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My Kolachi

Published Mar 29, 2014 06:57am


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OVER the years — and especially over the last decade or so — I have lived in different cities, but when somebody asks me where’s home, I always reply ‘Karachi’.

However, I must confess to a love-hate relationship with the metropolis. It is ugly, violent and chaotic. Hardly anybody I know has escaped being mugged at some point, and the piles of garbage on street corners are symbolic of the deeply dysfunctional nature of the city and provincial governments.

Each time I am flying to Karachi from England or Sri Lanka, when local friends ask why I’m going to such a dangerous place, I reply: “Because it’s home.” And yet the moment I land and turn onto Sharea Faisal, the main artery heading into town, I get deeply depressed at the sight of tatty apartment buildings with their peeling paint, and the plastic bags blowing by the roadside.

And yet life goes on. Friends seem glad to see me back. There are exhibitions and new restaurants to check out. I meet interesting new people at parties. Above all, there is the warm feeling of being home.

On my recent trip, my son Shakir recommended two new books set in Karachi that opened my eyes to aspects of the city I was largely unfamiliar with. The first one was Karachi You’re Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz, who, as a young reporter, gives the reader a unique insight into the bubble that is the Defence-Clifton area of the city.

Funny, sexy and irreverent, the book takes the reader on a rollicking tour of the party scene and the newsroom of a thinly disguised daily newspaper. Her send-up of ‘factory boys’, the vacuous heirs to industrial empires, is alone worth the price of the book.

The other book is bleaker and more edgy. Written by Omar Shahid Hamid, a serving police officer, The Prisoner pulls no punches in its vivid description of a city controlled by an ethnic party. The police and military intelligence agencies fight terrorists, and cynically play ball with them when the political situation so demands.

The prisoner in the title is a tough, ruthless cop, Akbar Khan, who closely resembles the late Chaudhry Aslam, sadly slain in a recent Taliban suicide attack. He is often used by military spooks to take on jihadis as well as militants belonging to the ‘United Front’, a familiar and much-feared ethnic party that cannot be named.

Anybody who has lived in Karachi will recognise the constant political interference the police has to contend with as it struggles to bring a semblance of order to the city. Arrested killers connected to the UF are let off, and the party’s ward bosses call the shots. The leader of the party is called the Don, who pulls the strings all the way from New York. No prizes for guessing his real identity.

The author also introduces a Sindhi political dynasty that is again very close to reality. In the book, Nawaz Chandio, the charismatic brother of Yusuf, the chief minister, is killed in a tragic — but accidental — shoot-out with the police. It is not difficult to spot the resemblance to Murtaza Bhutto’s shooting, and the conspiracy theories that it spawned.

Incidentally, the author’s father was Shahid Hamid, the MD of KESC who was gunned down near his house around 15 years ago. It was widely rumoured at the time that he was targeted for trying to rid the electricity company of redundant workers belonging to an ethnic party.

I mention these books in some detail as examples of the creative ferment going on in Karachi despite — or perhaps because of — all the violence and chaos. Other instances of this phenomenon are on display in the city’s art galleries and theatre. The Amin Gulgee Gallery is currently hosting works by over 60 young artists.

Culled from over 400 entries, the paintings, sculptures and installations represent a wide diversity of styles, influences and approaches.

Although a large selection like this is bound to be uneven in quality, I was impressed by several works that showed considerable talent and originality. Aptly, the exhibition is called FRESH! Many years ago, Eqbal Ahmed — whose columns once graced this page — said to me that Karachi was the only secular city in Pakistan.

And it’s true that after long stints in Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, I would prefer Karachi any day, despite its many problems and aggravations.

I suppose it’s inevitable that a huge, vibrant pressure cooker of a city like Karachi will produce individuals who refuse to conform and resolutely do their own thing. But though we have got used to the daily violence, I often long for the peaceful, tolerant city I grew up in. n

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Naveed Lotia Mar 29, 2014 07:46am

Interesting to read this after 3 weeks in Pakistan, with 2 in Karachi & 1 in Lahore. The difference between the cities was astounding; Karachi has become unbearably ugly and dirty with barely any municipal governance or quality control over building quality, maintenance etc. It was also mind boggling to see the number of posters, graffiti, wild electric wires and sign boards all over the city, with garbage strewn all over.

Lahore was very different by contrast and I was amazed at the difference between the 2 cities. Karachites really need to take ownership of the city; it has become a national embarrassment.

fida sayani Mar 29, 2014 09:16am

Decent, kind and law abiding citizens of Karachi were forced to flee after partition and that destroyed the soul of a beautiful city. This is the tragedy of KARACHI, SINDH.

Kaghan wala Mar 29, 2014 09:21am

Why is the author making sure that the reader knows he lives somewhere abroad? Is it England ? Is it Sri Lanka? What is the relevance to this article? How patriotic he is? or,...never mind the muggings, the filth and garbage up to the armpits, Chaotic. No law and order. Jungle rules apply. Apparently the author has not experienced a close one blown away by a blast. Shot dead because he was a Shia, or some other minority. If he had,.. his cloying love for Karachi would evaporate in a jiffy.

FIZA Mar 29, 2014 10:14am

Having been to many Indian cities, especially Mumbai and being a 4th generation Karachi-ite I must say Karachi is a great deal cleaner and aesthetically more appealing than Mumbai. Yes, as Mr. Husain points out, Karachi has its challenges - which large urban city doesn't? Yet it's a city with a gutsy vibe, and a magnificent heart and soul.

