City on the edge

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From the 17th floor of Avari Towers you get a bird’s eye view of Karachi, and Dinshaw Avari, director of the hotel, knows his city well. In the hazy distance he points out Jinnah’s tomb and down below the red tiled roof of what was once Ruttie Jinnah’s house, now a museum. A disused racecourse speaks volumes for the present times and the city sprawls up to the distant hills and the orderly slum of Orangi beyond. Dinshaw’s parents won the gold in the Enterprise class sailing in the 1982 Asian Games for Pakistan and his brother Xerxes represents the country in sailing. The Avaris are part of a small Parsi community in Karachi which has lost much of its cosmopolitan flavour over the years. Like the Goans, many of them have migrated to Canada and other places.
“Karachi today is a raw new postmodern city,” says ‘Karachi: Megacity of Our Times’, edited by Hamida Khuhro and Anwer Mooraj. What would happen if 300,000 people came into Mumbai every year, asks a Karachi resident. Not difficult to imagine for a Mumbaikar. From a city predominantly of Hindus, Karachi became a refuge to migrants from India, mostly Muslim. Later came the Afghans, and other communities and the existing Goan, Hindu, Parsi population found themselves out of depth. The “Gora” cemetery still exists (“No pictures please,” says an old caretaker); there is a small space for Kerala Muslims in a burial ground and Jinnah’s white tomb stands tall on a hillock, ghostly white among the low grey buildings. Designed by an architect from Mumbai, a ceremonial guard in blue keeps vigil over the founder of Pakistan.
Karachi is a bewildering place not unlike Mumbai, though much larger, spread over 3,500 square kilometres. In a few years the city will have a population of 20 million and the former capital of Pakistan is grappling with unplanned growth and its maze of illegal slums which can pass off for lower middle class colonies. Syed Mustafa Kamal, former Karachi mayor from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has been promoting mass transit systems and pushing for federal funding. Now Karachi is under an administrator and the results are there for all to see. Huge garbage dumps, poor city transport and connectivity and chaotic traffic. Along the coast there is hectic reclamation with beachside resorts, snazzy walkways and restaurants. Giant malls and food courts contrast oddly with fishing villages, some of them 400 years old, like Ibrahim Hyderi where children work in small stalls and the lanes are narrow and dirty.
COLOUR EXPLOSION: You gawk at the explosion of colour and decorations on trucks and buses and the lovely paintings on their sides. What sets Karachi apart is perhaps its sense of uncertainty, notwithstanding its all-night eating joints, vibrant art scene, and a liberal press and student community. Even the rich who cluster together in Clifton or Defence, own cheap mobiles. People are robbed at gunpoint, and if your car is held up, it makes sense to give up the keys and walk away. Suicide bombers targeted the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi, while we were there – the police chased them to some open land near a popular seaside restaurant where they blew themselves up. We had eaten at that very restaurant the night earlier! On the flight back, my co-passenger who moved to Karachi after marriage, was filling out endless forms. “I don’t wear gold when I go out and I cover my hair. I am so relieved to go to Mumbai,” she said.
A senior journalist has a round blue and yellow sticker on his car, without which he cannot enter his daughters’ school. Heavily guarded and fenced with barbed wire, the private school insists on identity cards for parents. Coeducation schools are under attack in the city, like Sufi or Sunni mosques, and terror surfaces in new unexpected ways. At the University of Karachi, with 70 percent women students, bright posters advertise: “Let’s rock the party”. Opposite there is a flowery printed message from the moral police, the Islami Jamiat Talibat (girls wing): “You live in the East but your hearts are in the West”. Students oppose the trend to have no plays or music and there have been several disruptions on the campus. “We don’t bother, we carry on,” said Sadia Mahmood who teaches Mass Communication.
Outside the Karachi Press Club a not so liberal graffiti says, “We are proud of Mumtaz Qadri (who shot Sindh governor Salmaan Taseer). We don’t like cowards.” The large Hussain painting in the Press Club Hall and frames of Jinnah along with the lace covered chairs give the club a quaint, haunting quality. No military or police official is allowed entry, say the journalists, fiercely proud of a 50-year-old tradition. Along with schools and mosques, newspapers too have been under attack – a leading English daily’s office resembles a well-guarded fortress with metal doors and closed circuit TV cameras. The press in Pakistan continues unfettered. A senior journalist quips every country needs an army but in Pakistan it is the army which needs a country. Columnists write on the violence, critique the media, the army and mourn the loss of a liberal culture.
With its plethora of temples, 160 at the last count, said Vijay Maharaj of the MQM, and churches dating back to 1855 like Holy Trinity, where Jinnah once attended a service, fire temples and mosques, Karachi will always claim a mixed culture. “Women drive cars here,” people say proudly, and the art scene is dominated by women who run the city’s top six galleries. The people of Karachi bite the bullet in more ways than one. The art exhibition I visited had bullets as a leitmotif, inadvertently. One had a miniature sculpture in a glass case, a child with a bullet in its mouth, another had a bullet casing with metal flowers and the third had a crow perched on a large canister of bottled water with a bullet in its mouth. The artist Asad Hussain had stuck Karachi’s crime graph on the side. “I am the crow, and I survive on bottled water. The water and the bullets are imported,” he said. Karachi’s writers like Mohammed Hanif in ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ have stunningly portrayed the sordidness of the city. According to an unashamed graphic in a newspaper the day we landed, the city was witness to 23 deaths in a week from November 7 to 13, 12 robberies, 125 arrests and 29 injured apart from a kidnapping.
INDO-PAK BONDING: Nostalgia flows freely when Indians and Pakistanis meet. Indian soaps and Bollywood stars are adored and threaten to dominate most conversations. Many of those in Karachi have moved from Mumbai after partition like ND Khan, former federal minister of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who studied in St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. The reasons for leaving, Khan grins, are scientific and mathematical. Like many people I met in Karachi, he feels Kashmir need not stand in the way of Indo-Pak relations. Only extreme elements in both countries want the Kashmir issue to be kept alive. While it is the core issue, priority should be given to other issues which touch common people, he told me.
For a country where liquor is supposed to be restricted, Scotch flows freely (thankfully) in elite drawing rooms, complete with “bearers”. If you are well-heeled, life can be tolerable in this city. Though, for 10-year-old Afzal, who has never been to school and walks 40 minutes to the bakery he works in, every day is a new battle.