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Commuting: All’s Frere in love and war

September 23, 2012

I was driving down Abdullah Haroon Road a few Sundays ago, and saw an amazing sight. A family was having a picnic on the grounds of the Frere Hall, complete with bed sheet, thermos of tea, and plastic bag of fruit. A child was doing laps of the bed sheet while his parents sat discussing whatever it is that parents of toddlers discuss when the said toddler doesn’t need their immediate attention. I was gob smacked, and the War on Terror nearly claimed another to its list of victims in the shape of a lamppost.

To those readers not familiar with Karachi and its various vagaries, this entire scene may not sound all that remarkable; after all, people hold impromptu picnics everywhere, and Karachi is no exception. I have myself seen dastarkhwans laid in locations as diverse as the grounds of the Karachi Zoo, the central island on Khayaban-e-Ittehad, the westbound carriageway of the Lyari Expressway and the General Ward aisle at Jinnah Hospital. It seems that as a city we are liable to break out the biryani ka pateela at the merest sign of greenery or a cool breeze.

The remarkable fact, then, is not the act of the picnic, but the location. For years, since people decided that blowing up fellow citizens in the general vicinity of the consulate of what they consider to be the Imperialist Oppressor was a good way of spending their Monday morning, the grounds of the Frere Hall had been off limits to all except groundskeepers, security ehelkaars and sharpshooters. Now, it seemed, the ban was no longer in place, and children could run laps of bed sheets in the grounds of the Frere Hall relatively unmolested.

So why the change of heart? The fact of the matter was that the Uncle had moved house, meaning the security levels of this part of the world could be brought down a notch or two. As a result, a great blow was cast for eaters of aaloo qeema on picnic bed sheets all over the world, and another cut-price dating venue added back to the list of possibilities.

Not only did the Uncle’s new abode free up vital municipal space, but their new abode, the exact contents and facilities wherein were a cause of great speculation in the early days, is bang on the Mai Kolachi bypass. “So what?” I hear you say. At least it is no longer next door to KGS and the kiddies of the influential are not threatened by their manhoos saaya. Not to mention we can now drive to and from Sind Club in relative peace.

All of this is true; however, there is one not-so-insignificant fact which needs to be considered here. A large part of the Karachi workforce, and almost all of those who work in the Financial Services industry, commute daily to and from the I.I. Chundrigar Road area, and large parts of the business community to and from SITE and Boulton Market areas. If you live on “this” side of the bridge, Mai Kolachi is the main route to get to and from work. For those on “that” side of the bridge, the equivalent route is a mix of Shahrah-e-Faisal, M.A. Jinnah Road, and now the Lyari Expressway.

In the olden days, almost all anti-USA protests used to cluster around the Numaish-Tibet Centre-Regal areas. This would result in traffic chaos all along the latter routes, with commuters being routinely stuck for hours at a time, running rapidly out of both patience and CNG. Now, however, the tables have been well and truly turned.

You never know which morning one side of the Mai Kolachi carriageway will be closed for no apparent reason, putting you in a tailback with nothing but inane radio presenters for company. And Fridays have become a complete lottery. All may be milk and honey in the morning, and chaos may ensue at lunchtime, or in the early evening. Many an executive has been held up for an hour or more on their way back from a Godless lunch, thanks to a sudden and catastrophic road closure just this side of Boat Basin. Verily, the shoe doth be on the other foot. Some have even been forced in to a detour that takes them through the mean streets of Shireen Jinnah Colony, a journey many of the ivory tower brigade are not quite prepared for. And there it is, the circle is complete. In one fell swoop, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave set free a major recreational centre for the middle classes, and also corrected the imbalance between commute times of those who live in Gulshan-e-Iqbal and those who live in Gulshan-e-Faisal. You can’t tell me all this was not meticulously planned and are just innocent by-products of a powerful nation selfishly annexing the best piece of land available to further its internal security agenda…

The road to freedom can take many an unexpected turn. In the case of Karachi, it was a right turn from MT Khan Road.