After trying to write about Karachi for several weeks now, I’m beginning to understand why it’s been so difficult.
I’ve attempted to capture the city over the years in a variety of ways—taking photographs, drawing, writing, even recording audio. Early on I realized that none of that was going to work.
Photography seemed by far the easiest, with one great drawback. You can’t just pull out your camera in the middle of a market in Karachi. That’s not safe. You can’t take out your cell phone camera as you hail a rickshaw on the roundabout. That’s even more not safe. You can’t sit on a side street and sketch the elaborate neighborhood scene around you. Nope. That’s both not safe and not appropriate. In a place where all efforts are employed to conceal the fact that you’re from “outside,” how can you take parts of it back with you? It turns out, you can’t.
Karachi is often identified as a city of noise, pollution, and political party clashes, but before any of that, it is a city of movement. From the Kites found hovering over any stretch of the city, down to the stray, black plastic bag that floats across the evening traffic, Karachi is in motion all day long. Shopkeepers conduct business, crows announce the morning sun, parks roar with youth playing cricket, and even the graffitied walls join in and announce upcoming events.
Everything looks so rich and enchanted—so much that can be made into art, into photographs, into video, but it’s as though that isn’t permitted. What you live in Karachi, has to stay there. It’ll be there too when you come back, but you simply can’t take it with you.
I found that the only way I could even come close to grasping something was by discreetly and quickly taking photographs from inside the car, but it did little justice. Movement cannot be caught.
Alas, I can’t write a romanticized tale about my time there, even if I have all the ingredients. I suppose in one sense, Karachi feels too much a home to be a tourist there. And if you’re not a tourist, it becomes impossible to write like one.
So, I won’t.
What I will do is mention a few things I learned in Karachi this time around:
Limitations engender gratitude
The one thing none of us can claim excellence in, is gratitude. We always have so much more than we are thankful for, consider, or are aware of. Going across the world really stirs your soul though. You see a mother feeding her two kids from a small, foil-wrapped piece of bread, crouching between plants atop an island median on a traffic-laden road. You see the tiny five square-foot space people own, in which they’re running a shop to support their family, pay bills and fees, get their children married. You see the effort required, even by the well-off, to keep up with education despite weekly closures and strikes on transport. And then you pause and think: well, I have a home, I have clean water, I have so much food that I skip meals willingly sometimes, I have, I have, I have, until you realize your life would run out before the list does.
Limitations engender creative thinking
The thing with limitations is, you can give up or you can try finding a way around them. I kept seeing people devising interesting solutions whenever some minor challenge arose.
Among many, a few examples:
1 / With the entire extended family flying into Karachi for two family weddings, naturally one day, we ran out of pillows. Some of the girl cousins in my room, including myself, would sleep in a row across the floor. My aunt sat down and started thinking, and resolved the shortage fairly quickly by pulling a seat cushion from a 3-seater that used to exist on the bottom floor. She laid it down, butted against the wall, and smoothed a sheet over it. We then had one continuous pillow stretching halfway across the room, that four heads could rest on.
2 / There is a product often used in Karachi called a mosquito coil, an insect repellant compacted into the form of a spiral that is lit at one end. It then burns all the way around until finished, theoretically keeping mosquitoes away through the night. The coil is propped up on a stand. If it were on a surface, the surface could burn. If it’s put on the edge of a plate or glass, it’ll be fine until the part not touching the plate is burning, but once it reaches the plate surface, it’ll likely fuse out.
The coils you can buy in Karachi come in a pack of two with only one stand, but we had so many rooms of people, we would need to light both in the same night. My dad’s solution, now employed throughout the household there, was to take a glass bottle and place a knife inside it, tip up, so that it leans against the inside neck of the bottle. Then he would poke the tip of the knife through the center of the coil. This would hold the coil up without it touching any surfaces, and it would burn all the way around until the end.
3 / I didn’t witness this one—only heard about it later—but it’s very cool. In Pakistani cooking, meat is sometimes infused with coal smoke before being cooked. This gives the food an exquisite flavor. One day amidst cooking—the day a chicken recipe was to be made in this manner—the ladies discovered there’s no coal in the house and none was available in the vicinity either. The lady who comes to cook in our house thought for a bit and asked for a piece of spare wood from an old cabinet that had now been replaced. She then charred it on the stove until it turned black, then burnt red, then white, and it was used to prepare the chicken. The woman made her own coal.
It’s all about quick and simple solutions, and how interesting—that the human being’s instinct isn’t to give up, but to resolve.
Limitations engender flexibility
You can feel it. You don’t want to be on facebook. You don’t want to be on your phone. You can go up the stairs barefoot, despite the dust. You’re able to make wudu out of a single mug when there’s no water in the house. You can laugh when a bird urinates on you from the tree branch above (this happened).
Something occurs while you’re there, and your mannerisms just start becoming less and less rigid. When you first arrive, someone else will tell you where the towels are, someone else will make you chai, someone else will be a gear of the current household that pulls you along. In a few days though, you leave the shell you arrived in. You’re free and you can feel it.
Now you are found in the kitchen making chai and coffee for guests, now you go to get dupattas dyed and pico’d in the bazaar behind the house, now you’re a gear in the household. The hesitance is gone: you’re comfortable, you’re active, and you know where the milk & sugar are kept.