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Karachi: The great work

February 09, 2011

I knew even as I clicked, that neither of these captivating photographs would be The One. - Photo by Hasaan Haider/

Nigredo: Blackening, putrefaction, dissolution

The flow of effluence into Lyari river where women congregated with their matkas; the child on the street with two flies copulating on the blood splotched bandage on his forehead; the young man sleeping on top of his onion cart in Al-Asif square; the old man in Saddar promising the stamina for five rounds per night with his virility capsules; the twenty burqa-clad women learning programming at the computer training center off Sakhi Hassan – I knew even as I clicked, that neither of these captivating photographs would be The One. I needed a one picture cynosure of Karachi, the photograph worth the proverbial thousand words; a visual as the city’s self statement. All of the ones so far seemed like anthropological exercises of mapping the other, the very ghetto tourism that now irritated me more than bubbles of oblivion that obfuscated ghettos. Like when we would cut school and have halwa puri at roadside dhabas and celebrate having a native experience. The priapic million-dollar fountain the middle of the sea shoreline; the glitzy designer car showroom opposite a sewerage canal behind Boat Basin; the beggar woman outside the Sheraton; the diamond retailer at Park Towers – blunted juxtapositions that reeked of drawing room revolutions, so not those either.  The mad leg elevations and stomping of boots at the Quaid’s mazaar: the state-sponsored postcard. Barefoot kids playing in dirt: the repertoire of banal saviours. The Pir’s crocodiles with allegorical tears? Or zoom into Waheed’s katakat as a metaphor? Submission deadline tomorrow.

Albedo: Whitening, purification, burnout

I remember you, hiding your camera, and your friend, hiding his fear. You came home with my husband, calling him bhai, me, bhabhi, until you saw the bruises, then whispering to me in the kitchen, you called him an animal, told me about womens’ shelters and protection laws. Sweet. You gave me your sister’s number, she was someone people paid to talk to, and would keep everything confidential. Like privacy mattered where bedrooms were separated by bed sheets and the only boundary walls that existed were between the community and the outsiders, and where talk was the only thing that was free. You really were sweet, searching for evil to fight and victims to portray. You were horrified that I never left the house, except when with him, covered forehead to foot in black. I couldn’t quite tell you then that it was because I feared that someone would recognise me as the drug carrier who spent two years in jail and had Chharra’s child out of wedlock. See, my husband thought I was the widow of an imam. So a photograph was out of question. I remember hoping that the daughter I gave up for adoption would find someone like you to care for her, but then, someone like you but without your money wouldn’t last a week here, so it was not the best thing to wish for her. You want chai?

Citrinitas: Yellowing, spiritualisation, the sun

Crazy night. First he takes me for a photo shoot in a graveyard, the sun had set. It was weird, I felt like a politician, trying to get mileage from the dead – did you know Da Vinci was a grave robber? Anyway, you wanted to know about what happened with him. So there we were, all psyched, the guy we were with had hidden both of us behind these drums to observe the deal, and he switched the flash on his camera off, when his phone rang. It was his mother, in complete hysterics, his father, he did that to the maid, you know the gory story. Couldn’t believe it, his father was a cool guy, we’d hangout, have a drink together, that he would do that to a young girl, a maid his daughter’s age, it was insane yaar. We ran, drove back like maniacs. He wanted to kill his father, dude saw it as betrayal of his mother, of all the dumb reactions. Anyway I tried to calm him down, said we would deal with it, with the maid’s family, pay them off or whatever. But he was like, over the edge.

Rubedo: Reddening, unification of the limited with the unlimited

He swiped at the rivulet of blood running down his temple with his sleeve, as his vision blurred. His telescope to the city had become a kaleidoscope looking in. He didn’t feel the abrasions on his knuckles yet, though the bruises on his face were already swelling. He staggered then braced himself, feeling drained with the violent convulsions of rebirth.  He trudged, uncertain whether he was dragging himself away or towards. He looked up as a car screeched away from the pavement ahead; the sign above the shop stenciled in neon green tubes said ‘Ali chemist’. As he stared, the ‘i’ in Ali slid and dangled upside down, its florescent light fusing out. Stopping, he focused on the remainder of the lit up sign. Medieval philosophers hadn’t gotten it, that the process could work in reverse. He pulled out his camera and clicked.