The K Word

Originally published in Us Magazine, The News. 5th February, 2016.

“We all knew it would start up again—the shootings on a massive scale, the unnatural silence in the evenings, the siege mentality—but for the moment, for today, Karachi was getting back to its feet, as it had always been able to do, and that didn’t just mean getting back to work, but getting back to play: friendship, chai, cricket on the street, conversation. I couldn’t help feeling that, in the midst of everything that was happening, Karachi had decided to turn around and wink at me. And in that wink was serious intent: yes, the city said, I am a breeding ground for monsters, but don’t think that is the full measure of what I am.” – Kamila Shamsie, Kartography.

Academic discourse on Karachi, arguably about the most important city of Pakistan, is thriving like ever (as usual) to agonising degrees. Books, documentaries, op-eds; the city has been garnished aplenty with all (with most telling us there’s no hope for the city). But while strategic experts and cringe-worthy TV anchors dive head first into ‘objective’ reporting on the city’s affairs, they often neglect the spirit of the city. The usual sights, sounds and smells that form the defining feature of any city are just so convenient to brush off when it comes to Karachi. But, beneath the gloomy reporting and exaggerated doom, this city remains, quintessentially, just another mega city. And so it took me just a while to realise that when you’re in this city of 24 million, it’s rarely about the headline inspiring events than it is about the very basic street life. Mad, energising and lively. Here’s presenting you some impressions about Karachi, as seen through my small-town eyes…

– The smell. Karachiites have lived with this smell, a peculiar delicacy of Karachi, for so long that they only notice its presence when it’s absent. A malignant amalgamation of salt, sea, garbage, excreta and possibly mangroves and palms; the aroma hits you right in the head as you land in Karachi, ferociously brushing against the inners of your nostrils and swirling your entire olfactory apparatus into motion. It only lasts some hours, though, thankfully, and then your standard response to anyone complaining about stench comes out to be, “Smell, what smell?!”


– Karachi is essentially the only cosmopolitan city of the country (the only other city aspiring for this status is perhaps Islamabad, and we all remain hopelessly undecided on the character of that one, except that it’s for the newly-wed and the nearly-dead!). You will find all religions sprawling comfortably in Karachi: Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis existing like one. The communities are just as diverse, Bohris, Ismailis, Memons, Gujaratis, Biharis and of course the Sindhis, Punjabis, Baloch, Pathan and Urdu-speakers (and a lot of other names I saw on the buses and made mental-notes to remember, but to no avail). It reminds you of our innate capacity of tolerance. However, the distinction of the city among ethnic lines is troublesome, and especially with regards to certain no-go areas. (“We are nearing Surjani Town now. Hide your phone. We are nearing Lyari now. Hide your head!”)

– Speaking of which, street crime is just as rampant in Karachi as the abundance of streets. But the thing that impressively outshines thestreet crime is the abundant talk of it. A number of my family members living in Karachi have had to bid farewell to their mobile phones and wallets, with a gun as the back-drop of the tragic scene. But you know, just like your house help that you know to embezzle every now and then; Karachiites have pretty much acclimatised to this demonstration of giving alms to all those who ask. But for all it’s worth, I was thankfully spared this exercise of self-purification. Life goals: travel through Karachi without getting mugged: check!

 

– Malls dot the city like crazy. No other city of Pakistan even comes close to Karachi’s solid association with the erection of high-rising shopping malls. They are everywhere and gainfully visited. You might easily navigate through Karachi avoiding some dangerous area, but to be in the city and shun all malls is downright impossible. Also, if you ever get lost in Karachi, the odds are in favour of you having lost your track in a multi-storeyed building than having been abducted by a militant outfit.

– The only other thing that marks itself to such overflowing amounts in Karachi is Altaf Hussain’s face. It’s the eternal eye of Sauron in Karachi, watching you everywhere; never letting go. From micro-fashioned, sparkling pictures to put around your neck to life-sized posters that would give Lollywood posters psychosis, Altaf bhai can be found at every nook and corner of Karachi. And more often than not, the image is presented with effective accompaniment of cheesy Urdu verses, all in Bhai’s tribute!-If your taste buds have lived in a relatively safer environment for their previous life, train them to get brawny. For Karachi loves topping up all its cuisines with a lot more spice than is the daily recommended allowance. From the uncanny street-side drink called ‘Limca’ in Sindhi Muslim Society (which comes in a number of flavours, all of them tasting like sweep) to having wait-till-I-burn-you Fish Karaahi in Port Grand, it’s an ordeal for your buds all the way. On a serious note, corn is just not meant to be spiced up, ever. It’s sacrilegious.


– How Karachi totally, desperately, longingly needs a mass transit project. Despite there being no new project on the cards for good, even plans to revive the Circular Railways have faced the axe. While Lahore is bracing itself for the second one, a train after the buses, Karachi seems to be content with its objectionable intimacy with W11. Okay, those things are great, but probably for heritage tours or something. Or the Karachi Museum, in all honesty!


