July Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

Look at the City from Here: Karachi Writings is a compilation of stories, poems, travelogues and reminiscences from various authors but with one focus — Karachi. Selected and edited by Asif Farrukhi, the range and complexity of the anthology is extensive yet cohesive.

Reading it is akin to time travel — going back in history to find out what Karachi was and, along the way, discovering little snippets that explain how it became what it did and then finding oneself in the Karachi of today. In his preface to the collection Farrukhi says, “This is a selection of writings in and about. Arranged in a sequence to tell a story, chosen for their intrinsic value. Incomplete and inchoate it is, but the story is in there — being a story, a story of becoming.”

With an anthology of this sort, you shouldn’t have any trouble knowing where to start; Farrukhi has laid out a pretty clear path. But no matter which route you decide to take in reading this selection, you are bound to stumble upon something enticing. The anthology has many themes from religious intolerance, and the class divide to elitism and political crises.

He has dug up memoirs of both visitors from afar during colonial rule, such as Richard Burton and those who came to live in the city like Lady Rosamund Lawrence. There are fragments from Sindhi lore and poetry, including that of Bhittai. And Farrukhi has even explored urban myth and superstition with P.C. Wren’s tales based on the premise that a place in the city was under the spell of a fakir’s curses; on this land now stands the US Consulate. In Wren’s tales the curse leads to inexplicable deaths of the occupants of the place. This spot, the editor points out, has been the site of bomb attacks in recent times.

The spate of never-ending violence is a recurring theme in this anthology as is the identity crisis from which many suffered after Partition. In Mohan Kalpana’s story, “Traitor to the Taj Mahal”, the protagonist is a Muslim who migrated from India to Pakistan. He is a hotel owner in Karachi, but while he has let go of his former home, he can’t let go of his love for the Taj Mahal. When he expresses his horror at a customer’s claim that the landmark has been destroyed in the war between the two neighbours, he is declared an Indian spy and arrested. The selection of this story is extremely relevant even today as suspicion of each other’s motives remains rife in the two countries.

As is the inclusion of Adam Zameenzad’s story focusing on the “constant disenfranchisement” the state subjects the masses to, along with the other trials and tribulations of their life. He describes how returning from a day of enjoyment on the beach for those who don’t live in affluent areas becomes almost life-threatening. A middle-class family goes to the beach with an old acquaintance who owns an expensive car and has the keys to a house on the beach. When he goes to drop them home at the end of their excursion, they come across mobs and face the danger of being stoned.

It is in this story that the paradox of Karachi emerges: while the city has had to deal with violence for a long time now, its people remain resilient in the face of danger. Hope is another theme in this story as can be gauged from the following excerpt: “The opposition was all out to grab power for itself and to hell with the people. The government was all out to keep it and to hell with people. The result was anger in the homes and riots on the streets, which in itself was a hopeful sign — the most hopeful yet. At least a democratic process of sorts had set itself in motion. That there was so much unrest was to most proof that the government had failed. To me it was a sign that the people were succeeding. They did protest. Disastrously. But they did. Wasn’t it wonderful to see them out in the streets! Clamouring, demanding their rights, aware that they had rights.”

Indeed, this is a city of many contradictions, which can be seen again in the selection from Kamila Shamsie’sKartography. “Karachi at its worst is a Karachi unconcerned with people who exist outside the storyteller’s circle, a Karachi oblivious to people and places who aren’t familiar enough for nicknames. What I have sometimes mistaken for intimacy is really just exclusion. But Karachi is always dual. Houses are alleys, car thieves are the people to help you when your car won’t start; pollution simultaneously chokes you and makes you gasp at the beauty of unnatural sunsets; a violent, fractured place dismissive of everyone outside its boundaries is vibrant, embracing, accepting of outsiders…. No simple answers in Karachi…. At its best … Karachi is intimate with strangers.”

Even in the conclusion, the Berlin-based broadcaster and critic Claudia Kramatschek writes, “Can I really tell you who or what Karachi is? I don’t think so.”

Farrukhi invites you to find your Karachi. The anthology is extremely interactive: you can question it, find answers, discover surprising facts about the city’s evanescent past and make connections to it. And a small suggestion to the readers: from the list of authors, don’t simply read the selections by the ones that are widely known such as V.S. Naipaul, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Perveen Shakir and Fahmida Riaz. Explore all the writings, they implore you to.