Which way do I go? Karachi finally gave me an opportunity to ask the question. It is an intriguing thing. Freedom. Once you give yourself permission to wander any street you want, unhindered by responsibilities and deadlines, you let your curiosity sniff around. I stood at the pedestrian crossing, past the broken chair and diseased tree. Many colorful paths going past the traffic lights. I turned left around the corner to a closed kiosk on the sidewalk. Painted in nice, inviting Urdu were the words “Shaukat Janoo Lockmaker”. An absent locksmith, an unanswered question. I tried to unlock an answer.
It was lunch hour, and a myriad of food vendors were visible. All packed with hungry commuters stopping for a quick bite. There was fruit chaat and samosas, as well as chana biryani and dahi balay. It is hard to explain these foods to someone who is not familiar with them. But in short, South Asian food is a blend of tangy, spicy goodness from all over the region. Words like “chaat” mimic the click of the tongue which gives in to the zesty tango of sweet, sour and spicy breaking your taste palette in quick succession. A fusion of flavor. While “balay” in dahi balay appears to connote the similar word for dance and joy. Ballay ballay. A kind of celebration when your taste buds sink into the gravy-like yogurt. It’s nothing fancy, just festive street-fare. Food for the common Pakistani. A large block of ice speckled with bits of dirt and hair is being chopped to cool off a container with kulfi sticks. A creamy iteration of popsicles. Everything here can amount to a good full course meal on a laborer’s budget. If he has had a good day at work.
There was much positive chemistry in a broken city, Karachi a blend of flavors from Pakistan. The gyro stands of Manhattan come to mind, its multi-ethnic clientele lining up for diverse cuisine in the shadow of tall buildings. Hygiene seems to be the deciding difference, and I choose against adding myself to the dozen or so bench hoggers. The wall behind them is a silent reminder of the disruptive forces that often plague the city. Slogans from gangs and political parties, graffiti over torn posters and caked paan blots. All are silent invitations to broken paths.
Dodging the traffic, I jay-walked over to the other side. The corner with the old Victorian building. Before I could move on, something caught my eye. A large, deftly-crafted wooden ship, with oars, masts and cannons rested proudly inside a glass window. What is this shop? These are things you wouldn’t expect to see in this city. Not many collectors about. Taking a few steps back, I carefully observed the musty exterior, the faded sandy, sandpaper surface of the wall for more details on the shop. It was furniture-making fusion from Peshawar, Chiniot and Kashmir.
The astounding woodcraft inside was eye-opening. I spoke with the proud shopkeeper. Did you make that ship? “Yes, it’s me and two others who work here together.” It was handmade, made-to-order, with a four month window per order. The wood was acquired from other parts of the country. I took in the smell of freshly-polished wood as he left me to gape at other novelties. Great craftsmanship lay hidden in the city.
Though marred by strife and ethnic unrest, the city has bonded and integrated in ways over decades that we don’t realize. There was evidence that Karachi is not all broken. That we are not all broken. Strong in ways we never knew, connected in ways we never realized. She has seen some bad days in recent years, but held its own. And through it all, sometimes I wonder what we’ve come to. Where are we headed? The feet give in to the street, eager to discover more.