– As Pakistanis, we perhaps find it a little inconvenient to not have a local mother-tongue. Accordingly, when Urdu-speakers of Karachi have only Urdu to express themselves in, it gets a little surprising (but also turns out to be exceptionally well for the survival and propagation of the language). And the only thing I have to contend with is how most Karachiites have to confine themselves to Urdu even in moments calling for sterner expression that’s typical of local languages. The paternal and maternal members of my family resort to Hindko and Punjabi when especially angry, sad or abusive. Urdu definitely remains the most spoken, and easiest language for us, but it’s too sophisticated to be used as slang – especially for swearing. Seeing Karachiites manipulate Urdu to all their needs is definitely an experience to learn from.

– The shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, cloaked as it is in the fables, of protecting the city from sea-storms and floods; and how it remains eternally in a state of construction. This time, as is true for the last one, development projects are in works around and in the shrine. It’s a little disconcerting to see the shrine shrouded by heaps of concrete all around, but then there are the pigeons. And those things, with their automated flights and springy motion, remain the only reminder of this place’s promise.

– The Rangers’ check-posts in Karachi, though a recent addition to the city’s landscape, are nevertheless among the most conspicuous ones. And the public opinion in Karachi relies heavily in favour of the Rangers, most concerned about their powers being snatched and the reversion of Karachi to chaos. So it’s all good, besides just a little hiccup. Since my photoreceptors are screwed up and can’t delve much into colours – I won’t go about the fancy details, but did the Rangers really need that paint company to put its ad so brazenly on the check-posts? Of all the outrage directed at some local films regarding in-your-face placement of ads, some could’ve been rightly re-directed here!

– Just sit back and relax while I take you with me through Karachi’s exciting, often contradictory, nomenclature. Teen Hatti has got a lot more shops than three, Khamosh Colony craves like a lunatic for even a hint of silence and there’s almost nothing new in New Karachi. There is no Sri Devi vulgarly dancing away her life in body-clinging clothes at Nagan Chowrangi and no soldiers to speak of at Soldier Bazaar. Now for the strong-hearted: Golimaar, Mukka Chowk, Do Talwaar, Teen Talwaar and Katti Pahari! And then we complain about Karachi being violent!

 

– Paan is to Karachi what spinach is to Popeye: sacred, indispensable and omnipresent. As I’ve written before, it’s wrong to allocate tobacco a status other than a food supplement in Karachi. Almost every person you talk on the roads of Karachi to usually listens to what you’re saying, then leisurely decides on either swallowing or spitting out the red liquid that’s already formed a tsunami inside his mouth (his ultimate choice being the latter), and then replies with a crimson tongue. And I’ve always wondered if this is due to paan and gutka overdose that Karachiites have been programmed to producing unusual sounds, like putting an ‘N’ in Karachi.

– If you like to write every now and then, or are fond of videography; Karachi astounds you with the massive, untapped potential it has. There are layers of stories in Karachi waiting to be told, just too impatient to take a form and greet the world. Sadly enough, this diverse side to Karachi has never been explored, even amateurishly. Pakistani TV doesn’t seem to be coming out of household stories anytime soon, and our film is only beginning to survive independent of a ventilator – but the reason for our literature ignoring this side of Karachi is confusing. Of all I’ve read, only Kamila Shamsie has been able to bring the real Karachi to paper, and boy, how brilliantly she has! Add her ‘Kartography’ to your to read list if you haven’t already. And just in case you’re wondering, Saba Imtiaz and Bilal Tanweer both have failed miserably!

 

– Karachi, our Gotham, needing a Batman jokes are so yesterday now. But if Karachi needs anything else, it’s a Commander Safeguard. The city needs an Operation Clean-Up (no political connotations intended) on urgent basis. Barring the up-scale neighbourhoods near the sea, most of the remaining Karachi (which also forms its plain majority) remains entangled in bonds of dirt and mess. The last time I visited Karachi, in the lingering shadows of Mustafa Kamal’s tenure, things were a lot better – and have palpably been on the down-hill since.

– How the sea constitutes an integral part of every Karachiite’s individual identity, yet always remaining on the outskirts of personal preferences. In all the Lahore vs. Karachi city wars (which I have no intention of instigating, but definitely have a say about), the latter always use the sea as their ultimate stroke and usually the winning one too!

– The disconnect that exists between different neighbourhoods of Karachi is remarkable. This, ostensibly, can be found in any city with the dimensions that our city by the sea boasts of; but owing to the ethnic and linguistic boundaries within Karachi – the disconnect here is often impersonal. Sohrab Goth might be burning, and Defence would be excessively occupied with shopping in its impressive Sunday bazaar (the closing of which, unfortunately, has left a vacuum in Karachi’s weekend to-do list). Quaidabad would be brimming with milad’s lightning and mehfils; and Clifton would be breezily doing its own thing. And this perhaps is essential to Karachi’s survival, and its distinct identity as a city of such supreme madness and potential!

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