Karachi: A Parallel Narrative

Imran Aslam's book on the men and women who shaped Karachi provides a much-needed alternative view of the city. Review by Danish Hassan

Karachi: A Parallel Narrative
Karachi is often painted as a dysfunctional dystopia besieged by violence, poverty and corruption. This narrative, though bearing shades of truth is oversimplified by broad brushes, reflecting a one-dimensional perspective.

The consequence of ignoring nuances when talking about Karachi or Pakistan for that matter is not just that it discolors the history books, but that it also chips away at the optimism of upcoming generations.

The continual portrayal of a city – and perhaps by extension the country - without hope, tends to inspire negative and sometimes extreme reactions from its dwellers. There are those who flounder in apathy, counting down the days till they fly out on their one way ticket. Those who seek refuge in the visions of anarchists; or worse, those who delude themselves into thinking they are saviors who have all the answers.

Thus it becomes important to promote a parallel narrative that reminds us of the essence of Karachi; that celebrates its successes, its traditions and culture, its history and prestige, notwithstanding the issues that plague the city.

The recently published K-Electric (KE) Pride of Karachi Awards book refreshingly provides that balanced perspective on the city, courtesy of renowned journalist Imran Aslam.

The book pays tribute to 25 Karachiites who were earlier in the year presented Pride of Karachi Awards by Karachi Electric in honor of their contributions to the city and the country through excellence in various fields including architecture, social work, performing arts, sports and literature.

Aslam poetically captures the quintessential characteristics of each of the 25 individuals while putting the onus on the reader of being informed and/or learning about their factual accomplishments.

To KE’s credit, the list of award recipients – selected through an esteemed panel of judges – while including usual suspects such as Abdus Sattar Edhi and Mehdi Hassan, also comprises of their far less celebrated fellow citizens such as Dr. Ruth Pfau and Zubeida A. Dossal.

It is the inclusion of these unsung heroes that should perhaps be lauded more as it brings to light the services of some of the luminaries who have persevered despite the lack of glitz and glamour in their surroundings.

In this day and age of a thriving celebrity culture it would be worthwhile to instill in our children the idea that there is dignity in working in a quiet corner of the city to uplift the lives of the blind (as in the case of Dr. Nadira Panjwani), or that it is worth striving as an artist in Karachi (such as Zia Mohyeddin) or the fact that dedicating one’s life to serving people in slums (such as Dr. Shershah Syed) merits the same recognition as is due to a world record holding athlete (Jehangir Khan).


Importantly, the list of luminaries also includes persons from minority communities such as Jon Elia, Sister Ruth Lewis and the aforementioned Dr. Ruth.

As the story unfolds it enlightens the uninitiated about the rich heritage of arts, culture and social reform in Karachi, and by extension Pakistan. It is a story that is not told often enough or if it is, it happens to be overshadowed by more sensationalist tales.

[quote]One of the more noteworthy aspects of the book is Aslam's personal ode to Karachi[/quote]

One of the more noteworthy aspects of the book is Aslam’s personal ode to Karachi; which is bittersweet and nostalgic and yet it conjures a nuanced image of the city. Using a combination of prose and poetry, Aslam’s stream of consciousness traverses through the history of Karachi, from its inception as a fishing village to its present day status as one of the more chaotic cities in the world.

While Aslam muses about multiple aspects of the evolution of the city ranging from its colonial heritage to its literary culture, one of the recurring themes he meanders towards is the erosion of tolerance.

At one point he notes a period long before sectarianism was rife; when practitioners of various faiths “traded in tolerance and dreamt the same dreams of peace” even if their social lives did not converge.

Later he bemoans the ever-encroaching fascist mentality that has driven out “Rodrigues and Fernandez,” “Rustam and Sohrab”, and turned us into “minorities ourselves, shrinking into our own xenophobia…divided by language, by culture, by sectarianism.”

“O Kolachi! You were meant to be more inclusive,” laments Aslam.

And yet while complaining about Karachi’s various shortcomings, he wonders if the cause of the turmoil lies as much with us the citizens who have “cocooned ourselves in an unreal apathy” and abandoned the city. However, he concludes on an optimistic note, reasoning that the “city is resilient” and implying that it is not too late to fulfill our obligations towards it.

It is this kind of hope and positivity that is direly needed at this moment in our country. The idea that one needs to take ownership and responsibility rather than pinning blame on others.

This idea becomes particularly important in the light of charlatans campaigning vociferously to win alliances of disenchanted people who desperately desire a turnaround. Perhaps the answer lies in learning about the merits of patiently working to bring about incremental changes, as in the case of Dr. Panjwani and some of the other lesser known social change agents presented in the book.

Perhaps it’s not the tales of some grand revolution that we need to tell. Perhaps we need to tell tales of those who go quietly about their business yet make substantial contributions. The tales of those who toil with quiet dignity. These are not tales that will sell copy, but they are more worthy of being listened to.