In the City by the Sea…

Published in Us Magazine, The News International. July 20th, 2012.

“Karachi is my city, my home. I was seven years old the first time I set foot on its soil. It had been until then an imaginary homeland, a figment of my dreams and thoughts. It was a home I knew through other’s stories, longings, and poetry. On that first trip home, I knew I had fallen in love.” – Fatima Bhutto.

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And so it was on a day of sweltering temperature last month that I found myself roaming amidst the sights, sounds (and smells) of Karachi. The reason: cousin’s wedding; and I can never help wishing we had a lot of cousins scattered all around the globe, and who married often; because that’s about the only time we get to travel as a family. The moment you step upon the ground of Karachi, there is an upsurge of grand sensations ascending through your being, which, anyhow is pretty normal considering that Wikipedia insists Karachi to be ‘the largest city, main sea-port, main financial centre of Pakistan, most populous city of Pakistan, the world’s 10th largest urban agglomeration, Pakistan’s premier centre of banking, industry, economic activity and trade; and the world’s largest city in terms of population…’ (Breathing).

I’ve been to Karachi only thrice in my life. Amongst which the first time doesn’t count for then I was a four-year-old dumb kid and all that I remember of that particular visit is a mammoth-sized, yellow balloon that my mom bought me in Karachi. (Reason for that visit: cousin’s wedding). The second tour happened about four years back, and the reason was (guesses, anyone?) again my cousin’s wedding. (Bless my cousins!). That time I travelled across Karachi absorbing all those things I had never seen before; a baby’s first step, if you may. This time, however, my tour of Karachi was more observant, my analysis and interest in the only city of Pakistan that aspires to be a world-class centre. Lo and behold readers, an outsider’s view of the city of lights (without electricity)…

The sea…

For outsiders, it is no less than a crime to talk about Karachi and not to talk about the sea; and not to talk about the sea first. Choosing from the array of possibilities that Karachi is envied for, the sea invariably tops the list. And a lot of sea, that is. The beaches in Karachi are as diverse as the city itself, presenting to the visitors a healthy assortment of vistas to select from. There’s Clifton, most visited, most-celebrated and most-polluted. And Sea-view, the ‘in’ thing now, with its serene sea that recurrently throws out heaps of sea-shells and the impressive boasting of flood-lights that illuminate the waters in the darkest of all hours. And Manora, where the sea, being the sea, strikes livid against the shore; embellished with the plethora of ships that come and go, and such scratchy sand that makes you bleed. And Hawkes Bay, the anti-social member of the league of beaches, a favourite for couples and families to rent a sea-side hut and enjoy the tides in intimacy. The same Arabian Sea wears so many different facades while traversing towards its specific shore. Each beach has a story to tell; distinct from its counterparts…

What happens in Karachi…

A lot happens in Karachi every day. Some stays here, some doesn’t. Belonging to the latter is the revenue generated by Karachi, which accounts for 70 percent of the whole country’s, and it is anyone’s guess where that goes, for the Karachi Stock Exchange continues to hit rock-bottom. Upon the roads in Karachi, the traffic is mind-numbing. But the good-news is that Karachi’s drivers are less reckless, less horny (those who horn less) and more ethical than those of many major cities. (Lahoris, specifically, should take notice!). Karachi (at least, it seemed to me) doesn’t have much to see in terms of historical architecture as about all of that in Pakistan comes from either the Mughals or the British, and none of the two seem to have much affiliation with Karachi. But Karachi is the Quaid’s city; where he was born and is buried; his tomb nestled magnificently between patches of pavements and grounds. And a little known but amazing locale is the shrine of Mangho Pir, abode with a number of crocodiles that rarely attack human beings. (Google the Pir’s story if you please, it accounts for some interesting reading). For those interested in buying, Karachi is a shopper’s delight. Enormous malls dot the city besides the numerous markets. And all those ship-fresh commodities unpack in Karachi and are up for sale before they are sent off to other cities of the country. And food. Karachi’s spicy, sumptuous cuisine and street-food is something no one would want to miss. For all those who think that it’s only Lahore that’s head-over-heels for food, try Karachi…

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Of paans, gutkas, suparis…

Almost every rickshaw, taxi or bus-driver you meet in Karachi struggles against a mouthful of these products while speaking. And from what I’ve seen, there are more paan-shops in Karachi than, say, the posters of Altaaf Bhai. But putting a paan is nothing that I have to contend with, the basic problem arises after the paan has been neatly placed between the teeth and gum. As I was standing one day in the street with my cousins, a flurry of paan-spit descended from the skies and landed right on my head. But judging from the look of it, my head wasn’t the only thing affected. Streets, roads, buildings, walls; all in Karachi are amply decorated with red-brown, ambient paan stains. It will be wrong to allocate tobacco a status anything less a food-supplement in Karachi. It’s not only the rains in Karachi that come without a warning and pour wildly, the paan-spits can never be ignored…

And Abays, Arays and Urdu…

Most of the Karachiites you meet converse in such impeccable Urdu that at times you wonder if you even know Urdu at all; as they love sprinkling their talks with such ‘adabi alfaaz’ and ‘muhavaraat’ that you thought existed only in pre-partition, Maulvi Nazeer Ahmed type novels. It’s hard to digest at times, but also quite satisfying that as long as there are Karachiites, Urdu will be in safe hands. And the expression, comprising interesting slangs like ‘Abays’ and ‘Arays’ is also something exclusive to Karachi. (Not to mention the Abay Sa****). And the accent; the amusingly admirable inclusion of tongue-twisting in words where it has no purpose. (KaraNchi, anyone?) For all those toiling in Urdu masters, shift to Karachi. In weeks, you’ll have pure, exquisite Urdu running though your veins.

