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Karachi: a night’s journey into Time

February 23, 2014
File photo
File photo

When Karachi sleeps, time folds back on itself. As nightlife stirs in quiet bonhomie, its old quarters have nothing in common with their daylight avatars. These magical dark hours before sunrise, as cool gusts of wind sweep across a metropolis in deep slumber, is when one finds its past — a past that awakens as a long day dies.

It is 3am in Ramaswamy and Ranchore Lines; the air is laden with smells of food, occasional whiffs of cigarette smoke, but not a hint of fear. Echoes of yore amplify as one wanders through taut meshes of nerve-like passages that seem exhausted by their own daytime frenzy.

Strains of mellow songs mingle with low tilawats emanating from different thresholds; the doors of most homes stay open with fluttering curtains, and clusters of young men dot various street corners, sharing midnight feasts, cups of tea and backslapping humour.

These neighbourhoods are clearer in the dead of the night than under the blaze of the sun. Almost every second door harks back to the 1800s; many floral motifs on stone dimmed and chipped by eras, and plaques bearing dates from 1920s appear as imprints of forgotten times. However, the pre-dawn mood and ambience pays them a well-deserved homage.

Interestingly, the overarching modern facades are dulled by the night and their surrounding scarred buildings come to the fore like warriors of time, ablaze with more life, light and character.

The plastic baskets strung on long ropes, left dangling from balconies above, to be filled with condiments for breakfast at daybreak make for the quaintest of images. And where the rock stairwells to upper apartments are hostile to navigation — tight, airless and occasionally held up by wood — their inhabitants are far too hospitable at such an inconvenient hour. They belong to various faiths and are, therefore, awake for various reasons. Young mothers with infants insist on making tea and conversation; older ladies look on with cordial caution and the men offer to run down to procure hot samosas.

The dhabas, milk and paan shops below throb with activity: “Yehi toh asli time hai bikri ka,” says a rotund, dhoti-clad Ramesh as he chomps on paan and presides over his teashop.

On another end sits a meat vendor and I overhear a wonderful banter: “Bhaiya, subeh daawat hai toh achhi kaleji dena,” demands a woman who is up to prepare a Sunday morning feast.

“Yehi hai yahan. Apna kaleja de doon?” pat comes a flirtatious reply from the old butcher and as I burst into peals of laughter so do the shopkeepers and residents around me. It’s a street classic and no amount of rehearsed street theatre can capture the raw spontaneity of roadside wit.

To an outside eye, these places are portraits of misery — misery in the living conditions, in the squalor, in the dank homes. The people, however, put affluence to shame. They only speak about getting ahead, their aspirations for their offspring and above all, about abandon.

“Raat ko hum sab miltey hain aur achha waqt guzarta hai,” says George, a young mechanic. He explains that most inhabitants work in hospitals and government departments so their waking hours are spent on duty, which is why they turn to the night for amusement.

The sky is now streaked with lashes of orange and shopkeepers scamper around making their final sales before they close for the day. On the other side, lights begin to twinkle in windows and balconies; bearded men line up for their turns at street taps as they make their way to the small mosques in the vicinity and an ancient pocket, inhabited by lower caste Hindus, buzzes with action.

This is the neighbourhood of Narainpur in Ranchore Lines where tall silhouettes of Meghwar women in bandini saris and ghunghats meander in and out of various doorways getting breakfast together, bathing their children in narrow by-lanes and arranging morning prayers as the fragrance of oil and incense rises in the air.

The call to Fajr prayer, church and sunrise ritual bells ring out in harmony, but the long demolished Megan Shalom Synagogue, once on nearby Jamila Street, is still missed.

These quarters present journeys through clammy mazes of constricted passages where hovels compress so tightly that light can barely filter in. In parts, it is as damp and humid as a rainforest. As the sun comes up, traffic smog and bleats with blankets of black flies change its complexion and it loses the night’s ancient charm.

However, the squalor has light within. In the day, it lumbers on. And at night, it refuses to dispel its fantasies — a testament to Karachi’s pluralism and fortitude.