The Karachi I Know

Driving back from North Nazimabad to Defence at one in the morning is a quick, clear drive—the roads are practically empty, especially in the residential areas. It takes less than half an hour to cross the city at that time of the morning.

North Nazimabad has wide, 60-foot roads. Once an elegant, affluential residential area, over the years, commercialisation, poor governance and neglect have meant that numerous gaudy wedding halls have sprung up on a long strip of the district.

I was at a wedding at one of these halls, and as is the norm with a Pakistani wedding, it started after 9 pm, and went on well into the night. By the time my husband and I left, it was in full swing, but since we lived on the other side of the city, we pleaded long-distance travel and left. The commercial areas were still buzzing—lights and signs blinking in the distance as we sped through the streets—though most of the city was asleep. To get to Defence, we had to cross Liaquatabad and the Garden District, go through Saddar (the city center) and Clifton—four major districts—before we would reach our own neighborhood.

We were in the Garden District, not far from the offices of Business Recorder and the TV Channel Aaj, when the car sputtered and the engine died. I had been going at a nice clip and the sudden drop in speed unnerved me, but I managed to pull over to the side of the road. We were just shy of the busiest area in the city, Mohammad Ali Jinnah Road, but there were hardly any cars around, even fewer people.

Nights in Karachi get very cool and I was shivering when I stepped out of the car. My husband was shining a torch under the hood to get an idea of what could possibly have gone wrong, but the street was not well-lit, the torch was small, and neither of us understand much about cars anyway. Tow truck services are few and far between, and our only option seemed to be to lock up the car, catch a cab back home, and come back in the morning with a mechanic.

Garden District is old. The buildings are all yellow sandstone and brick, colonial architecture surrounded by dense, thick trees that have been there forever. At night, with leaves on the ground and lights twinkling in the distance, it’s eerily quiet. The road we had broken down on was a dense, dark green tunnel of tree canopies blocking out the night sky. The sound of footsteps, when they came, were abnormally loud and I jumped.

Two men wrapped in shawls had emerged from a nearby building and were walking towards us. One of them lifted his chin above the cloth wrapped around his mouth and called out to my husband.

“What’s the matter? Can we help?”

My husband went forward to greet the two men. I stood by the car and waited. I was dressed in an expensive sari, gold jewels dangling from my ears, rings on my fingers and a lick of tension went up my spine. But the men politely came up to the car, fiddled with some wires under the engine. One of them cheerfully took the car keys from me and got in behind the wheel. With a deft turn, he started up the car. Apparently, driving over a pothole or two, I had dislodged an electrical fuse that had turned the car off.

The men weren’t there to rob us, or drive off with the car. They were night guards at an apartment block, had seen the car coast to a stop by the building and had come out to offer their help. They had us on our way in minutes, refusing remuneration of any kind. They weren’t interested in my jewelry or in a reward.

When I told my friends this story, they didn’t believe me. Very few of my friends, you see, have ever crossed the city beyond the Garden District. They’ve lived here all their lives and will never have seen Garden, let alone North Nazimabad. They drive big cars and go to elegant parties on their side of town. They’ll remain cocooned within a district, and like many people abroad, will only hear of trouble in the city on TV, or via the internet. Parents will caution against leaving the neighborhood, or the area in general and they will have every possible form of protection, short of guns and guards (which is normally among the purview of our politicians and feudal elite), when they leave their houses.

We’ve lived here for thirty years. There was a time in my life when I would have car trouble every time I left the house. I’d get a flat tire, or a broken fan belt or a leaking radiator hose and would be stopped on the side of the road. This has happened to me on Shara-e-Faisal (the city’s longest road, connecting the airport to the sea port), in the quiet residential backstreets of Defence (where there’s hardly any houses, even fewer people), in the busy craziness of M. A. Jinnah Road and Urdu Bazaar with its narrow, congested streets and crowded lanes.

Long before I had a cell phone, I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me back on the road, and I would always find it. Friends and family outside the country think we’re crazy to live here, especially when we have the option to leave, just like they did.

Yes, Karachi is plagued with gangs and terrorist blasts. There are strikes and riots, petty thieves and burglaries, kidnapping and murder, just as there is in any city around the world. But the gangs, like the riots, are all political, and their targets are invariably political opponents. Robbers and kidnappers aren’t looking for unknown women alone in a small car; they have their sights set on rich men capable of paying exorbitant ransoms. Terrorists, on the other hand, have targeted security forces and religious processions, public institutions and busy streets.

In the last such attack on the city, the survivors were helped by random passersby who spent the whole night digging through rubble to find fallen citizens. We have a slew of privately-owned and charitable emergency services (public services are limited and often a hindrance in such times) but when ambulances fell short, people transported the injured to nearby hospitals in their own private cars.

My mother routinely hears how dangerous the city is from her sisters who all live abroad and I am always surprised at how bad a reputation Karachi has. Because this is the city where I have strolled alone on a public beach at midnight and had a pleasant conversation with a vendor wrapping up to go home.

A view of one side of M. A. Jinnah Road, courtesy arifhasan.org
A view of one side of M. A. Jinnah Road, courtesy arifhasan.org

This is the city where Kohri Garden exists—a long street of stores and vendors in the heart of the city filled with books. Books that have been discarded because of minor printing errors and are available for dirt-cheap prices (we’re a sea port. Things wash up on our shores :)). One street over is Paper Market—a veritable treasure trove of every kind of paper available in large reams or as single sheets—bordering Botal Gali (Bottle Street) where you can buy every imaginable kind of glass container. It’s also the city of giant department stores that stock expensive imported items from around the world. This is a city where a monstrous glass and steel building will exist side-by-side with a well-preserved courthouse built in the 1820s. Where architects will lift a building brick by brick and relocate it in an effort to preserve our history.

This is the city where we have a terrorist attack one day, and the next morning, everyone’s back on the streets, going to work and about their daily lives with complete nonchalance. This is the city where I can stop at a roadside truckstop for a cup of tea and be given the best seat in the house because I’m a woman. It’s a city where shop owners will leave their stores wide open while they attend the call to prayer and come back to find everything in place. This is the city which daily hosts thousands of free soup kitchens for anyone looking for a meal, and countless charitable organizations that offer clothing and housing to the poor, medical supplies at affordable rates or, in some cases, for free.

This is the city that collectively supplied more aid to the 2005 earthquake victims in Kashmir and Swat than the rest of the country combined (and in some cases, far exceeding other countries’ total foreign aid).

Karachi is a city of 22 million people. We have our rotten elements, but there’s a side to this living city that no one hears about. This is the Karachi I know, and that I wish the rest of the world knew too.

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