July Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 8 years ago

Karachi is a ‘love it or hate it… no half-measures’ kind of a city. It is a microcosm of Pakistan. Whatever plays out on the macro level elsewhere — good, bad or ugly — plays out on the micro level here.

Rumana Husain, a passionate Karachiite, has the knack of cutting through the clutter of the bad and the ugly and homing in on the good.

Her earlier book,  The Karachiwalla: Sub-continent Within a City, highlighted the rich ethnic mosaic of Karachi and showed how the interaction between people of diverse ethnicities has given this city its unique cultural flavour.

Her second book, Street Smart, a variation on the Karachi theme, is published under the banner of the ‘I Am Karachi’ initiative, of which she is an integral part. I Am Karachi is a citizens’ collective which aims to push back the forces of darkness that are bearing down on their beloved city and threatening to tear it apart.

I Am Karachi describes itself as “a platform for organisations and individuals committed to promoting and supporting social and cultural activities as vehicles for peace-building by reclaiming public spaces, bringing civil society together, and enhancing public awareness through dialogues and campaigns.”

One of the initiators of this movement, Husain brings to life the characters who are a critical part of Karachi but are rarely celebrated or even acknowledged.

Armed with her camera and notebook, Husain literally went to town to document these unsung heroes who are strangers to the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods.

As columnist Ghazi Salahuddin says in his excellent foreword to the book, these people are “the human face of the concrete jungle.” He mentions that he had always wanted to “initiate the young who live in the Defence/Clifton bubble into the realities of a city that must survive to protect their own future and well-being.” Husain’s Street Smart highlights that there is much more to Karachi than the violence and strife that has blighted it over the past few decades. It is about a people who are resilient and hard-working. Even if there is no hope of any upward social mobility, they keep on doing what they do to the best of their ability. That, in essence, captures the spirit of Karachi’s citizens.

Street Smart records and photographs 64 street vendors plying different trades, and also lists down those who have vanished from the city’s landscape. From the wandering snake charmer to the fortune-teller with his parrot who sits on the street outside a shrine, from an old lady selling poppadoms to one selling Pakistan’s flags and other ‘patriotic’ paraphernalia as Independence day nears, we get to meet assorted people who take us on a trip down memory lane. One surprising omission is that of the street photographer who moves around town, armed with a camera and a huge bouquet of artificial flowers that serve as a backdrop for his portraits.

Very few women are featured in the book; I gather that’s because few are running any kind of business on the streets. Interestingly, there are snapshots of children as well — serving as vendors and helpers. Child labour is a harsh reality of our socio-economic system that cannot be wished away.


Husain’s documentation of those vendors that have disappeared from Karachi’s streets is even more poignant. It rekindles fond memories of the twang of the cotton wool fluffer, (the pinjara), who was a regular visitor to our homes just before the advent of winter so he could fluff the cotton wool in the quilts. The advent of polyester appears to have made him redundant!  Additionally, Husain harks back to the days when, after school, we made a beeline for the mithaiwala, who sold sticky, stretchy sweet wrapped around a bamboo pole which he would then shape into a peacock or a bicycle, much to the delight of his avid consumers.

Most of the author’s subjects belong to the lowest socio-economic strata and are daily wage earners — a state described as “hawai rozee” (livelihood up in the air) by one vendor in a very matter of fact manner.

These people have made Karachi their home, living impoverished lives, residing in shared accommodation no better than hovels, or resting on any spot on the street when they are too tired to go on. They have been plying the same trade for several decades and their second generation is now making the transition to their profession.

This may not say much about the city being a land of opportunity, but having lived in far worse conditions in places like Battagram, Bajaur, Tharparkar or the outskirts of Quetta, Karachi seems like a boom-town when they arrive here, most of them without their families.

There are certain common threads that run through their stories. They pine for the beautiful, scenic surroundings of home, as they brave Karachi’s heat and dust. They miss the warmth of family life and most of them are little more than money-minting machines, who send back a major portion of their earnings to support large families. They dream of a better tomorrow for their future generations. Most of the 64 vendors Husain interviewed were either illiterate, or had to leave school at an early age and join the workforce. However, a majority of them were sending their children, albeit only boys, to school.

While documenting the vendors, Husain presents them as personality profiles, but woven within each is a social commentary that draws the reader’s attention to the hazardous environment they exist in, and their extreme vulnerability to the social, physical and sexual abuse that the unsafe streets foster.

The book also brings out the inherent goodness of the people, who, despite their meagre resources, help the less fortunate among them. A woman hands over her leftover dried fruit to the shopkeeper for safekeeping till the following day when she will set up her stall once again. What’s more, an ear wax cleaner can lock up the tools of his trade in a trunk and leave it on the footpath at the end of the day — and no one will walk off with it.

Yes, there are tales of bhatta and gratification demanded by the police. But for these traders, life goes on, despite these bumps in the road.

They do not have a social safety net, but they are secure in the knowledge that they will not go hungry at the end of the day — there will always be that ‘lungar’ (free charity meal) in some part of the city to feed them.

Street Smart not only brings to life the streets of Karachi, it focuses attention on the people who make the city tick. Ghazi Salahuddin asks a very pertinent question in the book’s foreword: “Imagine that all these lowly professions that Rumana has identified suddenly ceased to exist. Will the city still function?” Ostensibly not. For they make up Karachi in its entirety.

In highlighting this aspect of Karachi, Husain’s family also pitched in. Daughter Asma is responsible for the simple, easy-on-the eye layout, son-in-law Benoit for the cover and some of the inside photographs, while architect husband Mukhtar Husain donned the editorial hat.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue under the headline, “What Makes Karachi Tick?”