This essay was originally published by the Kolachi magazine/The News International in July, 2007
A recent cartoon in a local daily depicted a man’s family drenched in unspeakable gloom because he had just been posted to the city of Karachi. Very funny, you’d say, if you didn’t yourself happen to be a resident of “the city of candle lights,” as a friend refers to it. Although we have been used to being an object of fear and wariness for the world for decades, it seems like derision and ridicule are the latest emotion our city evokes in the hearts of the world. No worries — we shall take that, too, in a rain-sodden stride.
Some say that when things can’t get any worse, there’s only one way to go from there: to get better. Though as illustrated often in the case of Karachi, they could also remain where they are and not get better at all. Despite cynicism pouring in like the cyclone that just touched the coast, I’m going to stick with the former philosophy and be optimistic. Things can’t get any worse for Karachi right now, they can only get better.
Last week, my family finally suffered the “real’ thing,” which (as we had always assumed earlier) only happened to the less privileged. We had no electricity for 32 hours. As the hours slipped by and our little, ancient generator threatened to die, a strong premonition gripped us. Have they forgotten us? Did they really just switch our power off and go off on vacation? Where the heck are “they?” This was the real thing. That feeling of abandonment that most Karachiites have experienced at some point of their lives: we finally felt as if we had really crossed the hallowed gates to the land of the forsaken.
Make no mistake: I have been through adversities that only happen to Karachi residents before. I’ve been abandoned at Numaish Chowk by my rickshaw driver amidst burning tires and petrol pumps following a bomb blast; I have suffered with millions others through the man-killing rollercoaster that is this city’s public transport system. I’ve even taken up a futile fight outside my house with a long haired MQM worker who led a slogan-painting drive on our freshly painted wall in broad daylight. The phrases ‘only in Karachi could this go unchecked’ and ‘only in Karachi could this idiot drive’ have graced my mind more times than I can count. The only number that exceeds that is the times I have planned to escape this city forever and never come back.
However, I am astonished and a little betrayed by own sense of justice to find, that like some of your blood relations who annoy, degrade and hurt you again and again and yet find a place in your heart, I can’t shun Karachi. Karachi is, alas, in my blood. With its screaming bus horns, pain-in-the-butt motorcyclists, silencer free rickshaws, ubiquitous potholes, waterless tanks, ugly as hell apartment complexes and countless other vices, this city is a permanent splotch on my life that I cannot remove.
It may sound naïve, but each time an outsider condemns, ridicules or dismisses Karachi my dormant patriotism comes into action and I become the optimist that I don’t really feel like being most of the time. I think it’s the same feeling that engulfs a lot of Pakistanis when Pakistan is dismissed as a failed nation — which is often. It’s a mulish disregard for intelligent forecasts of doom by the global pundits that is shared by the light sufferers to the worst inflicted in this country, and most of all by the often forsaken Karachiites.
Some friends and I got a chance to speak to a few groups of children living in several shanty towns in Karachi lately, during the making of a documentary. These children, all studying in schools run by different non-profit organizations, were refreshingly articulate, intelligent and ambitious. They all wanted to do great things in life, and they all had a unanimous agreement on the fact that Karachi, and by association Pakistan, was a difficult place to live in. They named a host of problems to prove this, ranging from poorly made roads to load-shedding, water shortages, and nobody ever cleaning the streets. Most were especially sick of the frequent strikes (which force their schools to close), and people burning tires and blocking the roads all the time. One of them especially hated the fact that people are not ‘nice and respectful’ to each other and are always fighting in the streets.
However, when asked if they would like to move out of Pakistan and live somewhere else in the future, surprisingly, only two raised their hands. They all wanted to travel of course; see new places, sit in (and preferably fly) a plane. Popular places to visit included Saudi Arab (where some of the children had relatives living) and the U.S. — but then they wanted to come back and live here. When we wondered why, one of them, 11 year old Habib, smiled and answered sagely, “Yehan sab apney hain. Bahir waley kabhi apnon jaisay tou nahin hosaktey na.”
And that, fellow Karachiite, is about the only explanation I can think of for this wretched city having forced its way into my once happily unpatriotic mind. There is no explanation this article can offer for the KESC’s uselessness, for the murderous falls of the city’s hoardings, for the hundreds of deaths in the past week, for the lawlessness and despair that rules this city right now. Affinity to lost causes, rooting for the underdog or idealism — call it what you may — but we all need something to get by.