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‘What a city to plunder’

March 30, 2012

HAVING been born in Karachi and having lived there for several different stretches, a visit to the city always sets one’s pulse racing in anticipation.

The earliest flashes of memory are of a beautiful city by sandy beaches, a city which never went to sleep and seemed to pulsate round the clock — unlike any other urban centre in the country. Its sea breeze-cooled-evenings, scented by raat ki rani, were the stuff of poetry.

Its famed night life was not only for the rich but was accessible to the middle class too. Yes, any bustling metropolis in the Third World won’t be without its share of the poverty-stricken. But Karachi somehow managed to fold the poor in its embrace. Rarely did anyone sleep hungry.

The industrial-commercial hub of the country and the only major port city attracted the poor from across the length and breadth of the country, a point made by the many, many of its adopted children. “It is a ghareeb-parwar city, Sahab. Look at its weather. Where else in Pakistan can you sleep under the open skies nearly 12 months in a year. I can tell you that anyone who is willing and able to work doesn’t go hungry here,” I recall a taxi driver telling me many years ago.

People lived life here with gay abandon. One remembers the inebriated stumbling out of the bars in Saddar, while one waited in a car across the tram-tracks for a glass of steaming almond-pistachio-laced creamy milk at one of our favourite milk shops.

Nearly five decades on and the Burns Road dhagay wale kabab, the Sabri Nehari, the Delhi Kaali Muslim Qorma and of course Farzand Ali’s Qulfi will still make you tell any physician, justifiably warning you of the consequences of a cholesterol-rich diet, to go away and leave you alone.

Any weekend would be incomplete without a trip to Clifton where stretched out on the sand between the baradari and where the waves lapped the shore would be craftsmen selling sea-shell jewellery, lamps, etc. The whole area would be lit up by ‘gas’ or ‘Petromax’ lanterns.

It was around this time when, as a young boy, the illusion of a city eternally at peace with itself was shattered in ways I couldn’t comprehend then. It all began when Ayub Khan defeated Fatima Jinnah in a questionable presidential election.

His son Gohar Ayub Khan led a victory procession through different parts of Karachi, in particular through neighbourhoods which had overwhelmingly supported Fatima Jinnah. This wasn’t a benign celebration, as residents of Khamosh Colony and Gujjar Naala would well remember.

Very soon, the president’s armed supporters were attacking homes and the unarmed residents were defending themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on. It was a sad realisation that the violence had an ethnic dimension.

One of my father’s friends, a retired army officer who lived in Nazimabad not far from Gujjar Naala, was seriously wounded in a stabbing attack as he tried to prevent the attackers entering his home. With peace finally restored and my father’s friend discharged from hospital, we visited him.

Even weeks later, the whole area resembled a war zone, with burnt-out shells of cars and damaged homes and properties. Karachi may have been as resilient as today but was definitely more, much more, forgiving then. Normality was restored quickly.

Even though this violence was orchestrated, it passed, much like the 10th of Moharram incidents near Saeed Manzil on M. A. Jinnah Road where every year someone or the other would trigger an ugly episode as the Shia Ashura procession was passing. But by the next day, all was forgotten.

It would be nearly two decades later when Karachi would be racked by bloody sectarian strife, the roots of which could be traced to the Zia regime. It was committed to a fragmentation of society on whatever lines it could find in its divide and rule policy. Nearly 30 years on, the bloodshed continues.

It was a mere two years after the sectarian flames were fanned here that another conflict took root which would over the following decades exact a toll of thousands of lives and would see property worth billions destroyed.

Regardless of your ethnicity, if you saw yourself as a progressive individual it was incumbent on you to blame one ethnic group and its representative party for much of the murder and mayhem in the city from the 1980s onwards. And you would be correct, too.

However, over the recent years, other parties, aligned with one ethnic group or the other, have jumped into the fray and sadly the situation isn’t as simple as it was perhaps 10 or 15 years ago. All major parties in Karachi have armed wings, which are used as a ‘legitimate’ tool of political power.

If one party seems more capable of widespread terror than the next, it may not represent a greater/lesser desire to use violence. It may merely reflect the size of their respective support bases in this blighted city. The greater the turf they covet, the more firepower they’ll need to have.

In a column for this newspaper in the mid-’80s focusing on Karachi, eminent columnist Ghazi Salahuddin quoted one of Napoleon’s generals who had been wined and dined in London and given a grand conducted tour.

The idea was to win him over and save the city from a possible Napoleonic invasion. When asked what he thought of London as he was leaving, the general famously remarked: “What a city to plunder!”

Tell me why this lovely city, this sanctuary for the poorest of the poor, this bustling metropolis, seems to bring out the vilest side in all those who seek or wield political power here.

Why is it so unloved when it embraces all?

If only for a change we healed Karachi with the vigour with which we plunder it.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.