I am spending the summer in Karachi. It’s my first trip to the city of my birth in almost six years, and I’ve already been here a little over three weeks now.
Here are a few things, picked rather arbitrarily, which I find are very much the same as always, and some that have changed, maybe too much (also see here). These, of course, are my personal impressions, and no more.
First, some things that remain very much the same as always:
- The sounds: The sounds of rickshaws, scooters, street-vendors hawking stuff in a loud and crisp tone particular to their trade, a variety of birds (especially the quarking of crows), truck horns, the hammering of workmen, and other voices and noises which combine with the dusty smell to produce an ever-present aural/olfactory ambience so typical of Karachi that I am aware I am home when I awaken in the morning even before I open my eyes.
- The heat and the humidy: Though by northeast-American standards it is quite extreme (many Pakistanis living in the West never return in May or June, so infernal are their memories of the blistering weather, and many such people asked me if I had lost my mind when they heard I was planning to arrive in Karachi a week before the summer solstice), I instantly found the weather comforting in a nostalgic way. Yes, both the heat and humidy are always there, but then they were always always-there when I lived here, and I am used to it. And we didn’t have air-conditioning when I was growing up. We do now, at least for the hours that we have electricity (it cuts out 3-4 hours a day usually, sometimes more). The humidity is such that one almost swims through the air and one is drenched in sweat within a minute of stepping out of the shower, so it is a race to dry oneself quickly and step out of the fanless bathroom into the fanful bedroom before dressing. The ceiling fans here, by the way, are to ceiling fans in, say, your summer place in the Hamptons, what the jet engine of a Boeing 747 is to the propeller of a Cessna 172. If you had them in New York, you could blow-dry your hair into an early-Beatles mop in 45 seconds flat just by standing under one. Here, of course, one remains covered in a slimy film of dusty sweat even in the wind-tunnel-like conditions these fans generate. Heat rashes are common, and my lower legs are always itchy. Speaking of which, the best thing about extreme heat is that it keeps the mosquitos at bay. But, unfortunately, I know they are busy preparing for a massive assault and invasion in late July and August, just after the rains.
- The food: The food is the same but I had forgotten just how good it is. Actually “good” doesn’t even begin to describe the paradisiacal gustatory delights on offer both at home (I am staying with my brother) and in restaurants here. In America everything new is said to taste like chicken but this is a ludicrous formulation because even chicken doesn’t taste like chicken there. Here, chicken actually has a flavor, and it tastes like, well, chicken. Fruits and vegetables are all organic, small in size, have spots where they are starting to become overripe (because they are not bred to look good or ripened in refrigerated trucks on the way to the supermarket) and bursting with what seems to my long-deprived palate to be concentrated flavor. I was shocked to remember what a carrot is supposed to taste like, for example (not like cardboard, which is what you must think, you poor people). In terms of sophistication, Pakistani cuisine is to Italian what Nabokov is to Dr. Suess. Sorry, that’s just how it is. (There are ten aromatic spices alone–not counting other kinds of spice and other ingredients–which go into a commonly eaten chicken curry.) The lovely smell of fresh and hearty naan coming out of any tandoor here instantly brings to my mind the futile desperation with which fancy bakeries like Bouchon cater to the pretentious of Manhattan, and how much I hate such effete gourmandizing.
- The light: I notice that without meaning to, or even realizing it, I have started cataloguing the effects of Karachi on all the senses, so I might as well mention the light: Karachi is just above the tropic of cancer, so the sun is only one-and-a-half degrees from completely vertically overhead near noon on June 21st, which results in a light the strength of which is literally stunning. To get a sense of it, turn the brightness knob on your TV (well, it probably isn’t a knob, unless you have a pre-1980s TV, but you know what I mean) to max. That’s what it looks like outside over here. Without sunglasses I get a headache in minutes. Heat stroke is a real risk of venturing outdoors in the afternoon. In general, the sun is a much angrier, less benign presence in these parts. In Urdu poetry sunshine is quite understandably a metaphor for adversity and difficulty, while the rainy season is romanticised into a symbol of joy and relief (from the sun). The light is very starkly beautiful though.
- The traffic: While an enormous number of improvements have been made in the roadways, including the construction of many under- and overpasses, new roads, bridges, and installation of traffic lights and road signs, they have been overwhelmed by the even greater increase in the number of cars, trucks, buses, minibuses, vans, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, and unimaginable vehicles of types beyond my humble powers of description–not to mention the crowds of pedestrians swarming orthogonally across the streets everywhere (Karachi has more people than all of Israel and Switzerland combined, and also more than the next five-largest cities in Pakistan combined. In fact, it’s larger than 160 of the world’s 200-and-some countries). In other words, the traffic is still the same. Oddly enough, and possibly because I first learned to drive in Karachi at the age of 14, I feel very comfortable driving here. Traffic here flows much like the cells in blood vessels: chaotically but efficiently. Driving is relaxing in a bizarre way, because it’s so unencumbered by stultifying rules of any kind. Instead, one guides one’s car toward one’s destination using the sort of natural proprioceptive sense that one uses to guide one’s own body through a crowd. And having the driver’s seat on the right side of the car somehow automatically cues one to drive on the left side of the road (a vestige of British colonial days) so that’s not a problem either.
