Seven years ago, I left the city of my birth for good. Ostensibly, my leaving was tied to a 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 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 was cloying, claustrophobic frustration.
I grew up in Karachi’s densely populated Central District, the 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 organizations that claimed to represent the two sects.
Sectarian conflicts frequently ballooned into mob violence by zealots, and their favorite targets each time they had a get-together were foreign fast food franchises, the ultimate incarnations of the devil. The KFC franchise four doors down our street was a frequent aim, and eventually closed down after it was vandalized several times in one year. My family and I lamented mob mentality and the inane targeting of poor KFC until the day windows of our own house were smashed one day, for no apparent reason at all.
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 passengers hanging off the doors, silencer-less Honda bikes, 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 noise medley its nightly production of Katakat, a calorie-coma inducing mix of cow livers, brains and other unnamed body parts that are mashed and grilled at the same time using sharp iron utensils. “Katakat” is the 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 80s, had been reconstructed numerous times over the years. My father couldn’t make up his mind on what to do with the space and it showed. The final product was an awkward conversion into part medical practice for my mother, 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 and water leaks 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 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. An agonizing 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 escape before the police arrived. Nobody was 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 go through.
Commuting from my neighborhood was a circus in its own right. The infamous Karachi public transport was monumentally unreliable, yet 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.
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.
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 I travelled to without a car. Nothing helped: long dupattas that covered my head and body; loose clothing; trying to be invisible. I saw the same thing happen to women clad in burqas and realized there was little recourse, except the courage to call out the harasser on spot and make a scene; a courage I struggled in vain to cultivate.
Eventually, as the city’s violence refused to slow and my mother prepared for retirement, my parents finally decided to move from the neighborhood that had defined my childhood. In almost ironic contrast to our 20+ year existence in the chaotic and violent mess that was our part of Karachi, we became residents of a hyper-secure cul-de-sac originally built for the Pakistan army, but open to civilians who were willing to pay an arm and a leg for safekeeping generally reserved for the nation’s safe-keepers.
Our new, quiet and leafy neighborhood, where I could walk out in the 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 neighborhood were no longer being attacked by zealots or robbers, it was happening to others including loved ones elsewhere. 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 gown woman still living with her parents I felt puerile receiving calls from my mother frantically asking where I was each time I stayed out late. And as a Pakistani, I felt closed to what was happening 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. When I look back at my life in Karachi, however, I feel much more than empty relief I felt years ago leaving my childhood home. I have questioned my departure often, wondering 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 accustomed to the granted security and small comforts found in my home in D.C. suburbs—things that were luxuries once. I have lost my Karachiite survivor skills, and parenthood has 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 homesick moments. And as I scratch, I can see more clearly the damning truth for those I left behind.
That truth is that most of them cannot bear it anymore, from those who commute daily by precariously climbing the backs of its overflowing buses that spew cancerous black smoke into their lungs to the millions of women groped on those buses even as they take pains to cover every curve of their bodies in boiling summer heat. Definitely not the mother who breaks her back to clean houses all day to return to a home 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 can’t bear it anymore either. Those who do not have the option to leave, don’t have the luxury of feeling nostalgia.
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 has led to an ingrained cynicism. This picture might be mitigated by the culinary wonders 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.