudge on its head. The fisherman believed it swam up the Indus to pay respects at the shrine of a river saint; the red spot was a tilak, the vermillion mark many Hindus sport on their foreheads. Fewer and fewer palla bore the tilak these days, he lamented; obstructions on the river had impeded movement of the species, leading to dwindling fish downstream.

For the fishermen on the Indus and its tributaries, debt bondage is not an ancient blight—it is a feature of the modern world.

As a result, the fishermen had begun moving instead. There are no official figures for internal migration but, in recent decades, a combination of river construction, floods, and water pollution has propelled tens of thousands of fishermen up the river in search of livelihood. Lake Manchar, to the west of the Indus, is one of the largest freshwater lakes in all of Asia—it saw a cumulative exodus of some forty thousand fishermen after a poorly planned drainage project turned it into a toxic cesspit. The catch plunged from three thousand tons in 1950 to less than one hundred tons today; at least fourteen indigenous species have been wiped out since 1930.

Bashiran and Sonaar moved upstream to Taunsa four decades ago. They lived on their boat there for years, and later squatted on government land. Sonaar remembers one night when, inexplicably, there was a hailstorm. His family cowered under their boat, as pellets of ice pierced the water and ricocheted off the deck. The nearby jungle was aflutter all night. In the morning, bird feathers lay everywhere, and the occasional severed wing.

Migrant fishermen from the lower Indus are often more susceptible to debt bondage. You need money, if only a little, to start a new life. You need connections. The most insidious part of the contract system is the gloss of choice. You signed, voluntarily. At the start of the annual fishing season, the previous year’s debt was carried forward. If there was a new contractor, he took over the total debt from his predecessor. In a sense, he bought the fishermen.

In fact, just last year, Sonaar and Bashiran’s youngest daughter Parveen and her husband had moved further upstream, hoping to catch more and bigger fish. By then, it had become difficult to make ends meet for their five children (and one more on the way) here in Taunsa. For them to move, however, the new contractor had to buy their debt from the contractor at Kot Addu, the tehsil (administrative division) Taunsa Barrage is part of.

The irony was that downstream on the Indus, in the province of Sindh, the contract system had been overturned by an act of provincial parliament in 2011. The fishermen there were free to fish for themselves—but there was barely any water and even fewer fish. So fishermen kept moving north to Punjab, willingly submitting themselves to a form of bondage. Now, however, there was a chance this might change.

Case dismissed

Muhammad Rasheed was a kumbaya sort of man, prone to schmaltzy proclamations. “God is love, and the best way to love God is to love His creation,” he told me, sitting in the office of the provincial fisheries department up the road from Basti Allahwali. It was raining again that April morning, with unseasonal, monsoonal fury. The sky flickered like a cosmic glitch.

Rasheed’s official designation was Fisheries Watcher, which meant he had to protect one godly creation from another. He was in charge of ensuring no one used explosives while fishing, no undersized fish were caught, and that the ban on fishing during summer months was duly observed, among other duties. He also often had to prevent fishermen from catching fish for themselves, perhaps the most troublesome part of his job. “The river belongs to God and we too are God’s men,” the fishermen would retort when thwarted. Rasheed never quite knew how to respond.

Freedom was a stretch, but something was changing, slowly but surely, a gradual shift in the balance of power.

When the high court issued the stay order, he found himself in an even more tendentious position. Stunned by the decision, the fishermen of Taunsa made photocopies of the order, six or seven hundred of them; someone hopped on a motorcycle and raced from one fishing settlement to another, gleefully distributing them. Not everyone chose defiance, however. The more cynical, or perhaps merely more practical, among the fishermen continued to work for the contractors, unwilling to rupture ties that they might later have to return to. But for those who didn’t, that first fishing expedition was akin to a pilgrimage, a blur of prayers and rose petals.

The contractors interpreted the stay order differently than the fishermen: they argued that no one could fish on the river while the case was being heard. Their deputies reported the independent fishermen to the police. The fishermen began to do the same. The lawsuit wasn’t technically against the contractors—it was against the contract system instituted by the government. But matters quickly devolved into a game of cat-and-mouse between the fishermen and the contractors, each party ratting the other out to the government, which assumed the role of arbiter. Each evening ended with a pile of confiscated fish at the fisheries office, slated to be auctioned off, the money rattling into government coffers or, more likely, into the private pockets of public employees.