Some things, of course, are different from before. And they are different mostly in a bad way.
I’ll give just a few examples here (my anger and disappointment will sometimes be quite palpable; sensitive Karachiites, please spare me the comments of outrage at airing our dirty laundry. After all, my beloved hometown has been turned into one of the most dangerous, unlivable cities in the world, and I have a right to some outrage of my own):
- The media: Let me start with the one biggest improvement – the efflorescence of new media and unprecedented freedom of press. When I was growing up, there was one TV channel, controlled by the government. Now there are scores, and countless radio stations, and a boisterous and large gaggle of both Urdu and English newspapers which all function with little if any interference from the government. So we have a free press. But it is the sort of press which in weak moments makes one question one’s commitment to its freedom. Many TV channels and newspapers (I haven’t paid much attention to radio), for example, are busy promoting insane conspiracy theories and catering to the most vulgar appetite for sensation in a manner which makes Fox News seem responsible. Even the highly educated are not immune to the constant barrage of this lunacy (it serves to absolve them of responsibility for the state of the nation, after all) and many succumb to the prevailing paranoia. Nevertheless, it is a good thing. I suppose.
- Religiosity: There seems to have been a massive increase in religiosity across all economic and ethnic classes here, accompanied by an increase in anti-Western feeling. Mosques of all denominations are overflowing, and public displays of piety are very much de rigueur. In general, there has been a shift of religious observance from the private toward the public sphere. My father, for example, who was a devout man (and who’s death provided the occasion for my last visit to Karachi in early 2005) rarely ever went to a mosque to pray, and nor did he ever grow a beard. Now half the men seem to be sporting unruly facial hair.
- Hypocrisy: Meanwhile, corruption, dishonesty, and crime of every sort seem to be skyrocketing. This has resulted in a society of stunning hypocrisy. My nephew just handed me a magazine article about the hardcore porn industry here. I was not the least bit surprised to learn that some studios where young college girls and boys are filmed engaging in sexual acts of shocking perversion – even to my jaded sensibilities – are located just blocks away from where I am staying. It makes complete sense in a sick sort of way. In a society which attempts to suppress every healthy sexual impulse, behind the scenes everything goes. And in general it has become disappointingly acceptable and comfortable for most people to say, and pretend to be, one thing, while behaving in the opposite manner. Incidentally, the house that my parents built, called Gulistan-e-Raza (the garden of Raza), and in which I grew up was sold a few years ago by us, some time after their deaths. It has been reported to me that it it is now used by its new owners as a facility where the printed date-stamps of long-expired canned foods, which are cheaply (no one else wants them, after all) and illegally imported into Pakistan, are changed before being sold wholesale to the markets here. Oh well, I still have some nice memories of that house. (Not so weirdly, and not long before I came to Karachi, I heard about a man who was conducting a similar scam in the South Tyrol in Italy where I live. He turned out to be a Pakistani immigrant.)
- Shrinking civility: There has been an undeniable shrinkage of civility and simple good manners in society as a whole. It is now not uncommon for the mildest traffic accident to be followed by immediate fisticuffs, for example. The newspapers report that a retired Air Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force (a two-star general) was recently humiliated and beaten by some rich teenagers after they crashed into his car. Yesterday I heard a man curse loudly in Urdu at another driver, using language that would make a frat boy blush, over something incredibly minor. Tonight I heard a man raise his voice in impressive rage and deliver a completely unnecessarily aggressive dressing down to a maÃ®tre dâ€™ in a restaurant, to the discomfort and embarrassment of all the other clients as well as his own children. This sort of behavior used to be rare. Now, it’s the norm.
- Everyone is richer: The increase in wealth is visible across pretty much all classes. Those kinds of families that used to travel as husband and wife and three kids on a motorcycle or Vespa now have small cars. Those who used to have a family car now have two or three. Everyone has mobile phones. But while this is a good thing, the distribution of wealth within society has become (as in America) even more extremely unequal than it used to be. The gap between rich and poor is an ever-widening chasm, and the optimistic hopes of social justice of the 60s and 70s are nothing but a faded dream. Like elites everywhere in the third world, the elite here are completely out of touch with the life of the common person, and are busy maintaining a razor-thin veneer of high culture over the grim reality of a divided and poor society. Hence there are things like fashion shows where the models and the haute couture and the prices are no different than in Milan or Paris. I have several times been offered Johnny Walker Blue Label to drink here (even though alcohol is officially banned) – a whiskey which costs around $250 a liter. I’ve never even seen Blue Label in anyone’s house in America or Europe. When I asked why there are no public venues for the performance of popular forms of music, which is privately enjoyed by all classes, I was told that they would quickly become targets of religious fundamentalists and Taliban or their sympathisers. Like much else, even listening to pop music must be done behind the scenes, privately, or in elite clubs. In other words, while hiding.
I’ll stop there. Maybe I’ll have more to say toward the end of my stay here in August.
Syed Abbas Raza is one of the editors of 3QuarksDaily, where a more elaborate version of this post was published. The photo at the top of this column is of the owner of a tandoor, where Raza was buying naan, and his son. He seemed very regal, and very much the master of his domain.