Most international airports have massive blinking boards that direct transit passengers towards the gate they should catch their connecting flight from. The only trick is to know your final destination.
A few months ago, while at Abu Dhabi’s international airport I was faced with such a board, instinctively my eyes filtered through the list: New Delhi, Melbourne, Djibouti, Brussels, Paris, and landed on Karachi, my hometown.
It was only after I has started moving towards the gate that could take me to plane flying to Karachi that I realised I no longer live there. Despite not having lived there for almost half a decade now, when someone asks me where I live, my instantaneous but incorrect reaction is always: Karachi.
I now live in Lahore. I have lived here for more than a year, but I have never felt a connection with the city. Sure, I’ve visited it countless times before, I even went to college in Lahore, but the city never spoke to me, till now — till I visited Karachi and saw it through the lens of Lahore.
The first question I asked myself, and then all those around me, “Was it always this barren?” You can go for miles in Karachi without seeing the shade of a tree. This never stood out to me before I began traversing Lahore’s Mall Road twice a day, every day. If you understand the traffic and traffic lights well enough, you can travel in the shade of the trees all the way down the Mall. I don’t even know if Lahoris themselves appreciate, or even acknowledge their trees the way I do now, after a week in Karachi.
The second question I kept asking, and one that no one — from magazine editors to newspaper subeditors to academics — had a concrete answer to was, “What’s with the trash?” It’s everywhere: Mounds of plastic bags on empty plots, sewage waste spilt across rushy roads, tiny mountains of disposal outside homes and offices. Since my privilege lies heavy on me, in Lahore I’d really have to leave my comfort zone to see the kind of waste one sees in Karachi even while remaining confined to the Defence area.
But even within this ‘waste’land, there is much to love.
Men in Karachi don’t look at you the way Lahori men do! In Lahore, motorcyclists going north will risk their lives and turn their faces south just to look at you longer. They look as if they will undress you with their eyes against your consent. They look as if to say, “If you are in the streets, you are mine to look at, and occasionally yell at.”
Karachi’s men have no time for that. There will be an occasional glance that lasts longer than it should have, but nothing to really make you reconsider your choice of clothing nor your decision to leave the house alone. My friend and I were once temporarily trapped behind an open truck that was housing a mini PTI rally in an MQM neighbourhood: Men were everywhere, but they were all so busy doing what they had to do for their political parties that no one paid us any heed. I can’t imagine being peacefully left alone like that in Lahore.
Besides, there’s the breeze. Karachi’s evening breeze is more dependable than the PML-N’s plans to build more flyovers and underpasses in years to come. The closer you get to any of Karachi’s many beaches, the harder the breeze hugs you. It leaves you with bittersweet gifts of mussed up hair, oily skin, and flyaway clothes.
But it’s all so worth it. In Lahore, one can go for weeks without feeling the breeze on their face. There have been occasions when I’ve asked my family or Lahori friends to take me for a drive just so I can roll down the window and feel the wind tangle my hair.
I could never state one city’s superiority over the other — that’s a job for the brave-hearted and faint-minded. Each city has a distinct immutable personality, a history richer than the kings who have ruled it, and futures that are equally uncertain. I merely meant to take a fresh look at Karachi through a novice pair of Lahori goggles. And what I saw was that Karachi is far louder and more alive, it perpetually smells like burnt rubber instead of greenery mixed with exhaust fumes; it is in a constant state of disrepair and disarray, while Lahore is always building and rebuilding. And while Lahore is spread with easy-to-hurt Punjabi pride, Karachi dares you to try and hate it, and when you do, it loves to watch you fail.