I've also lived in the West, and am presently a doctoral student in a large urban city in North America where homeless people, dirty trash and neglected inner city neighborhoods are not uncommon. So whether one is in Karachi or in an American city, it's really about the sights, sounds and aromas of all that makes up the uniqueness of Karachi.

Every time I return to visit family in Karachi, I feel incredibly proud of so many family members who've returned to serve Pakistan despite having lived the "good life" overseas. Whether they be ivy league educated physicians or highly successful IT entrepreneurs - nothing is more powerful than "home sweet home," and tirelessly serving the less fortunate in ones own majestic city.

Parvez Mar 29, 2014 01:37pm

Excellent read as always. My take on why its so is that the leaders of the political party's that matter ALL LIVE ABROAD..............they earn from Pakistan and spend time here out of NECESSITY, but in fact have their assets and live abroad. When leaders refuses to take ownership.......this is what happens.

layered squirrel Mar 29, 2014 03:01pm

@Naveed Lotia: You are only talking about the city management aspect. Iv lived in khi for 27 yrs and in lahore for 6 yrs. Lahore definitely has a better infrastructure but the ppl lack the urban touch that is sooo basic to karachiites. Lahori are lively but karachi is a very vibrant society.

fida sayani Mar 29, 2014 04:03pm

The writer I believe was a Pakistani bureaucrat, what contribution he provided to Karachi to preserve its past glory at the time of British Raj. It is typical of retired Pakistani bureaucrat and military officers to provide criticism of Pakistan current conditions. Where were they when they were in active duty? what did they do for the betterment of their country PAKISTAN.

pittmanway Mar 29, 2014 06:12pm

@Kaghan wala: fully agree,Mr.Hussain before also he has mentioned about life and living in U.K. and his culinary experiment and so on,please stop comparing but remain on subject only and it's easy for those people who has lived their part or even more than half of their life in Karachi or anywhere in Pakistan for that matter and then holding a foreign passport coming to Pakistan for short while and making comparison/comments please spare us and write which enlighten us rather than writing on critical perspective even how south asian/muslim living in U.K. everybody is entitle to think and live how they want to whether in east or west and there as long as they are not hindrance/interferance in other people life and they are law abiding citizen of that country.

Alphonso Mar 29, 2014 06:40pm

Irfan, you can pine and pine for that peaceful, tolerant Karachi you and I grew up in, but don't expect to find it in your -- and certainly not in my -- lifetime!

raufnizamani Mar 29, 2014 06:54pm

After all it is home. Cities pass through turmoils,wars and riots but survive due to the commitment and attachment of their citizens and hopefully karachi will do this. .

AdHawk Mar 29, 2014 08:14pm

For centuries the notion of the large metropolis has been the 'great equalizer'. When you move to the big city you leave your baggage behind. You compete with millions of others like you. You start small and with some skills and a little bit of luck, you make it. Big cities promise you the chance to hold your own and be your own.

Karachi, for all her foibles, remains the only place in Pakistan that is closest to the big city ideal. Keep her that way.

Hunza wala Mar 29, 2014 09:57pm

@FIZA : So there is no chance of getting a visa of any kind for you? Are you from a minority? Like Shia? That might help your case. Consult an immigration attorney. Otherwise you will be 'tirelessly serving the majestic city.'

Afaq Mar 30, 2014 12:02am

@Naveed Lotia: Please Lahore give the ownership of Karachi to people of Karachi. It all politically created problem which every very Karchites who lived for long or came and try to live with dignity in this city so it can change their life.

Napier Mole Mar 30, 2014 02:38am

The author reflects the feelings so well of thousands upon thousands of Karachiites who saw the good days of Karachi, 60s being the most wonderful, with 70s not half bad at all who had seen the city show its full potential. This generation may have left the city - for political, economic or plain security reason but wont hesitate to return - prepared to even sacrifice the expat lifestyle - if atleast the security situation improved. I, for one, keep the faith in my city - and its permanent denizens.

Sandeep Mar 30, 2014 03:47am

@FIZA : Why don't you compared Karachi with Bangalore, Chennai, Jaipur, Bhopal (city of lakes), Thiruvanthapuram, Kochi, Chennai, Ahmedabad......There are many ;-)

Maria Mar 30, 2014 05:51am

@Afaq:The problem is that people of Karachi have to take ownership of their own city and not vote for one political party which has caused so much decay over the last decade.

FIZA, Soho Mar 30, 2014 08:52am

@Hunza wala:

Not sure what you're implying in your convoluted comment, suffice it to say my paternal family is from Swat. I personally have relatives who've been kidnapped, tortured and killed by so the called " Taliban." So Hunza wala why bring the plight of minorities in your comments when innocent citizens of Pakistan are suffering from the ravages of mindless terrorism who target EVERYONE not just minorities?

Mahesh Mar 31, 2014 05:32am

@FIZA, Soho: Minorities are targeted for who they are and because they don't believe what Majority believes while those getting killed from majority are because they were at the wrong place at wrong time or something else which is unrelated to their faith. There is lot of difference. The problem is systemic. @Fiza, even those who live in Mumbai haven't seen complete Mumbai, how many days you spent and with what budget that you are pronouncing judgement that Karachi is better than Mumbai?