IN THE TW ILIGHT ZONE
Karachi has changed circa 2008. The detritus from the war on the border flowed downstream. Turf wars are now routine.
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.
PEOPLE CELEBRATE PAKISTAN INDEPENDENCE DAYIN KARACHI IN 2011