You either love it, or you hate it. There is no way you can be lukewarm towards it. Some call it mini Pakistan, some call it crass, commercial; others crib about the noise, pollution, congestion, its ‘need for speed’ to justify that it is a city that gets things done; that pull in more than its weight by way of contribution to the national treasury.
Time was when it was called ‘uroos ul balad,’ bride of cities and ‘roshnion ka sheher,’ or the city of lights. Not only was it a business centre, it was a tourist hub, too. It is the biggest magnet of opportunity that attracts people from the farthest corners of Pakistan, making it a patchwork quilt of ethnicities, and classes, and sects and even nationalities.
But who owns the soul of Karachi? Who owns this city where almost 60 per cent of its population ekes out an uncomfortable existence in the sprawling, unplanned areas known as ‘katchi abadis’ (distinct from the slums inhabited by the very marginalised and ultra poor). The bride’s trousseau became worn and torn over time, and the lights fell pray to a new evil that cast a pall of gloom called ‘load shedding!’
Despite all that, there is something about this city that arouses strong passions… in the people who love it, and those who hate it! For instance, Karachiites have been known to get almost militant on claims about its cuisine. No one can match its variety because of the diversity of its people. The ethnic milieu makes for such a colourful platter that it caters to the takes of people from across Pakistan, and more, because of the sizeable number of people who migrated from different parts of the subcontinent and made this hospitable city their home.
Each ethnic zone is a culinary connoisseurs’ delight which is why the newer generation that has grown up and intermingled outside their own community has developed a very distinct and varied palate. No wonder, Karachiites are hard to please when they go elsewhere.
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While they may be willing to make some concessions about some of the things made upcountry, they absolutely OWN biryani with an unmatched proprietary fervour. They (and me) are not willing to allow that coloured rice and spice concoction made elsewhere to be given the title of ‘their’ biryani!
And for those who may say that Karachi owes its diversity to being the capital of the new country and that is where most migrants landed, Rumana Hussain, who is an artist and a social anthropologist has a very different view to present through her book, Karachiwalla. Of the 60 communities showcased by her, most of them are those who have been a part of the Karachi mosaic before 1947. Rumana’s interaction with first and second generation members of the communities has given a very nuanced view of the ownership of the city for them.
According to her, “Karachi’s diversity clearly goes to show that the city is the sum total of its many parts — parts that are diverse to the point of being opposed to each other, yet all contribute to its richness.”
Similarly, when people are waxing lyrical about the scenic beauty of touristy spots across the country, they take out the trump (OMG that word!) card and flaunt the beach and walk away smugly.
But on a more serious note, people of Karachi boast of a more open, cosmopolitan outlook and are accepting of new ideas. They are the street fighters. They have not had conveniences handed to them on a platter. Karachiites may be smart, but Karachi is, in the words of urban planner, Farhan Ahmed, “antithetical to a smart city!” Everything that should not have been done in the name of development has been done.
He says, “every criteria that you can think of for a smart city, you can put a cross against it in the case of Karachi!” Yes, as a teacher of urban planning, he remains vested in the future of the city by engaging the youth in coming up with solutions to specific urban problems.
This has been seen on so many fronts that despite sitting at the bottom of liveability index and with World Bank reports citing Karachi as among the worst cities in the world, the Karachiites who love it seem to want to rebut these ‘facts’ through their efforts. There are civic hackathons happening where the best minds in the academia and industry mentor students who are poring over ideas and solutions to make Karachi better.
There are incubation centres exciting the youth to the possibilities of the future that do not have to be dependent on the stagnation of the system towards which a whole generation had looked and become frustrated. No more! The connected generation is charting its own path.
There are literary activities taking place and sometimes the events calendar is so full, one ends up missing some very good events. There is a vibrant arts and music scene of all genres. There is civic engagement and activism, a culture of protest, which is taking roots through making demands for rights that are seen as inherent. Maybe people who love Karachi are not paying heed to those dismal reports that question the reason for their love and optimism.
And the questions are potent and feed directly into the narrative of a Karachi that is hated by many of its inhabitants. The questions are about a crumbling infrastructure that is available to a vast majority of the urban poor. Potholed roads, no access to clean drinking water, poor housing, no sanitation and health facilities, difficulty of access to education, lack of livelihood opportunities, transport and traffic mess, and a singular lack of a safety net against threats from climate change.
As Nasir Panhwar, an environmental practitioner, says, “The urban poor living in peri-urban areas and slums are particularly vulnerable as they disproportionately live in high risk unplanned areas and poorly constructed homes, have limited access to basic and emergency services, lack voice and access to civil and political rights, and suffer from a general lack of economic resilience.”
With the squeezing of the middle class, a vast majority of the population falls in this bracket, and the disparity between the haves and have nots are very very stark, and can be seen with the mushrooming of luxurious gated communities, which are the symbol of inequities.
The social tensions that are straining at the city’s social fabric become exacerbated in the push and pull of resources and when the topping of divisive politics mix is thrown in the pot, we have the Karachi that has seen cyclical widening of fissures from the 1980s right up to the present times.
Corrective (aka repressive) measures give people temporary relief, but the heaving engine of Karachi needs relief of another kind. It needs inclusive development. Development that is not at the cost of another segment of the society. Right now that is not the case; that is why the activities and efforts of those who love the city are seen as cosmetic by the cynical, and those who cannot think of the city before they can think of their daily bread and butter and daily battles with the frustrations the city throws their way.
They can’t be blamed for thinking that those extolling the virtues of the city are living in lala land. But don’t forget, this city may have been very cruel to its political workers and dissidents and its Sabeen Mahmuds and Parveen Rehmans but this is a city they loved and wanted to make better.
Right now, there is a visible class stratification in the love and hate relationship with the city by the sea. But if any city in this country has the people who are willing and able to bridge the divide, go ‘pul ke us paar’ or across the bridge and come out the winners, it is Karachi!