Karachi has changed circa 2008. The de­tri­tus from the war on the bor­der flowed down­stream. Turf wars are now rou­tine.

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Many cities are founded by gods, heroes, con­querors but Karachi emerges from noth­ing, from sto­ries. There are sto­ries about Ram and Sita so­journ­ing in a ver­dant cove that would be­come a can­ton of the city. There are sto­ries about a wan­der­ing Sufi who set­tled by a creek and in time the lice he shook from his head meta­mor­phosed into crocodiles. There are sto­ries about some nat­u­ral calamity, an earth­quake per­haps, that com­pelled the in­hab­i­tants of nearby bastis to pop­u­late the scrim of coast on the Ara­bian Sea that is now pop­u­lated by some 18.2 mil­lion souls of­fi­cially ( 21 mil­lion un­of­fi­cially).

Karachi is vast and var­ied. It might rain in Orangi but it re­mains sunny in Pipri. There might be street bat­tles in Lyari while fam­i­lies pic­nic on the sea­side at Sand­spit. There are Balochi neigh­bour­hoods such as Raza­qabad where women are holed up in dull, con­crete, sin­gle- sto­ried struc­tures, and can­tons that in­clude McNeil Road where Chris­tian ma­trons wan­der on the streets in skirts. Any at­tempt then to dis­till the city into dis­course is fraught, if not al­ways fu­tile. One might be­gin with one’s own story, one’s own Karachi.

**** My grand­fa­ther ar­rived in the city not long af­ter the sud­den, sun­der­ing in­cep­tion of In­dia and Pak­istan. He would wind up in a onebed­room, ground- floor por­tion of a semi- de­tached house in Pa­posh Na­gar that fea­tured low ceil­ings, flimsy doors, paved con­crete floors, and de­spite the se­hen in the back, could feel some­what claus­tro­pho­bic. The house­hold com­prised some 15 mem­bers then, many of whom sprawled on char­poys un­der the sky at night be­cause it would be warm inside.

Re­cently, I vis­ited Pa­posh Na­gar af­ter an eon. When I ar­rived, the cu­ri­ous neigh­bour­hood chil­dren, toss­ing a wiz­ened tennis ball, in­quired af­ter me, and when I told them my grand­fa­ther lived here, they in­formed the land­lord’s wife of my visit. “My hus­band’s at the shop,” she said, hand on hip— the same shop his fa­ther ran half a cen­tury ago.

We used to look up to the land­lord, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively: He lived above us, he owned real es­tate, ran a busi­ness. Whereas there were times when my grand­fa­ther would not be able to feed his eight chil­dren and would have to dis­patch them to his in- laws. My slight, un­schooled, sar­i­clad, Purbi- speak­ing grand­mother, how­ever, made cer­tain that her chil­dren were ed­u­cated, that they worked hard, that they ex­celled.

Con­se­quently, in the span of a gen­er­a­tion, al­most all her chil­dren moved from one part of town to the other. They would be­come doc­tors, en­gi­neers, char­tered ac­coun­tants, bankers and one joined the for­eign ser­vice. Al­though my grand­fa­ther died in a rented house, his sons would, in time, pur­chase land, build homes, make a life for them­selves.

**** The story of Karachi is a story of im­mi­gra­tion. Af­ter all, save the crocodiles at Mungho Pir, there was noth­ing to Karachi 300 years ago. But when scat­tered com­mu­ni­ties of fish­er­men con­gre­gated in and around Karachi, the Baloch rulers of Sind took note. By the 18th cen­tury, the lat­ter tried to cap­ture the emer­gent trad­ing post thrice. Karachi­wal­lahs only re­lented in 1795 on the con­di­tion that the Baloch would not en­ter town. As a re­sult, the con­quer­ing force set up camp along the Lyari River— the sec­ond wave of im­mi­grants to the city. In 1800, Karachi­wal­lahs threw out the small British con­tin­gent that had set up a fac­tory within the town lim­its. The denizens of Karachi have al­ways been hardy and fiercely in­de­pen­dent.

The third wave of im­mi­grants came af­ter 1831, af­ter the bloody bat­tle at Miani where British forces slaugh­tered 10,000 lo­cals to se­cure Sind. They were Parsi, Goan, Lo­hana, Bohra. Last month, I met with the Bohra Lanewal­lah clan, one of the old­est ex­tant fam­i­lies of Karachi. They owned vast swaths of real es­tate once, in­clud­ing the spec­tac­u­lar Sayfi Apart­ments, home to many of the city’s Jews. At one junc­ture, the Lanewal­lahs were among the most pros­per­ous fam­i­lies in the city. Things, how­ever, have since changed: The Jews have packed up and the Sayfi Apart­ments have frayed. The dy­namic of im­mi­gra­tion is straight­for­ward: Each wave dis­places the last. And each community grates against the other, then co­ex­ists.

There are pe­ri­ods when other im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties are at dag­gers drawn— Mo­ha­jir, Pathan, Balochi, Sindhi— fol­lowed by pe­ri­ods of rel­a­tive amity. In the last decade, Karachi mostly flour­ished. Trash was col­lected. Parks sprang up. Roads, wa­ter lines were laid. Above all, law and or­der was main­tained. In 2001, for in­stance, the homi­cide per capita rate in the city was lower than Bos­ton, than Seattle. Things changed circa 2008. The de­tri­tus from the war on the bor­der flowed down­stream. Turf wars be­came rou­tine. This sum­mer, Lyari, a trou­bled can­ton ruled by feud­ing mafias ( much like Don­gri), went up in flames. The day I be­gan writ­ing this piece, 12 died in what news­pa­pers term “tar­geted killings”.

