This essay was originally published by the Papercuts Magazine in October, 2014
Seven years ago, I left the city of my birth for good.
Ostensibly, my leaving was tied to the most common reason young Pakistani women emigrate: marriage. It’s taken some years of introspection to see that my decision to marry when I did was a means to my exit, and not the other way around.
My marriage coincided with a growing realization that my existence in the metropolis of Karachi was fast becoming a whirlpool of emotional conflict and dejection. The conflict arose from being torn between two vigorous sentiments. The first was a deep, natural attachment to a city that I had grown up in and which, as many of its residents attest, has a way of consuming one’s existence. The second, searing right through that attachment, was frustration: cloying, claustrophobic, equally all-consuming frustration.
I grew up in Karachi’s densely populated Central District, the sprawling, chaotic hub of the city’s multifaceted political and sectarian battles. It was also the main stronghold of Karachi’s controversial ruling party that represents its majority Urdu-speaking Indian immigrant population. Naturally, every strike call by the party throughout the turbulent 1990’s, and each of its violent encounters with government or opposing political groups would immediately shut down business and traffic in the entire district. The violence wasn’t limited to political clashes. The area’s ubiquitous mosques and madrassahs, serving a wide variety of religious denominations, made it also susceptible to sectarian violence each time a Shia-Sunni conflict was instigated by the organizations that claimed to represent the two sects.
Sectarian conflicts frequently ballooned into mob violence by religious zealots, and their favorite targets each time they had a get-together were the town’s few foreign fast food franchises, the ultimate incarnations of the devil himself. The KFC franchise four doors down the street was hence a frequent aim, and eventually closed down after it was broken into and vandalized several times in one year. My family and I lamented mob mentality and their inane targeting of poor KFC until the day windows of our own house were smashed by what seemed to be a random attack, just for kicks.
Our house faced Shahra-e-Pakistan, a signal-free corridor that connected to Karachi’s aptly named “Super Highway.” It hosted each day, starting from the wee hours of the morning, thousands of merrily honking buses, lavishly decorated trucks, bright yellow passenger wagons with their passengers hanging off the doors, cars of all sizes, silencer-less Honda motorcycles, rickety rickshaws, and frantically running donkey carts; all competing for space across its six lanes. True to name, Shahra-e-Pakistan brought all of Pakistani transportation devices together into one blaring picture. It was impossible to have a conversation in the house without being interrupted by screaming bus horns and astonishingly powerful rickshaw engines. Come dusk, the old outdoor restaurant across the road would add to this colorful medley of noise its nightly production of Katakat, a calorie-coma inducing mix of cow or goat livers, brains and other unnamed body parts that are mashed and grilled at the same time using sharp iron utensils. “Katakat” is the exact sound that the mashing produces—a sound that, we learned, had the intensity to travel through hundreds of traffic horns at any given second.
My house, which was built originally as an office compound on over 5,000 sq. ft of commercial land, bought dirt cheap by my father in a prized real estate deal in the eighties, had been reconstructed and added to numerous times over the years. My father couldn’t quite make up his mind on what to do with all the space—and it showed. The final product was an awkward conversion into part medical practice for my mother, part office for him, part living quarters for the family, and the rest, a warehouse for used computers amassed during one of his business experiments. All were precariously connected by dark, musty doorways, often subject to mold or water leaks at some point or another due to less than meticulous adherence to building codes.
A diverse set of humanity walked in and out of this compound at all hours: my father’s business associates, patients who confused the residence with the clinic, friends who confused the warehouse for the residence, and so on. As the years passed and my mother’s practice grew with the district’s large Afghan immigrant population (who formed majority of her patients), these visitors also expanded to include a stream of less desirable characters. Six was the number of times we had armed robberies in the house. Countless times, neighborhood drug addicts stole the fluorescent signboard advertising my mother’s clinic. Twice, the robbers held my family and the clinic’s two person staff hostage on gunpoint for several terrifying hours as they ransacked the property for cash and valuables.
At the last hostage situation, around 1998, my father decided he had had enough, and made the unwise decision to enter into an altercation with the man ordering him to join his terrified family on the living room couch while the ransacking ensued. An agonizing, violent struggle for the gleaming black TT pistol in the robber’s hand followed, punctuated by frantic calls for help by my mother, and my brother’s dramatic escape to the neighbors who eventually called the police.
My father survived, and so did the robbers who made an easy escape before the police arrived. Nobody was ever caught. But after that incident, my father converted the many doorways and entrances to our house into a maze of locks and bolts: the final transformation it would ever go through.
Commuting from my neighborhood was a circus in its own right. The infamous Karachi public transport was monumentally unreliable, yet also promised comically wild sights and sounds with its flamboyant decorations. By the time I was in university, I was frequently making my way to the city’s commercial center for classes and a newspaper internship using the minibus, the most common mode of transportation for the public.
This became a lasting education in self-preservation. Passengers would be packed like cattle, our clothes stuck to our back in the sweltering heat, breathing poisonous fumes for air through the single exit door which would be always left open for the conductor to hang off the rails. Meanwhile the driver would steer through heavy traffic at breakneck speed, unbiased in his lack of heed for pedestrians and passengers alike.
But all that I could live with. What finally broke me was the nonstop, unrelenting sexual harassment on the bus, on walks to and back from the bus stop, and pretty much anywhere and everywhere that I travelled to without a car. Nothing helped: long dupattas that covered my head and body; loose clothing; trying hard to be invisible. I saw the same thing happen to women clad in burqas and realized there was little weaponry in hand, except the courage to call out the harasser on spot and make a scene; a courage that I struggled in vain to cultivate but never gained.
