25 Feb 2018


A rusty lifeguard tower lies abandoned on the beach.—Photo by writer
A rusty lifeguard tower lies abandoned on the beach.—Photo by writer

FAR from the rude introduction to the city, the piles of litter and broken concrete visible as one leaves the airport, is the beach — and the beach belongs to the old Baloch.

His brow is a cat’s cradle of creases, a web of dry riverbeds left by a life deluged with worries. He sits by his battered bicycle, selling tea. In this place with no seats but grey sand soaked with seawater, he will serve you tea in a chipped cup. Tea drawn from a bucket hanging from the bicycle’s handlebars, full of water muddy from leaves and milk.

His feet are splayed, deformed by walking a lifetime on the sludge of tough wet sand. This is where they bring him day after day, to a spot where the earth ends but sunsets linger — a lifetime spent staring at the sun that will soon go down the ocean’s maw. And he will be a day older.

Splayed are the feet of others like him, the camel man from Hub and the horseman from the Frontier, barefooted on the beach, offering revellers a ride. Folks from the rest of the country wash ashore like detritus, here to skim the gold of a setting sun off the ocean’s surface if they can, in this place of possibilities — like the city itself. Above them, gulls swoop and cry.

How can you tell an albatross from a gull? It hangs around one’s neck, of course. You can find the albatross on a man who has a tray hanging from his neck, selling sweets and cigarettes. But poverty has no feathers, it knows no flight.

Snippets of conversation interjected by clinking of cutlery; talk carried over the perfumed air of the hotel, like flies buzzing over something sickly sweet.

A man in pink shirt tells his friend: “Lahore’s good to settle in but Karachi offers opportunity.”

“This morning, I looked at the news,” says his friend, “and a headline said: ‘Karachi, a city of decay.’”

Pink bites his lower lip, chewing on the thought: “That’s the first feeling you get when you land in the city, isn’t it…”

If a city could be a saint, Karachi would be our Mother Theresa. If a city could be personified, Karachi’s face would resemble Edhi’s.

She draws us in droves: the plump pink businessman and the skilled worker, the sailor, the soldier, the politician and the pan-chewing, fast-talking rickshaw driver; the bureaucrat and the clerk. And the homesick labourer, always the labourer. Drawn to the generous, giving mother that is Karachi, she is a multitude that are us, a microcosm of Pakistan. An exhausted, emaciated mother that has fed the federation for generations, she takes us in her folds despite the body-blows she receives in return. Our callous indifference to her is demonstrated in the rampant decay everywhere.

She lies dying as we quibble over ethnicities, too busy fighting to come to her rescue. The implications of her death for its teeming millions and the country is less pressing than the question, ‘Who owns Karachi?’

“Karachi is the mother of the poor,” says a man on the plane. If we do not save her now, he says, it may be too late. “It is time the federation returns the favour by owning her.”

It is the second time I have heard that expression. And the poor man’s mother is the federation’s orphan, left like the Baloch on the beach to fend for itself.

The beach belongs to the trans-woman in a red dress, her face a mask of white pancake pulled over dark features, her sunken eyes dead from the lack of mirth. The sea-breeze could lift her, a moth reaching out for the flaming sun, but she is nailed to the ground — like this junkie with wild eyes who wants to sell you a manka or snake-stone to turn your fortunes around. It comes from the sea, his stone, once only every 500 years, he says.

It makes sense when you look at the sea, its surface glittering with the gold of a glorious sunset. It makes sense when you look away towards the city drawing people to prosperity tied to the sea.

Here is a scavenger, bags of trash piled on his bicycle; a tactless conman, with the albatross of addiction around his neck.

The beach belongs to them. Or does it really? In the distance, a high-rise stabs up into the sky, a grey tower with many storeys, built on the beach for private ownership. Even so, there is hardly a seat on the waterfront to sit and watch the setting sun. The beach is bereft of public spots, just an expanse of littered sand awaiting elite capture — more houses and flats for the rich.

Beyond it the city lies sick and dying, abandoned by its guardians. Kites wheel in the murky sky above, swooping down with a keening screech upon sighting flesh.

And for every soul who dies of violence, for every Hakeem Saeed, Sabeen Mahmud, Wali Khan Babar, Shahzeb Khan and Naqeebullah Mehsud killed in cold blood, the city dies too.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2018