Ode to Karachi

Southasia - - Book Review -

Ti­tle: Look at the City from Here – Karachi Writ­ings

Editor: Asif Far­rukhi

Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, Pak­istan (March, 2010)

Pages: 295 pages, Pa­per­back

Price: PKR. 625

ISBN: 978-0-19-547369-8

In the editor’s own words: “The ink and pa­per route is the most dif­fi­cult one for any­body at­tempt­ing to en­ter Karachi.” But in­deed it was the most ex­cit­ing one, es­pe­cially for a city “that boasts no an­cient lineage.” ‘Look at the City from Here’ is edited by Asif Far­rukhi, a renowned trans­la­tor who has to his credit com­pi­la­tion of sev­eral an­tholo­gies of Pak­istani writ­ers. The com­pi­la­tion of es­says, sto­ries, po­ems, let­ters and travel ac­counts takes the reader back in time when Karachi emerged from the sea and sand to be­come one of the world’s largest cities, a me­trop­o­lis bustling with eco­nomic and cul­tural di­ver­sity.

‘Look at the City from Here’ speaks vol­umes of the te­dious task of com­pil­ing a huge se­lec­tion of writ­ings and fea­tures writ­ers and po­ets as di­verse as T.E. Lawrence, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Amar Jaleel, Tau­fiq Rafat and Kamila Sham­sie. Their cap­ti­vat­ing ac­counts take the reader to dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods, trac­ing back the his­tory of Karachi city from the 19th cen­tury to the cur­rent times. This an­thol­ogy presents many moods and fea­tures of the city which are in­ter­est­ing in them­selves and col­lec­tively high­light many re­al­i­ties and mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties of the city.

A very im­por­tant point that Far­rukhi raises in the first chap­ter is that in spite of hav­ing had a glo­ri­ous past, the city lacks his­tory. Un­like other cities such as La­hore or Pe­shawar whose “ori­gins are lost in the mist of leg­ends,” or the “mon­u­men­tal cities of gi­gan­tic books from Paris and Balzac to Dick­ens and Lon­don, Joyce and Dublin, An­drei Bely and St Peters­burg to Cairo and Naguib Me­hfouz;” Karachi has had no lit­er­a­ture to boast of and no lit­er­ary sta­tus like Delhi’s Dabis­tan or Luc­know’s Um­rao Jan Ada and nei­ther any poet to have used its name as his nom de plume.

And yet Karachi has many sto­ries to tell. Her­bert Feld­man in his ‘Karachi Through A Hun­dred Years’ nar­rates: “…its be­gin­nings are traced, with­out dif­fi­culty, to the time, two or three hun­dred years ago, when the mouth of the Hub River, and the nav­i­ga­ble chan­nels of the In­dus Delta, be­came suc­ces­sively un­suit­able for ship­ping by rea­sons and the mer­chants of those days trans­ferred them­selves to the nat­u­ral, land­locked har­bor which lay be­tween the is­lands of Manora and Kea­mari.”

An­other in­ter­est­ing as­pect that the book high­lights is the name of Karachi which evolved grad­u­ally along with the city which was a wel­com­ing host to lo­cal fish­er­men, trav­el­ing mer­chants, Hindu traders, English of­fi­cials and the In­dus dwellers. In the lo­cal ver­sion, from a fish­ing vil­lage orig­i­nally named Dirbo, the city, a sand dune with a large pool of water in the vicin­ity started to be called Kalachi which later trans­formed to Kalachi Jo Goth. Pop­u­lated by a Mus­lim ma­jor­ity who had also ruled the re­gion from the twelfth cen­tury, the is­land grad­u­ally be­came the cen­ter of trade and fi­nance, largely dom­i­nated by Hin­dus, by the eigh­teenth cen­tury. And from here on­wards the small vil­lage, home to fish­er­men, started at­tract­ing mer­chants from far and wide – and ac­quired a cos­mopoli­tan char­ac­ter which made it a rather unique city in Sind. This unique­ness brought with it sev­eral ver­sions of English and Por­tuguese names, un­til Sind Gazetteer an­nounced in 1913 that: “…the new gate of In­dia is now des­tined to be KARACHI…the most pro­gres­sive and the most vig­or­ous sea­port in Asia.”

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