The Best Personal Essay

Sara Suleman's "Paradox"

A lot of times, I seem to revisit Karachi in my memory, and I can hear the voices speaking…

“ PK 712 is ready for departure. All passengers are required to proceed on to the aircraft.” The airhostess’s sweet but artificially accented voice startles me out of my reverie, and I head towards my plane. I have to fly twenty-plus hours to get to Karachi and even that is less than the total time, because I haven’t added up all the hours of getting to the airport, and waiting mindlessly in the airport lounge. My seat is not that great, the air is stale and moldy, and I am dead tired. But I am happy and excited and I don’t care. Because I am going to Karachi and that is all that matters.

After what seems like hundreds of hours, I reach Quaid-e-Azam International airport. I immediately sense that the world is different—this is a different place, a different time. And with a time difference of ten hours, literally a difference of night and day… Finally after going through customs, baggage, and the endless formalities, I am home. Finally. Karachi welcomes me, welcomes me with open arms. Even the air is different here, but that could just be the perpetual smog outside.

Welcome to Karachi. Feel free to spit on the streets with unashamed abandon and throw trash out of your car window. Dillydally in the streets like you have all the time in the world. Stare at people all you want and don’t be afraid to demonstrate your wit by passing sharp remarks. This is the middle-class part of Karachi and anything goes. Inhale the black smoke in the air, soak in the scorching sun and make yourself at home.

Karachi. The city of lights. The city of darkness.

Karachi is my home city. It’s the city I couldn’t wait to get away from, and now I can’t get enough of. It’s the city where everyone is different. It’s the city where people stay up till 3 a.m., where the billboards flash all the time, where the taxi driver and the business executive go to the same mosque. It is where the beach is littered with junk, where the streets are famous for food, where people throw trash out their window. It is where the waves always crash high, where the sun always shines, where rainy days are good weather. It is where there is diversity and disparity, beauty and complexity all in one.

I see Karachi beyond its junk and pollution, beyond the dust and grime that prevails over everything. I remember Karachi, and the images are still vivid in my memory. The lights seem to flash just as bright, but the distinction between reality and memory is blurred. Everything in Karachi seems to speak to me. The “Karachites” speak to me, the natives who are a part of this city, who have the same love-hate relationship with this place as I do.

I am one of the Karachites. They are a part of me as I am a part of them.

The Karachites are united in their struggles against the heat and the traffic. We all suffer misery when the electricity goes out for hours in the summer. We all say colorful things about “load shedding”, which is cutting electricity on purpose, since there is not much to go around. We have had many delightful “candle-lit dinners” and “candle-lit readings” on sweaty nights. We have made friends with the mosquitoes and other creatures that bug us at night. We are hard-stomached and can eat anything from the side of the street. We can be miserable and yet be happy.

And yet, Karachi is a paradox. Karachi can be divided into two distinct entities, the rich areas and the poor areas. One side of it glitters and shines, while the other side speaks of poverty and despair. I live in the middle class area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal. It takes 45 minutes just to drive from my home to the “club”, where my father has gotten membership after great pains. It takes exactly the same amount of time to drive from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to other areas, where most of my relatives live. In Karachi, if you are one of the privileged few you can go to the “clubs” with the yuppy crowds and have access to facilities that other people don’t have, things like swimming pools and tennis courts, and dinner parties and brunches. People in my family remind me how lucky I am, saying that everyone who is here has earned it. I am grateful for all that I have, but I also think of other people who have nowhere to go.

The drawn face of a man comes into focus. It is the sweeper who works in our apartments, the one who I never paid attention to, but now he continues to remain in my memory. I ask him.

You. Who are you?

Me? I’m the sweeper who cleans the stairs in your apartments. I’m the one who barely makes ends meet, the one who cleans up your mess. You know me. You have seen me walking around with the thistle broom under my arm, wearing my loose “dhoti”, carrying the old wheelbarrow that is cluttered with the junk of Hina Heights. You don’t talk to me much although you see me around. I am so happy to talk to people. My son is going to school now. Isn’t that good? You are studying in “Amreeka” (America) now!? Good. Good. Did you remember to bring that watch for me?

When I was little, I lived in an old brick house in Laloo Kheit, one of the slum areas of town. I was too small to remember much, but I still remember that house, and all the area surrounding it, the filthy children than ran outside, the clothes that were hung out on the walls to dry, the puddles of mud that lined the street full of potholes.

Today my family can go to the Country Club. The club is the place for the rich and the wealthy. People living in “Defence” and other “rich areas” don’t even know about the problems that other classes in society face. They sip their mineral waters, sit in the pretty lawns at the club, and still complain. We go there, people from “Gulshan-e-Iqbal”, and I feel strangely out of place. In a different place from the littered streets of Laloo Kheit where I grew up, different from the modest house in Nazimabad where my relatives live, different from the humble apartments that surround my Gulshan-e-Iqbal home.

I see many women who seem to have their eyes closed. I know they wouldn’t agree to what I think, or even think these atrocious thoughts. I want to tell them the truth about living in Karachi. I can almost hear them gossiping over the dinner table, giggly conversations in hushed voices, talking about the false lifestyle they lead.

You. Who are you?

