City of Faded Lights - II

Shueyb Gandapur travels in search of Karachi

City of Faded Lights - II
If Karachi gives the look of a city that has survived civil war, the impression is not too far from truth. The city has seen the worst violence and lawlessness for decades. It was allowed to remain a battleground for ethnic and religious conflicts. Here the powerful displayed their clout through violence to intimidate their opponents. In one gathering I was at, locals competed with each other over the number of times they had been mugged. Numerous stories of blasts were recounted. My friend, Mohsin Sayeed, narrated a story from a few years ago, when in a bomb explosion at a hotel, human limbs flew off to a nearby club where people were dining in the lawns. Later people joked about leg roast descending for dinner, like manna from heaven. Was it numbness, resilience or grit of the citizens of Karachi that pushed them to carry on despite all the suffering that their city had endured?

“Any other city would have died,” said Mohsin, “if it had seen this much bloodshed and neglect.” In this metropolis, people had no choice but to carry on with their lives. “Law and order situation used to be much worse than it is today, but locals would not shy away from attending their pre-planned gatherings at the very venues, where debris from explosions earlier in the day was still being cleared off,” he added.

At the Kemari fish market

We were having this conversation while having chai and parathas at a cafe, from where the abduction of a girl had received a lot of media coverage a few months ago. Despite the incident, the cafe seemed to be doing roaring business.

It was at M. A. Jinnah Road that I found some crumbling signs of former grandeur that would often be the subject of nostalgic recollections of my Karachiite friends. So many elegant heritage buildings along this road, known previously as Bandar Road until the authorities decided to name every second thing in the country after the nation’s father, made me think it could resemble a street in a neglected European capital, provided the services of some expert deep cleaners were utilised. Looking at all those gothic, art deco and Victorian remnants of old times, I felt I had finally arrived in a part of Karachi that I wanted to explore and admire. Sadly it was the tail end of my last day in the city, so I just tried to picture my surroundings with a lens that eliminated all the decay and disfigurements wreaked upon them.

Growing up in a remote city of Pakistan, one had always heard of Karachi as a megacity that accommodated the most diverse mix of people from all sorts of ethnicities and religions. To an outsider’s eye, sadly that diversity doesn’t appear too obvious anymore. The violence of the past three decades and the state’s pandering to extremists seems to have made it difficult for some minority communities to stay put. On a visit to the Karachi Parsi Institute, one learned that only 800 members remain of the community that had played a pivotal role in building it. The Baha’i Centre exists quietly in its old building, keeping a low profile to avoid attention that could prove dangerous to its survival. Hindus now constitute barely 1% of the population and their temples remain under heavy security. Jews and their places of worship disappeared completely a few decades ago. Iranian cafes, with their unique character and cuisine, once dotted the city. Few of them now remain in business.

A cafe named after Nusrat

Having seen restaurants mimicking the theme of Bombay’s famous Iranian cafes in London, I wanted to experience the ambience of an authentic Iranian cafe in Karachi. A meeting over lunch was agreed upon with another Karachiite friend, Shehzad Ali, who was visiting his city after a decade of living abroad, at Cafe Mubarak. The cafe gave the appearance of a place which had seen better days, just like everything else in Karachi. Yet it had uniformed waiters, traditional furniture and signature dishes like “chicken ale mubarak” on its menu, demonstrating the effort of an institution to retain its dignity in the face of strong cultural and economic headwinds. Shehzad spoke dreamily of the days of his youth, when the lights of Karachi still shone bright. His description of the golden days of Karachi seemed closer to what I had heard growing up. We had to raise our voices to be able to converse over the din of rattling rickshaws and honking rickety buses, billowing copious amounts of smoke.

Dinner that night was at the bustling Kemari fish market. Rows upon rows of shops and stalls were serving fresh catch of the day. One could see sea creatures here that one had not heard of. The pulsating energy of the night overcame the smell of raw fish. People came in throngs, chose the fish they liked the look of and ordered it to be grilled, barbecued, or fried. Then they sat in open air devouring their selections, while the sumptuous smell of cooked food filled the air.

The joie de vivre of Karachi’s citizens was in evidence everywhere and retold in anecdotes, but the city’s decline makes one think that the government of the country, to whose revenues it pays the highest contribution, has abandoned it after using and abusing it. Nowhere could be seen the trace of a gentle hand that gave Karachi the tender love and care it deserved. Here’s hoping that one day the authorities will wake up and take measures to restore this megacity to its former glory, so it could once again join the league of most beautiful cities of Asia.

Shueyb Gandapur is a freelance contributor based in London. He travels the world and shares his impressions about the people and places he comes across on his Instagram handle: @shueyb1