A few weeks into the stand-off, the Kot Addu contractor’s henchmen visited the home of Ghulam Sarwar and confiscated his boat. (He retrieved it three days later.) Sarwar was the second petitioner in the case alongside Bashiran, an old man with eyes that were either river-colored or cloudy with cataracts, and a henna-stained beard so fiery it looked as if it must immediately be put out. The contractor claimed Sarwar still owed him one hundred thousand rupees—less than seven hundred dollars—on a loan he took out three years ago to build a new boat after the old one splintered to pieces. This uncertainty prowled the back of everyone’s minds—even if they were free to fish now, what about the debt that they still owed the contractors?

Sonaar and Bashiran’s daughter Parveen remained upstream, on a rakh in the middle of the river with her husband and six squalling children. The rakh is protected wetland, a rasping, rattling ecosystem unto itself, and hers was often the only family on the island. Shadows terrified her—was that the wind or djinns or wild animals? One seemed to have seeped inside her: she couldn’t dispel this sick, clenched feeling, a sediment-like weight in her chest. Was this postpartum listlessness or a premonition? “Just come back,” her brother would say to her, brimming with optimism he seemed to have inherited from Sonaar. “The contract will end!”

Freedom was a stretch, but something was changing, slowly but surely, a gradual shift in the balance of power. In some places, the contractors didn’t yield their hold over the water, but they did begin paying the fishermen more fairly. If fishermen were caught smuggling catch, they were let off with a gentle remonstrance rather than the usual blow to the head. The river, the fishermen said, was beginning to regenerate after years of overfishing.

But the stay order lasted only three months. In October, the judge backtracked, declaring that the contract system was legal after all. No doubt, he was worried the fisheries department was flailing financially without revenue from the yearly auction. The fishing industry in Punjab is conservatively worth $120 million each year, and at least $40 to $50 million of this comes from the yield of public waters. The leasing of contracts generates less than two million dollars.

The following month, the Indus and its tributaries in Punjab were auctioned off once again. For the fishermen of Taunsa, this was an unsettling blow. The courts were their last resort. They had tried lobbying politicians to pass legislation; they had worked with international NGOs who jumped ship when they saw no return; they had worked with activists downstream who had had succeeded in overturning the system in Sindh. They had tried rousing media interest and momentum for fishermen’s issues through public protests, in which Sonaar had been a star.

“All the reporters would say, uncle you do the talking. We want to hear slogans from you. So many requests! I was overwhelmed,” he told me demurely, then proceeded to reel off a sample of his all-time hits for my benefit, a giggling Bashiran prompting him. Many had advised the fishermen against approaching the courts. An unfavorable judgment would leave them with no standing. But ultimately, the fishermen had no choice left. Now that window seemed to be cranking closed, too.

Khadim Hussain, the lawsuit’s third petitioner, continued attending the proceedings in Lahore. Originally from a family of farmers, he lived among the fishermen after he’d lost his ancestral land to river erosion. “I don’t think the judge fully understood our predicament,” he said reflectively, from behind his thicket of facial hair. “Our lawyer would make these impassioned arguments, questioning everything, and the lady lawyer for the other side would just respond monosyllabically and—that would be that. I guess. . . the court is an institution, and the fisheries department is also an institution, so they understood each other. They were so focused on the revenue.”

The cruelest cut became apparent only later. Every year, a simple formula was used to determine the minimum price of each tract of the river: the average of the previous three years’ bids, plus a premium of ten percent. Because the bids were delayed that year, the government sold them at drastically reduced rates; all the best fish were gone by that time, the contractors justified—somewhat unconvincingly—but it was a buyers’ market. With the contract system reinstated for the foreseeable future, the next cycle’s bids would be the lowest they had been in a long time, dragged down by the deflated prices of the current season. The fishermen had only padded the contractors’ profit margins.

A Death in the Family

Weeks passed. One evening, a ripple of disquiet ruffled Bashiran’s household: her son Niaz Ali hadn’t returned home from gathering firewood. A search party set out towards the river, Sonaar leading, cellphones on full beam. They stopped near where small boats docked; a government monument stood to attention here, thanking Japan for bankrolling embankment repairs after the 2010 floods. When Sonaar trained the light to the ground, he saw footprints leading into the water. In that moment, he knew.

