Celebrating Karachi

The reality of Karachi eludes the gaze of an outside observer, of how a city can survive-and to a degree, flourish- as dozens are literally butchered every day, as strikes paralyze and shut down commercial and civic activity. The city does not reveal itself to the less curious observer, the inattentive bystander, the negligent spectator. A city of 18 million souls has as many secrets. Every individual, whether an Urdu speaking Mohajir, or a native Sindhi, or a Pashtun, has his own story. Every individual is a story. The sprawling, booming megalopolis of Karachi is an intricate web of complexity; the nation’s financial center that generates a disproportionate amount of the government’s budget, the epicenter of political intrigue and speculation, even when the city remains deeply divided along ethnic, political and linguistic fault lines.

Karachi is a cosmopolitan city, a bundling mix of contradictions; home to an educated liberal middle class that drives the country’s economy, a growing number of Jihadis who have sought refuge in the cacophony of the metropolis, thousands of laborers and professionals who battle for survival in the harsh economic climate and to a landed elite that resides in virtual polarity from the lower income classes. For some, Karachi personifies the “good life”; for others, as Hobbes once put it, life remains short, nasty and brutish. The inequality, the glaring inequity fuels frustration, resentment and incites crime and violence. The bubble does not hold for long.

Target killings, gang warfare, kidnappings and extortion, sectarian tensions and ethnic conflicts scar the city of lights. The violence, the carnage is inescapable. The possibility of an untimely death never ceases as a consideration. Politics permeates the city, in the colorful and overly expressive billboards along major highways, shaping the ideological narrative around which people conduct their lives. There is no one Karachi; like other mega-cities, Karachi cannot be compartmentalized into one particular identity, cannot be conjoined into one monolith mass. Karachi, people will tell you, is the soul of Pakistan, the heartbeat of the nation, with its secular, liberal outlook and its multi-racial, multi-ethnic constitution. Even as the city bleeds in the face of the ongoing turf war between political opponents vying for the city’s economic pie, it remains a measure of its resilience that Karachi wakes up every time, day after day, to battle and stand firm against those few who continue to spread violence in pursuit of their bigoted interests, whether economic or political. And yet behind the political substructure, lies the economic superstructure. Economics drives the city, the politics, where people send their children to school (if at all), whether parents are able to arrange a proper wedding for their daughters, and simply whether families are able to feed themselves.  In Karachi, one senses a certain urgency in the air, the battle is between the man and the metropolis; heartbreakingly familiar is the despair, resignation and bravery of ordinary people, otherwise anonymous among Karachi’s millions, struggling to keep their lives intact.

Karachi has, ever since my arrival two years ago, confounded me, and shall, I suspect, continue to do so. Its enormity is staggering, local residents confide to me. Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, a recent publication on life in Karachi, cites the example of the Edhi as representative of the city itself “the Edhis had come to represent the character of Karachi — passionate, witty, resilient, and gloriously strange”. Karachi gains its vitality from its diversity- the nervous energy, the constant frenzy, in the manner of a city uneasy with its own character. And yet for all tribulation and violence, all the political maneuvering and bickering there is something ineffably distinctive and endearing about the City of Lights.

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