In solidarity with the human umbrellas of Kolachi

Published: January 21, 2016
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One of the benefits of poverty is that labour comes cheap. Our concern is the dignity of the worker. PHOTO: KOLACHI FACEBOOK PAGE

Yet another grainy illustration of wealth inequality in Pakistan has left many Pakistanis on the internet shaking their heads in disappointment, if not shaking their fists in full outrage.

A viral photograph on social media shows the diligent waiters of Kolachi taking ‘customer service’ to a new level. The servers are seen forming a short cordon around a table, holding umbrellas over the seated patrons on a rainy evening.

For some reason, this modern re-enactment of a scene from Mughal-e-Azam is being praised by some on the internet as a sign of dedication to the customer. Kolachi was ‘prepared’ for the sudden downpour, because how could a restaurant have so many matching umbrellas in its possession at the right time, by sheer coincidence?

But that’s not something I’d consider ‘being prepared’. Preparedness, for me, is having a ceiling of some kind, a stylish fiberglass roof; a sloping wooden panel; an inexpensive tarp that may be quickly installed; a large outdoor umbrella with a stand that could be sprung open when it pours; or maybe a glass ceiling like the one Kolachi’s waiters, among the entire lower-middle class, are constantly bumping their heads against.

Surely someone in the management would’ve guessed that the sky of Karachi isn’t a static, blue canopy like a painting on the wall, and precipitation may occasionally ensue. The weather is just weird that way.

This is still a more manageable oversight. How does Kolachi deal with the lack of seating on busy days, I dare ask. Does it force waiters get down on all fours to make human chairs for the customers?

Does the establishment keep spare light bulbs in case one fuses, or is the doorman limber enough to hang upside-down from the ceiling with a torch between his teeth?

Do they own a coat-rack or… you get the idea. The possibilities are endless.

The restaurant’s defenders are eager to point out that this mini-outrage over the image is baseless, as the waiters were paid for their labour. We don’t know exactly how much they’re being paid, but let’s assume that they are being well-compensated for their work in Kolachi as human furniture.

But that’s not precisely what the backlash is about. With enough money, you can discard the chair you’re sitting on right now, and hire a homeless person with a sturdy back to serve as your new stool – like Sacha Baron Cohen in the film Bruno. One of the benefits of poverty is that labour comes cheap. Our concern is the dignity of the worker.

So should we be outraged?

Let’s acknowledge that being part of a social network isn’t simply about being a conduit of provocative information. It is not simply about grabbing pitchforks and asking,

“Who do we hate today?”

Primarily, it ought to be an opportunity for us to examine ourselves, and our own conscious and unconscious biases against the most vulnerable members of the society.

When I see this picture, I see two groups of humans; the first, enjoying its time in a fancy restaurant, insouciantly spending more money in one sitting than the servers earn in a week; the second, whose survival depends on providing comforts to the first group, often at the cost of their own personhood.

The picture shows two groups of people within inches of one another in physical space, but so many miles apart in terms of power, that one can literally just use the other as his personal umbrella stand.

This is not a society where we serve each other. This is a society where the lower class serves the upper class, with no expectation of having those comforts reciprocated.

It may well be ‘trivial’. But every thread in a tapestry of oppression is trivial on its own.

It might not be cause for outrage. But it just might be cause for self-reflection.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    I feel, considering the circumstances involved, you have gone a little overboard.
    The SUDDEN rain squall was completely unexpected…….in that situation the management of Kolachi were not caught flat footed, they responded and in my view providing shelter under umbrellas to the restaurant patrons was commendable.
    If one has to bring up human dignity….what about the deaths of infants in Thar…ONCE AGAIN.Recommend

  • Gullu, Guddu and Somnath

    Where is this ugly restaurant? Has to be in Punjab. Only in Punjab you have
    this treatment meted out to the poor. They even shoot innocent people, for no
    reason at all. Like the Model Town Massacre. Or Christian Couple burnt in
    a brick kiln. Only in Punjabistan. Land of the Sharifs. Sole propriety owners.Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    What is the whole rage about? Pakistani restaurants are not designed to meet code and safety standards because that means taking away the unique design and attractiveness each restaurant has to offer and making them look plain and dull like the eateries in Canada. Yeah sure they dont have to worry what to do when there’s a snowstorm or rain but its depressing to have a dine out experience in restaurants in Canada because its just BLAH.

    In Pakistan, people want to have a proper dine out experience. So what if there was one unexpected rain in the middle of the dinner? Surely the food was already there and people had started to eat as well. What do you think the staff should have done? Tell everyone to go home.

    It was just a once in a while incident and it was a unique way to show fabulous customer service. Its not some lower class restaurants, it is catered to elites so elites have extra high standards to be catered to.

    But yes I do agree it shouldnt become an everyday thing or everytime theres a freakin rain. Be prepared for it in the future, put up tents or have people move in doors. But I truly believe this was just a one time thing and in spur of the moment holding umbrellas while people were dining was the best solution they could have come up with.Recommend

  • Fahad Ali Khan

    Social Justice Warrior at work.Recommend