Ustaads, Shagirds, and the Drudgery and Virtuosity of Breakdowns and Repair
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Maintenance and repair work constitute an important part of a thriving urban life, in this case, in Karachi, Pakistan. The connection between breakdowns, and repair and maintenance practices is looked at along with evaluating the promises around development and modernity. This is done by understanding the work dynamics of the ustaads and shagirds who form the backbone of all kinds of repair work. In urban Pakistan, infrastructures are often presented as failing or breaking down. In Karachi—a city of 25 million and Pakistan’s largest metropolis—power breakdowns, acute water shortages, broken roads, overflowing sewage, crumbling drains and burst water pipes frequently bring the city to a grinding halt. During the monsoon season, this breakdown is particularly apparent as torrential rains capsize drains and water inundates roads and lanes across the city. As the crisis mounts, typically it is the Pakistan Army that is called in to organise rescue operations in areas severely affected. However, such portrayals, like those of other infrastructures such as waste (Butt 2017) and electricity, are “somewhat deceptive” (Anwar 2015: 10). Roads and electricity feeders do get repaired, and waste does get collected. Yet, the breakdowns are continually an object of critique about state administrators, politicians, and labour. Noteworthy in these moments of breakdown are not the success or failure of infrastructures, but how they continually exemplify promises around development and modernity. As certain scholars have underscored (Harvey and Knox 2015; Stoler 2008), those promises are what imbue the banal activities of infrastructures with such strong affect around breakdowns.