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