Eventually, as the city’s violence refused to slow and my mother prepared for retirement, my parents finally decided to move from the house and neighborhood that had defined my childhood. In almost ironic contrast to our 20+ year existence in the loud, chaotic and often violent mess that was our part of Karachi, we became residents of a hyper-secure, army-protected cul-de-sac originally built for the privileged army class, but made open to civilians who were willing to pay an arm and a leg for the safety that it promised.
I remember visiting my old house about a month after moving, standing with my sister, looking at the oddly long and narrow corridor of our living room stripped of furniture and paint, and the flattened, old moss green carpet that had once covered it, ready to be demolished to make way for a new apartment building. I remember feeling little that resembled nostalgia, or longing. If there was a hint of nostalgia, it was overpowered by relief.
I only lived at our new home for a year before moving to Washington. Moving out of my childhood home was something I had dreamed of for a long time; I had hated that house with such vigor. And yet, when I finally got out of it, it was too late to reset some button that represented my childhood, as well as my relationship with the city itself. Our new, quiet and leafy neighborhood, where I could walk out in the dead of night and still feel safe, was a novel experience, yet one that arrived at a point when a change of living quarters was just not enough.
I was by this time in a rewarding career at a local nonprofit. Professionally, I was in a place of choice and satisfaction, yet personally, I felt muzzled. Everything I created was a reflection of my surroundings. Karachi’s violence and troubles were an overpowering influence. If my own home or neighborhood were no longer being attacked by zealots or robbers, it was happening to many others, including loved ones elsewhere. Even as I moved away from the chaos, there was little refuge in knowing that the security of my new home only underlined the cruelly vast divide between the Karachi that lives and breathes violence—the one I came from—and a tiny limb that exists in a fragile bubble. I wasn’t sure I belonged in the bubble. Even if I no longer encountered the city’s mayhem on a daily basis, I felt it by being borne out of it. As a writer, I felt an obsessive compulsion to write about it. As a working woman, I felt stifled by not being able to work late when I wanted to because the city was too dangerous for a woman to travel alone at night. As a grown woman still living with her parents (because the norms dictated so), I felt puerile receiving calls from my mother frantically asking where I was each time I did work or stay out late. And as a Pakistani, I felt closed. Closed to what was happening around me in the world outside of Karachi because what was going on right there was demanding my attention at all times.
I eventually concluded that at 25, it was time to make a respectable exit out of my vortex. Marriage to a man who did not live in my country became my exit. That I fell in love with him was an unexpected bonus on the gamble that is arranged marriage.
When I look back at my life in Karachi, however, I feel much more than the empty relief I felt years ago standing in the ruins of my childhood home. I had loved, laughed, and savored too many times in the city to make an easy exit. I have questioned my departure often, wondering endlessly if I was a coward by leaving. I had never considered myself a coward when I was there, ardently immersed in all of its troubled waters as a resident, a writer, a student, a professional, and most of all, a woman. The thought of escape only prevailed when I had been all of those things, and felt to some degree that I had paid my dues.
Almost unstoppably, I have also grown more and more accustomed to the granted security and small comforts found in my home in D.C. suburbs—things that were luxuries once. From a sustained water supply in my shower to knowing that the odds of my son not returning home from school or being struck by a stray bullet are relatively less, I am losing my Karachiite survivor skills bit by bit. Parenthood has also given me a pragmatism that more often than not leads me to scratch beneath the romantic surface of the nostalgia that Karachi evokes in my most homesick moments. And as I scratch, I can see more clearly the damning truth for many who still live in the city.
That truth is that most of them cannot bear it anymore. Those who commute daily by precariously climbing the backs of its overflowing buses that spew cancerous black smoke into their lungs cannot bear it. The millions of women groped on those buses even as they take pains to cover every curve of their bodies in boiling summer heat cannot bear it. The street vendors going home without making a penny each day a political strike call shuts down the city cannot bear it. The thousands sleeping in the dusty corridors of Jinnah and Civil Hospital night after night, fervently hoping that their dying loved one would be saved if only the overworked doctor took one look at them cannot bear it. And the mother who breaks her back to clean houses all day after being groped on her daily commute from an unplanned settlement without a working sewage system; the one who must decide if keeping her children in the worthless neighborhood public school is worth losing the rupees they will earn by selling garlands; she cannot bear it anymore either.
Those who do not have the option to leave, don’t have the luxury of feeling nostalgia.
And yet, Karachi has always aroused a sharply defensive, almost mulish, “in spite of its wounds” sort of love among its erstwhile residents, like myself. This love is made all the more romantic given the many flaws of the beloved, making it the ultimate underdog. It feels unfair to discount this genuine love. After all, Pakistani expatriates are not irrelevant. Their numbers are so undeniably large that we cannot ignore their voices, especially not if they continue to hang on tight to the strings that connect them with their homeland, however tremulous.
But as large as the immigrant community and as valid its memories, our distance paints a hazy picture, one in which the cruelest of Karachi’s faces gets glazed over: that of a concrete jungle swarming with the poison ivy of poverty, violence, building code violations, and a whole lot of helplessness that for many of its tortured souls has led to an ingrained cynicism and lack of faith in authority. This picture might be mitigated by the incomparability of the culinary wonderland of Burns Road, the hilarity of donkey carts racing at the beach, the timeless beauty of Mohatta Palace, the incredible deals at Zainab Market, or the sad charm in the architectural ruins of Saddar, but they are never quite washed away.
Breaking the idol of Karachi for immigrant Karachiites is important for the sole reason that it is perched on the shaky pedestal of patriotic devotion and nostalgia – both troublesome distortions in their own right. Any kind of devotion must be clear-eyed; Karachi’s flaws must be owned—not brushed past—by those who identify with the city and who find solace in that identity.