Differences that Connect a City

Post 3 of 12 – On Karachi and The Broken Chair Continued…

Wall of an old Victorian Building

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.


The Broken Chair

The Broken Chair (2)

Post 2 of 12 – On Karachi Continued…

I wish I had known her better. Twenty years of calling her home, and still knew the city at the surface. In a way, I wanted to make up for the regrets taking hold before I departed. Just a few weeks before, random assailants had stormed through the airport, wreaking havoc on the tarmac. Karachi paralyzed in terror. Her bazaar shutters rattled shut shortly after due to civil unrest, triggered by a political party in the city. And yet, she remained sturdy and resilient. Life went on.

One afternoon, when I could take a break from work, I decided to wander off on my own. My office building was located at the cusp of Saddar. The city’s old, colonial heart. Three years working there, and I had never appreciated that fact. But it felt too little, too late. Karachi had always been there, and I had always been asleep.

Just across the street from Zainab Market, I noticed Karachi’s invitation to sit awhile. To observe the life teeming through her smoggy vessels. Sometimes, I felt surprise at how a city like her can keep going, day in, day out. The chair broke once, worn down, but somebody still found a way to make it work. Nailing it to a lop-sided tree trunk. The innovators with all their jugaars. It made me see Karachi for who she really was, a staunch survivor. In a way, it felt like the whole city stood on a network and foundation of different scaffoldings. One piece supporting another, built out of an urgent need, until they were made to function as permanent cogs in a rusting machine.

But the ones on wheels have no patience for the ones walking by, and the ones strolling are blind to what goes on to the left and right. She’s a busy, chaotic city. If only we were not ignorant of the consequences of our doing. Short term solutions are only that. Short term. If only we were aware that termites from the diseased tree would eventually consume the chair. If only we had sat with her awhile and learnt. If only we knew how all the scheming behind closed doors makes her suffer and crumble.

I continued walking, grateful for the invitation to observe. Enough reason to believe that Karachi’s heart was still there. There was much more to see, hidden only so that we can learn to find it for ourselves.

On Karachi

Karachi sunset (2)

Post 1 of 12

Karachi. Half forgotten, yet cherished like a mother. From where I am now, she feels so distant, a far away city. Most of my memories, good and bad, are all part of this vast metropolis. I took this photo from the rooftop of my office building a few years ago. It was merely the eleventh floor, but most of the city’s rooftops were clearly visible. There are no skyscrapers in Karachi, and it is hard to get a bird’s eye view of the scattered mess of streets and buildings from most rooftops. A privilege. Sometimes I felt rewarded for drawing my gaze out among the maze of buildings, identifying a landmark. The old Imperial Bank building, the high rising cranes near the port or the mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam, the nation’s founder.

Most days, like everybody else, I would be lost in the thick of things, unable to ingest Karachi in her entirety. Sometimes, when my mind became clogged and jammed with work, I would often come upstairs for a few minutes to get some fresh air. To refocus. The rooftop was mostly empty except a few employees taking a smoke break by the stairwell. A hint of Karachi’s sea-ward breeze was always stronger up here, always a great help in the hot summers. Whenever I heard the mad chaos of traffic in the streets of Saddar nearby, I felt grateful for being stuck working past the rush hour. Life made it difficult to look past oneself. And so it has been for most of Karachi’s citizens. For most of us.

I think it was those little trips upstairs that helped me get some of that greater focus back. In a way, I learned to observe Karachi in my last year in a way I had never looked at it growing up. A broken city often plagued by civil unrest, and yet diverse in cuisine, culture and home to over twenty million people who made it through their day. Day by day. Every day. She was the perfect fit under the definition “Rising Asia.”