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See it not

February 06, 2019

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THERE comes a season in the lives of city dwellers when they no longer see the city that is theirs; that defines their waking and sleeping, eating and weeping. The grit and the grime, the filth and the slime dissipate into a kind of limbo, the mind erases their encumbrances. This, it would seem, is the season that has fallen upon a majority of the people who call the city of Karachi their home.

In columns and at literary festivals, on television programmes and film documentaries, the leaders of this pack can be seen and heard singing the praises of the city, of its unique character, of its storied past and of its vibrant present. It is almost as if the reality of the city, particularly the aesthetic reality, does not appear before their eyes as it does before the eyes of others.

Those others are the unlucky ones. Driving down Sharea Faisal, long the city’s main thoroughfare, these searching souls desperate to locate some bit or portion of the self-image they are regularly fed, discover only disappointment. The dirt and dust and grime that are perpetually suspended in the city’s atmosphere (the promised purity of the sea breezes seem, in 2019, an exaggeration at best and a lie at worst) form a thick and unforgiving skin on the crumbling facades of buildings, on the leaves and trunks of the scant and suicidal trees.

Searching souls desperate to locate some bit of self-image discover only disappointment.

This state of disrepair is true of old buildings like the long suffering Sea Breeze Plaza and its new neighbours (painted in garish shades of blue and yellow). Tall buildings, glass and steel skyscrapers are newcomers in nearly every portion of Karachi, touted by the unseeing as eminent examples of an embrace of modernity, an anointment of sorts that situates Karachi as one among the world’s emerging megacities, all of whom count sharp and jagged towers in their commanding skylines.

This is all very well; skyscrapers and tall, magnificent buildings are for many (including the current president of the United States) an emblem of strength and power, and Karachi and the people who live in it love to be known as strong and powerful even at the expense of beautiful and functional.

This last bit is particularly true about the tall buildings constructed over the last decade or so; even those that are the most well maintained (and they do exist) neglect a basic fact of aesthetic decency in tall glass structures built in a dusty city — the ability to wash the windows. So even as they go higher and taller, as the units are sold and then occupied, as problems inevitably reveal themselves in the title or the encroachment or the management, no one bothers about the fact that once built the 30th and 35th floors of these glass-fronted buildings can never be cleaned.

In the city’s ethic of build and run, or buy and be stuck, what happens after the money is exchanged is nobody’s responsibility or problem. The consequence, even for those buildings that are not glass-fronted is the same: an early decrepitude and the transformation of something that could have been beautiful into something that is just like everything else around it — dirty and ugly, looking shabby and sad, buildings that have given up in a city that does not care.

There is a cultural element to this lack of concern for aesthetics. Over the past half century, Karachi has become a city where investment is mostly private; homeowners build high walls within which there are resplendent gardens, even fountains. Lesser endowed homeowners similarly construct iron grilles over their balconies or wall them up. Both seek to maximise space and security and its availability to the inhabitants inside. In this inward focused sense of existing in a city, the outward and the gift it could present to the passerby is, beyond a crass sort of dominance that emanates from the sheer heft of a house, not a concern. Even less of a concern is fitting in with the general aesthetic of the neighbourhood. One cannot complain too much about the latter, however, since most neighbourhoods, except for the fact that they may have very large or very small houses, have no aesthetic at all.

It was not always this way. A few minutes after one passes the Trade Centre, another behemoth that adds nothing at all to the beauty of the city, one sees the rather old building of the Aisha Bawany School. Unlike nearly all in the neighbourhood, this old and functional building has stood stalwart as generations of Karachi kids have driven by. Unlike newer buildings, it looks neither old nor decrepit, a fresh coat of paint every decade seems to breathe new life into the delicate arches in the façade providing something interesting on which the eye can pause.

It is not a skyscraper, it is not made of expensive materials, it is not even particularly imaginative. It does, however, reveal some concerns for how it looks from the outside, a polite concern for aesthetics in a city made of millions who will likely only see most of it from the outside, through fleeting windows of cars and taxis and the backs of motorbikes.

A concern for the aesthetics may seem trivial in a city where ownership, encroachment and ever more audacious land grabs are the order of the day and decade. Aesthetics and ownership are to some extent interconnected; the lack of concern for what happens beyond one’s walls suggests a refusal to acknowledge that public spaces matter just as much or even more than private ones. In this sense, at least, the turn away from aesthetics and their impact on the public is an accurate snapshot of the civic indifference towards the former.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2019