Ode to Karachi
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
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.”