Lyari, how­ever, is also renowned for its soc­cer play­ers, snooker play­ers, box­ers and beer halls. Since I en­joy beer, I had tried vis­it­ing sev­eral times but each time I at­tempted I was told “it’s not such a good time”. Dur­ing the soc­cer World Cup, how­ever, Pax Lyrar­i­ana was de­clared. Mas­sive screens were set up ( re­port­edly 26 al­to­gether), cour­tesy of the reign­ing don, Uzair Balouch. Thou­sands spilled on to the streets, some swill­ing beer, all cham­pi­oning Spain. ( When I asked a Makrani boy rais­ing a large yel­low flag, Why Spain, given the ex­pul­sion of Mus­lims, the in­qui­si­tion, he thought­fully replied, Yes, but they still have Mus­lim blood in them!)

At half­time, I was sum­moned by Uzair. I expected a large, fear­some char­ac­ter. In­stead, I found my­self face to face with a hand­some, soft- spo­ken fel­low about my age, sport­ing a Brazil jersey. “You’ve come from out­side,” he said. “Tell them to give us money for our sta­di­ums, for the youth.” A stone’s throw from Lyari is Lee Mar­ket, an an­i­mate com­mer­cial mecca of the city, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from tea and tinned prod­ucts to nuts and dry goods. In of­fices the size of clos­ets, Me­mons, Pun­jabis and Pathans con­duct trade worth mil­lions of ru­pees daily. And they will tell you that Uzair’s men run a mas­sive ex­tor­tion racket. One pow­dered milk mer­chant in­formed me, “Once upon a time the MQM col­lected bhatta. But they left it. Maybe they have other things to do.”

**** There are other sto­ries, other dy­nam­ics that in­form Karachi but rou­tinely es­cape dis­course. Once I vis­ited Qazafi Town, a far- flung can­ton pop­u­lated by Waziris, Pathans who hail from the trou­bled bad­lands of the coun­try bor­der­ing Afghanistan. Had I walked into a home in Waziris­tan ( es­pe­cially be­ing a Shia), I might have been deemed wa­jib- e- qatl, or “li­able to be killed”, but in Qazafi Town I was in­vited into a co- ed home- school by two young women. Their mother, a tough ma­tri­arch, sat sur­vey­ing her do­main on a char­poy, while their brother, a bearded char­ac­ter with his shal­war above his an­kles, was on his way to the mosque around the cor­ner— ru­moured to be pa­tro­n­ised by the sec­tar­ian ter­ror­ist out­fit, Si­pah- e- Sa­haba. How, I won­dered, did he al­low the school to func­tion?

I learned that af­ter his fa­ther’s death, he be­came re­spon­si­ble for three women. Con­se­quently, when ap­proached by a lo­cal start- up NGO, he made an eco­nomic de­ci­sion, not a reli­gious one: By al­low­ing the home- school, his sis­ters would re­ceive a salary, free med­i­cal treat­ment ( via a monthly mo­bile health clinic) and the school— his house— re­ceived floor mats, a wa­ter cooler. In a few years, he changed the way he lived and thought, the way his peo­ple lived and thought for cen­turies. FLAME,

the or­gan­i­sa­tion fund­ing the homeschool ( and hun­dreds around the coun­try), is char­ac­ter­is­tic of the pri­vate so­cial ini­tia­tives that de­fine the life of the city. A stu­dent leader Adeeb Rizvi, built SIUT, a free, world- class kid­ney hospi­tal from scratch. A group of busi­ness­men that in­clude Jameel Yusuf founded the Cit­i­zens Po­lice Li­ai­son Com­mit­tee, an in­sti­tu­tion cited by the UN as a model for crime preven­tion. Hu­man­i­tar­i­ans such as Akhter Hamid Khan, a pi­o­neer in microfinance and “bot­tom up community de­vel­op­ment”, and Ab­dul Sat­tar Edhi— founder of a so­cial wel­fare pro­gramme that op­er­ates the largest am­bu­lance ser­vice in the world, not to men­tion or­phan­ages, clin­ics and women’s shel­ters— have been No­bel con­tenders. Where the state fails, Karachi­wal­lahs pick up the slack.

**** Un­like Lahore or Is­lam­abad, Karachi is not pretty. It’s a rough and tum­ble mega­lopo­lis like Sao Paulo, like Mum­bai, that fea­tures a hardy, dy­namic pop­u­lace. Karachi­wal­lahs make Karachi Karachi. The city is pop­u­lated by thugs and hu­man­i­tar­i­ans, busi­ness­men and nov­el­ists. No other city in Pak­istan ( or say, Aus­tria for that mat­ter) could sus­tain some­thing like the Karachi Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val. No other city can boast weekly qawwalis and mushairas as well as art exhibitions and plays. Karachi has changed dra­mat­i­cally in three cen­turies and will continue chang­ing at the same pace. Whether it will change for the bet­ter or worse is a mat­ter best left to pun­ters and po­lit­i­cal pun­dits. I need qawwali, a plate of ni­hari and the en­ergy of a mega­lopo­lis.

Like my grand­fa­ther, I might not own any real es­tate in the city ( or, for the record, any­where else), but I have carved a life for my­self here. As a sto­ry­teller, Karachi fas­ci­nates. There’s a story un­der ev­ery stone.

H. M. Naqvi The writer is an award- win­ning au­thor of Home Boy. He lives in Karachi. His next novel, to be out in 2013, is set in the city.



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