What stands out in Karachi is its pluralism and thriving diversity, perhaps best encapsulated in the streets of old city. There is a pulsating energy here among the vendors and walking craftsmen, each with their own set of skills, toiling away for a daily wage.
It's easy to glance past them in the crowd for they have been internalised as an essential feature of the city. But here lies the paradox: we utilise their labour in our daily lives, refer to them by their profession, but their anonymity never seems to bother us.
Behind every 'kachray wala', 'fruit wala' and 'bandar wala' is a story waiting to be unraveled.
With a quill and parchment
|Muhammad Iftikhar in his roadside shop at Pakistan Chowk.
With a pensive look and a pen in hand, Mohammad Iftikhar looks at us, puzzled, as we ask him where the art of Khatati (calligraphy) stands in the current times. He smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and shakes his head with despair.
He talks about a time when 20 to 25 calligraphers sat along the pavements of Pakistan Chowk alone. Now there are just two. The decline started in the 90’s when Corel Draw gained importance and many calligraphers lost out.
Iftikhar blushes when we ask him about the projects he had worked on. “You must have seen Pyaray Afzal and Jackson Heights? Those were my recent ones. I was also asked to make the logo for Bahria Town.”
Muhammad Iftikhar wants to set up his own calligraphy exhibition someday. He managed it once at Frere Hall, but is now overburdened with expenses.
Polishing a future
|Muhammad Aqeel while working on a wooden framework for a mirror.
Muhammad Aqeel, 32, has been polishing wooden frames since he was 18. His 14 years of experience makes him one of the most skilled people in Karimabad. He looks quite old for his age, though his eyes suggest that it is merely his appearance that has undergone such change.
He works at a fixed wage of Rs 400 per day.
The roadside entertainer
|Eman Allah poses with his monkey.
Hailing from Rohri Sindh, a dazed Emaan Allah firmly holds the chain clasped around the little monkey accompanying him. He orders the monkey to sit, but the little creature continues to squirm around him. It is quite apparent that the bond between Emaan and the monkey is strained, as the monkey fails to comply with basic commands.
“I used to do odd jobs earlier and came to the city with him to earn more money but the conditions don’t look too good here,” he says.
More than a decade ago bandar walas were a common sight, as were the children trailing behind this fantastical Pied Piper. Today, it has become a rarity.
Now they can sometimes be seen near traffic signals, with monkeys trained to scare passengers by climbing onto windshields, begging for money.
Emaan Allah shares a similar story.
|Naushad Khan at his roadside spot.
Seventy six-year-old Naushad Khan has been mending shoe soles for the past 50 years but as he converses with one of his customers, it appears that he has a knack for mending souls too.
Referred to as Goldberg, the famous wrestler, the bald mochi or cobbler is reluctant to talk about his craft, which is considered one of the oldest jobs in the city and usually provides opportunity to settlers coming from the northern side of the country.
But when Naushad finally agrees to talk, cynicism takes over:
He then boasts with pride as he gives a toothless smile:
“I am from the times of Quaid-e-Azam. I have seen this place when it was not densely populated, everything was vacant and this entire place flourished right before my eyes.”
Lost in the alleys of nostalgia, Khan sahab busies himself in sewing a shiny black pathani sandal as one customer places himself alongside him to strike another conversation.
|Muhammad Sarwar just got done with making his fruit chaat for the day.
Thirty-year-old Mohamad Sarwar smiles heartily as he puts down the phone and speeds up his knife cutting bananas into perfect circles piling them up in a red bucket, all ready for the fruit chaat he gives away: “These fruits will make around five to six buckets and I’ll take home around Rs. 400.”
Although he makes chaat all year round he finds it tough to deliver the order in Ramazan.
“The produce in Ramazan is limited so we are short on supplies in this month. The demand gets higher and everyone wants us to hurry and deliver the order to them,” shares Sarwar who is a father of three children.
Racing against time
|On the pavement of Zainab Market.
Anis Hussain, the only watchmaker left at the footpath of Zainab Market, Karachi has been sitting at the same spot for eight years now. Cars, horse carts and bikes pass by his stall, but his life remains stagnant.
Watchmaking and repairing was a very popular and rewarding business for its times. But as Anis Hussain ages and knows no other way of income, the declining position of watchmaking threatens his livelihood.
Breaking the ice
|Noor Bhai with his ice blocks.
Amidst the hustle bustle of a typical Saddar lane in the evening, Noor Bhai stands uninterrupted, dicing huge ice slabs into smaller ones.
When we asked how ‘Bhai’ became a part of his name, smiling sheepishly, he says, “I was the older one among these boys when I first came from Quetta and started working here. Since then everyone calls me Bhai.”
Working at a daily profit of Rs 1,000 to 1,500, Noor Bhai works for six months of summer. Winters are a long holiday. “We go back to our homes in Quetta and spend the winters in our warm beds, after all we worked hard during summers, selling and distributing ice.”
Living on scraps
|M. Ismail Wasim asks his friend to pose with him for the picture.
On the roadside of Karimabad, a scrap collector, or Kabaria, stands by his push cart, smiling as we approach him. The cart is loaded with run-down stabilisers, broken televisions, and cracked home appliances.
M. Ismail Wasim, 46 years of age, lives in Karachi with his five offspring and a wife. To him, his childrens' education is everything.
One could easily tell from his attire that life had been unkind, but Ismail doesn’t shy away when he is asked of his daily income. “Profit is meagre. Bilkul jaise aatay main namak. Almost Rs. 300, everyday.”
That still doesn’t keep him from sending his children to school. Three of his boys and two girls, all go to a nearby school. “My eldest one just gave his matric exams, he is going to Dubai now, to learn taxi driving. Better times are coming.”
There was nothing but hope in his gleaming eyes.