Me? I’m the rich, mod “aunty”. I’m the one who buys Prada-imposter pencil heels from “English boot House”, the one who wears those tight-fitting “shalwar kamiz”, the one who works out in the gym for two hours everyday, the one who arches her eyebrows so perfectly. I don’t work. I don’t have the time. I am involved with my women’s clubs, my community work, my social gatherings, and my country club. My husband is a big corporate hotshot who is away on a foreign tour right now. My kids are studying abroad as well.

My parents came from a small village, in the rolling green hills in Punjab, north of Pakistan. They are not native Karachites, but they came to this city to make a living, like thousands of others. They want their peace and quiet, their green corn fields and their peaceful living, but I guess you have to be born in Karachi to be able to live through the smoke.

My mother is the opposite of the “club” women. She represents the majority of women who don’t lead such superficial lives. I am the first woman in my family to go abroad for higher education. That is considered very strange, because usually people living in “Defence”, the rich part in Karachi, send their children abroad.

Most old women around me don’t work. They lead lives that I would not consider exciting. Yet they earn my respect by working hard at what they are doing. Karachi doesn’t allow them to step outside of their homes. The “zamana” (people and atmosphere) is bad for girls.

And now another woman steps forward in my memory. She could be my mother, my aunt, or a friend in the future. She could be someone I know. I hear her speaking to me, a question that I would often ask myself. Who are you?

You. Who are you?

Me? I’m the housewife. I do housework most of the times, taking care of my family. It is ok though, if my family doesn’t help. They have more important things to do. I don’t work. I don’t have the time. I have to take care of my family. My husband is a hard-working man who provides for our comfortable living.

On countless trips from the clubs, my father stops at a barren piece of land that he visualizes as our home. This is the plot in “Defence” that has been his dream for so long—this desolate place, in the most posh area in town.

You. Who are you?

Me? I am the hardworking man. I am the frustrated businessman who is affected the most when there is political turmoil in the country. I am the one who provides for my family, who wants the best for them. I’m the one who is chasing after a dream.

My father, like many people, chases after a dream.

I chase after a dream, in search of a perfect world.

Driving from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to the posh areas of Clifton and Defense, the whole face of the city seems to be changing. It is as if you are in another place, another time, cruising along the big wide roads as if you were indeed in some modern foreign country. This is the mecca of the “burger” culture, even though McDonalds and Pizza Huts have sprung all over the city. The new trend in youngsters nowadays is to go to these places and “hang out”, which is considered the “cool” thing. Eating fast food has turned out to be one of the biggest amusements for young people.

I was always frustrated growing up in Karachi. I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do since they were so far away. In this jungle of a city, it is hard to find things to do. It is harder to get anywhere to do anything. In Karachi, you cannot do anything when you are young, unless you have a “driver” (chauffeur) like the rich people. The public bus isn’t just a bus in Karachi, it is a roller coaster which swerves and flies, as if driven by a blind man. It is jam-packed even though there are crazy people literally sitting on the bare roof of the bus. There are more people that are actually hanging from the door. My parents didn’t want me riding the bus at any cost.

You? Who are you?

Me. I’m the frustrated youth. I’m the one that doesn’t have anything to do because the transportation system sucks. I’m the young girl who can’t go anywhere, the young man who can’t find a job after graduating. As a child, I was happy to have strikes so I could have a day off from school. As I grew up, I became concerned about the political situation, but then I grew used to it. Now I pretend to wear my mask of apathy and get on with my life. You know me very well. Didn’t you also want to get away when you were young? You were looking for a way out like everyone else.

Everyone in Karachi bitches about being in Karachi. Countless hours are spent talking about the pollution, the weather, the latest political situation, about everything that is not right here. Countless hours are spent criticizing and nitpicking every little thing. Countless hours are spent idolizing anyone who goes abroad. Whenever people come back from visiting a foreign country, they are surrounding by gullible admirers, who hear them talk about their once-in-a-lifetime trip to the developed part of the world, how it was so great there and how everything was so systematic and orderly.

I want to burst the innocent bubble of those people, but I can’t. I used to believe in that idealistic vision, of a perfect world outside Karachi, but now I realize that nothing is perfect. I see Karachi for what it is. It is not the clean, perfect areas that impress me, but it is the real essence, the real spirit of the city that lives inside all the weird people here. Everything in Karachi arouses fresh and exotic interest for me. Every “thela wala” (people who sell food along the streets), every peddler and panhandler, everything that I see is a source of fascination.

Karachi does not have exotic tourist type places. The parks are dirty and crowded, the rides in amusement parks close to breaking point. The only redeeming factor about Karachi is the beaches there. But this saving grace is on the verge of losing its charm. It makes me sad when I see that the beach is getting destroyed. At sea view, the water’s grey and polluted, the sand is black, and there are polythene bags and junk lying on top. People around me wrinkle their noses, and say that this is all because of the dirty, uneducated people who have plagued the beach. They are referring to the poor people, for whom the beach is the only place to go.

But despite the pollution and the crowd, I love the beach in Karachi, its tidal waves and its weird atmosphere. This is the place where everyone goes, which draws out crowds from all areas and all parts of the city. In a lot of ways, the beach is where the people come together. The Karachites are strange people. They pretend to hate the city and its people, but everyone who lives in Karachi would not imagine living elsewhere. No matter how much they publicly criticize it, no matter how much they curse and swear, they still keep coming back to it. Because it is home. Because it is enough.

I am one of the Karachites. They are a part of me as I am a part of them.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes