Karachi through the eyes of a poet

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Like love, poetry too is a personal endeavour. When a poem begins to make room for itself in the poet’s heart, it’s as if that endeavour commences. And when the poem transfers itself, letter by letter, word by word, onto paper, other people too become a part of the process – they become participants in the poetry. But despite their participation, the poet still considers the poetry his alone. The poet’s selfishness cannot remain steadfast, neither in love nor poetry. Sometimes he is compelled to entrust his personal possession to others. He is compelled to pull together everything in his poetry and in his love, compelled to include everyone. These poems, written for Karachi, are such common property – a world not just mine alone, but everyone’s. The poems do not belong just to me; they belong also to those who live with me in my home; to my friends, without whom not a single word would have been completed; to the children, whose small words sustain both Karachi and the entire world outside Karachi; and to all the scared and brave people of Karachi, whose determination to live on there is the greatest reason these poems were written. These are not poems for people of any one colour, or of any one nation, or of any one language: these are everyone’s poems. Perhaps they are not even for Karachi, but rather are for all those cities that have at some point either faced conditions like those in Karachi, or are now facing them, or, God forbid, may yet face them. All the poems were written while living in Karachi. For those who live in Karachi, there is nothing of any greater significance than this, that even more than within world history, they must live within their own city, and that despite all manner of adverse conditions, they must keep both their city and themselves alive. These poems are just such an effort – a dream whose other name is Karachi.

– Zeeshan Sahil

MATCHBOX

Children who live
both inside Karachi and out
are always asked:
Where was the Quaid-e Azam born?
In Karachi, the children say.
And where is his tomb?
In Karachi, they say again.
But one child
does not so respond to this question so frequently asked
and instead, he says:
The Quaid-e Azam’s tomb is found
in a matchbox.
To prove his point
he takes from his school bag
some empty matchboxes
and shows them to his teacher.

Merewether Tower, Frere Hall,
Bunder Road, Empress Market,
and after all the rest
the Quaid-e Azam’s tomb
– the teacher sees for herself –
it’s all there
in the matchbox.

NUDRAT

Nudrat is a little girl
who tells me stories.
The story of Nadira,
the story of Peepu,
the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
I ask Nudrat:
Who are the three bears?
Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear.
She knows how to tell even more stories.
When she’s in the mood
she goes on telling one right after another.
Nudrat tells me nothing
of Karachi.
She has no news for me
of Islamabad.
She still doesn’t know even the names
of the political parties working to maintain national unity
– more than a thousand of them –
nor of the imbecile national leaders
– more than two dozen of them.
And for now
I don’t even want to ask her.
I’ll just keep listening to her stories.
INDEPENDENCE

Before our freedom
or after
by the time we grew up
half the buildings you see in Karachi
were built by the Brits.
They get the credit
inside the city
for some of the spires and bridges too.
Despite renaming most of
the streets Karachiites traverse,
they go by their former names.
Even after so many years have passed,
Clifton, Hawkes Bay, Napier Road
are all still called just that.
With relentless effort
throughout Karachi
a forest of buildings is being grown;
the people who live there
go at times to Manora, the Quaid’s tomb,
or Safari Park for a picnic.
Karachi people
generally picnic on a day when
atop the Civic Centre, the Assembly Building,
or Tughlaq House,
instead of the Union Jack
our nation’s flag
waves in freedom.

KARACHI

Karachi
is a forest
where you see darkness, noise,
and a thousand trees of fear
conversing with the sky
in a voice raised so high
that no one living
inside or outside the city
can even hear another’s screams.

In truth, Karachi now
isn’t a city at all.
It’s rather a cry choked out
in a state of mortal peril
briefly echoed all around.

No one has even the slightest idea
that this might also be
the cry of someone alone
calling for help.
Karachi’s taken for
an inhuman throng
by those who don’t come to assist.
Or a crowd of the blind
who get hungry
and are fed only rice pudding;
who cry out
and are made to sit through speeches;
they take each other by the hand
or not,
they move,
and draw gunfire into the air.

But now in Karachi
the firing is no longer confined just to the air.
Bullets and the sounds they make
are showing up in people’s dreams.
Karachi, though, is not a city of dreams.
There’s just one place to wait for dreams to come.
For our convenience
we use it
as a seaport
or even as a makeshift laboratory.
Where we
perform no experiments on human bodies
as everyone knows.
For that, rabbits are used
or white rats
whose fecundity
upon approaching the limits of safety
draws rat poison
and cats
from the capital.

Extracted from GA Chaussée’s translation of Zeeshan Sahil’s ‘Karachi aur Doosri Nazmein’ (Karachi and Other Poems).