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
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.