And ‘Bidaai Sweet Supari’…

Do as you please; laugh or cringe. But one thing that I derided about Karachi was heavy influence by Indian media. It is one thing (embarrassing enough) to see your country remaining glued to stupid Indian soaps. And it is another thing (even more embarrassing) to see products based on the same soaps selling in your cities. When my cousin told me that Karachi bazaars sell suits named after Indian-soaps’ leading ladies, (Kumkum, Tumtum and the likes) I didn’t quite believe her. But when I went to a road-side stall to get myself a drink, I found myself being stared at by two ladies clinging on to each other; one black, one white. On focusing, the view cleared, and atop those two ladies was the name of the product printed in shimmering golden: ‘Bidaai Sweet Supari’…

Vampire Diaries – Karachi version…

And then, it is also unfair to scrutinise Karachi from every angle and not to write about the creatures that the Karachiites can relate to the most. Precisely, those blood-sucking, shiny-black, cousins of lice – Khatmals! It was the first time I saw the very things I’ve been hearing about all my life, and at once popped out my camera to take a picture. (To the utter disgust of all my family-members). Talk about culmination!

The city for all…

And Karachi sure has something which no other city in Pakistan even comes near to. And that is the cultural diversity. People of different, varied races, histories and origins become one in Karachi. And everyone gets his own space. Being the only true cosmopolitan of Pakistan, you get a flavour of every other metro in Karachi, and a huge number of migrants. You find both, an impressive skyline and lush villas that exude opulence; and poverty-stricken slums full of indigence. That’s how Karachi is: welcoming, nurturing, tolerant and accommodating…

The city for none…

But there is another force at hand in Karachi that perhaps is not so welcoming, and that is politics. The political influence in Karachi is also marked if compared to the rest of the country. For their own ulterior motives, the politicians of this country are ever-ready in spewing hatred, inciting ethnic violence and massacring Karachi. And that is when Karachi turns from a heavenly abode to hell. From a loving mother to a loathing enemy. And this cycle of violence never ceases, it keeps on visiting often. And unless the dirty politics of this country are dumped in garbage-trucks and send off to incinerators, Karachi, unfortunately, shall continue to suffer…

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The story of a mayor…

It doesn’t matter which political party you side with or which political ideology you denounce, if there’s one person who the whole of Karachi unanimously hails, it’s Mustafa Kamal. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor can be Karachi. But in the short span of time that Kamal had as his tenure, he did for Karachi what perhaps outshines all that has been done in the rest of the years combined. For Karachi; Mustafa Kamal, you’re the man!

God’s own city…

And Karachi, after all, has another identity. It’s God’s city. Not only because it happens to be the capital to the province that is still redolent of Sufi teachings and love. Not only because many different religions cohere in Karachi to bow before the divine; for Karachi is the most tolerant city of Pakistan, where subscription to any faith is respected. But also because that is what Karachiites believe. That it is God’s city because it lives after the greatest of tragedies, that it is God’s city because in case of the contrary, there’s no possible explanation of Karachi’s survival given the repeated blood-shed and tyranny. That it is God’s city because He himself expresses his wrath over the evil in the city. The temperature never gets this hot in Karachi. It is God’s wrath upon the city for the cold-blooded murders and throat-slitting of innumerable innocents in the past days…? – I was told. And finally, it is God’s city because this is the wisest and dumbest explanation of the madness that is Karachi.

Our own city…

Karachi, in so many ways, is very different from the rest of Pakistan. And in so many ways, very like the rest of Pakistan. The city has many faces and unveils a particular countenance only to those whom it wishes to. Karachi is quite a safe place, much like every place in Pakistan is. Karachi is not at all safe, much like no place in Pakistan is. The city is breathtakingly beautiful from one angle and humidly ugly from another. But despite all this, Karachi continues to evolve; resume its struggle to survive and prosper. Every morning in Karachi dawns with a new beginning. Every morning, the city of Karachi wakes up to the smell of salt and fish and the sea, and the news of new-business centres or fashion outlets springing up, with the news of violence and stench of blood intermingled harmoniously. And every morning, our city by the sea starts its life anew…

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One thought on “In the City by the Sea…

  1. I read these blogs about the cities the other day and really enjoyed them. Thank you for giving me an insight into these places, they sound beautiful and interesting 🙂 InshaAllah next time I’m in PK I’ll get to do more touristy stuff and see these cities!

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