There was a barracks just off the bank and a paramilitary ranger emerged from its barbed depths to investigate the commotion. “I think my son might be in the water,” Sonaar told him. The ranger gave him an iron rod with a hook, a sort of reaching claw. When he cast it into the river, a bicycle emerged.

Sonaar began crying. He took off his kameez, preparing to jump. The others held him back: he would drown, too. My son, my blood is in there. He broke free and dove. The water was black and bitterly cold. His head felt as if it would shatter into pieces. He came up, spluttering. He dove again. Allah, you have taken my son. Now return him to me.

On the third plunge, his son’s body floated into his frantic arms.

Six months after the fact, Bashiran couldn’t recall the precise date of Niaz Ali’s death, but she knew exactly how much time had inched past since. Sonaar insisted the water had not killed Niaz Ali, who was born on the river, after all, raised by it. How could he drown in waters he traversed daily? Rather, Niaz Ali had been done in by a blow to his head. The bicycle he’d been riding had no brakes: as he skidded to a halt by the bank, his feet caught a curl of wire on the ground. He lurched into the river; his head hit something: a rock, perhaps, or a handlebar. That ended him.

This was the story according to Sonaar, and his neighbors were quiet as he told it. But there was a more hushed version of the incident too, implicating the contractor. No one had witnessed the fall—neither the boys at the fish-fry stalls up the road, nor the rangers at the barracks; moreover, the wound on Niaz Ali’s head looked suspicious, inflicted. People whispered that the contractor might have had him killed, to discipline the family for its audacity, to punish Bashiran for putting herself forward as a formal challenger to the contract system. But the stay had been vacated now, the contractor’s power reinstated. What would be the point of a such drastic move?

How could you continue to face the contractor, hand over your daily catch, meekly accept weekly rations, if you suspected he’d murdered your only son?

In a corner of Sonaar and Bashiran’s yard, the little monkey scampered up and down his tree, glowering. He belonged to Sonaar, who loved him with an intensity everyone else found inexplicable. I found it inexplicable, too: Wasn’t it strange that an unfree man himself kept another creature in captivity? Everyone else just found the monkey unpleasant. When he came untied, either by his own ingenuity or at the hands of a thrill-seeking child, they shrieked and scrambled for cover. Give him away, Sonaar’s daughters begged, or sell him for an animal that is actually useful: chickens, perhaps, or maybe a goat. Once, a wandering fakir offered Sonaar a great deal of money to no avail. Sonaar adored the monkey as if it were his own child, a joyful, irrational love.

It only occurred to me later that Sonaar’s refusal to sell the monkey was strange. Some might call it fiscally irresponsible. But really, what qualifies as responsible in a system designed to keep you trapped? If you had a fair shot, you might scrounge and save and crawl out from under the debt; but when the rules are so skewed, your choices change, too. Maybe this was why Sonaar chose to stand by a particular version of his son’s death—after all, there was no point in airing suspicions when accountability was unlikely. Or maybe he did believe the contractor had nothing to do with it. To think otherwise would mean his child had paid with his life for this struggle—and how could you carry on with that sort of knowledge? How could you continue to face the contractor, hand over your daily catch, meekly accept weekly rations, if you suspected he’d murdered your only son?

When Niaz Ali died, Sonaar and Bashiran’s youngest daughter Parveen was still upstream. She’d spoken to her brother three days earlier; he’d told her once again to just come home. That had taken on a new import now: they were his last words to her. She wept and wept, alone in the wilderness, bereft. Sonaar went to the contractor and kneeled before him. Would he consider taking on his daughter’s debt once more, so that she could return, so his grief-addled family could mourn together?

A few months ago, he had been brandishing a tattered copy of the stay order, thumbing his nose at the contractor’s henchmen. The contractor reminded him of this before relenting. Now, Parveen perched on the charpoy next to Bashiran and Niaz Ali’s widow, her children gathered close. The debt in question, transferred from one contractor to another, was a hundred and thirty thousand rupees— less than a thousand U.S. dollars. “I would have died weeping in that jungle,” she said, wide-eyed and glum. “At least now my parents console me when I cry. And I console them when they cry.”

“He didn’t have to do it,” Sonaar said quietly of the contractor, with the knowledge of a man who has come to expect nothing. “These days, no one spares you even five rupees. I am grateful to him. I am.”

Old Scripts, Old Masks

There were so many stories swirling about the Kot Addu contractor that he had, in effect, become “The Contractor”—a specter of greed, cruelty, excess. But when you thought about it, his power was precarious, hinging on a decision made long ago by state officials for reasons no could fully defend or explain half a century later. That was the problem in Pakistan, and perhaps the world over: things were so much more difficult to undo than to do. Did the contractor sense the ground shaking beneath his edifice of control? The next afternoon, I decided to pay him a visit.

This is what power looks like: everyone sticks to their lines.

Muhammad Khalid held daily court in his dera opposite the fisheries office, up a sludgy road from where Bashiran and Sonaar lived. A dera is a curious thing, neither a home nor an office, though it can sometimes be both. Simply put, it is a place where men hang out. Khalid’s dera was a squat cement structure with a courtyard full of tottering pigeons. Election posters curled on the walls, vestiges from a previous year; political meetings were also hosted here. Across the yard sat rusted weights and scales, piles of Styrofoam sheets; the daily catch of fish was weighed and packed here at noon, each fisherman’s labor assessed, his debt accordingly updated in the fat accounting ledger.

Khalid, a large man, spud-like in appearance, sat cross-legged on a charpoy, ringed by a nodding entourage. A car key fob and a calculator lay by his knee; his phone was so basic you could probably play Snake on it. This was his thirteenth year as a contractor, and he was thinking it ought to be his last. Because of the business with the stay order, fishing had begun later than expected this season, the peak months wasted, a significant monetary blow. As it was, there seemed to be fewer and fewer fish in the river each year. Perhaps the time had come to focus on other ventures.

I grabbed at this thread and pulled. What was the rationale for the contract system? Why couldn’t the fishermen work for themselves and pay, let’s say, an annual license to government for the right to fish? Khalid shook his head. It wasn’t just about the revenue. “The government can’t take care of the river. There just aren’t enough resources. That’s where we come in—we are the caretakers of the river.” “But there’s no contract system downstream, in Sindh,” I countered.

There were footsteps at the gate. Khalid glanced towards the entrance. “—ah, look. Here is a fisherman.”

I looked up reluctantly at this anthropological exhibit. It was Sonaar.

We greeted each other as strangers: nods both ways, an unfocused smile from me. He had come to request an advance from the contractor; one of his grandchildren was sick and needed medicine. Sonaar had impeccable posture, upright as a mast, but his clothes sagged on his frame, making him appear hunched. This may have been for the best: he came across as deferential.

Khalid smirked. “Sonaar is from Sindh. He’ll tell you what it’s like there.”

This seemed unnecessarily cruel, so I changed the subject. “Tell me this: why do so many fishermen find themselves mired in debt under the contract system?”

Khalid appeared pleased by this question. “Look,” he said with an air of camaraderie. “These fishermen, their way of thinking is not like mine of yours.” He uncrossed his legs, extending them on the charpoy. “We look at the width of the bed and spread our legs accordingly.” Tilting his head towards Sonaar, he mimed spreading his legs further. “They just want to eat. They know someone else will foot the bill.”

I couldn’t bring myself to look at Sonaar.

Earlier, a boy from the mosque had come to inquire shyly, his fingers in his mouth, if there were any fish to spare. No, there weren’t, but he should come back tomorrow, said Khalid. He often doled out fish at the end of the day, an act of charity that was, as charity often is, a form of absolution as well as invocation. But what was his favorite fish to eat? Khalid’s deputies offered suggestions—rohu, jhalli, the lovely-sounding gulfam which translates to “rose-faced”—then settled into silence, waiting for his response.

He pondered over this. “I eat the smallest fish,” he said demurely, a portrait of ascetism. “Wah, saeen!” his assistant exclaimed admiringly. He wasn’t finished. “—so I can sell the bigger ones.” The portrait dissolved, reconfigured itself.

There we were, stuck in an utter farce. Sonaar stood quietly. I sat, pretending not to know him. The contractor went on recounting his own travails, the ghost of Richard Burton seeming to rattle within him. For a few months, the scriptwriters had changed. Now, the old masks were back in place. This is what power looks like: everyone sticks to their lines.

Alizeh Kohari is a Pakistani journalist. She divides her time between Karachi and Mexico City. Her work appears in Harper’s, Wired, Caravan, and elsewhere.

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