February 2, 2012

“Why?” was what the lady I was talking to in the dentist’s waiting room said when I told her I was going to Karachi University. And it wasn’t an “oh-I’m-genuinely-interested-in-your-academic-pursuits” why. No, it was more of a horrified “why-would-you-willingly-choose-to-go-to-that-atrocious-place?” why.

It’s not just random strangers I meet who react this way when I tell them about my choice of university. It’s everybody: from my teachers who look at me strangely to my schoolmates who scrunch up their noses and say, “But wahan ka crowd itna ajeeb hota hai yaar!” People either assume I failed to get into other (read: better) universities, or that since I’m a girl, my parents didn’t want to waste money on me by sending me to other (read: better) universities because they’d marry me off as soon as possible anyway — I’m still debating which assumption is more insulting.

All through my last year of A-Levels, getting into a good university was at the front of everyone’s mind. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s one of the most important decisions you make in your life, a decision that will determine the direction of your career. That is why I found it surprising how little importance people my age gave to the idea that you should have a genuine interest in what you’ll study in university. They were more concerned with what university has a better reputation or a “better crowd.” Many tried to convince me to give the admission test for IBA. The fact that I had no interest whatsoever in business administration, and would much rather study psychology and literature, fazed no one. “But it’s IBA,” they’d insist. “Who wouldn’t want to get into IBA?”

Of course, there are many reasons why people don’t think very highly of Karachi University, despite the fact that it is ranked by the Higher Education Commission as one of the top three universities in the country. Firstly, it is rife with political activity — the kind of political activity that supports lawlessness and guys with batons running at each other, or tearing examination papers to shreds. Also, to be honest, it is pretty rundown. Don’t expect air-conditioned classrooms, and expect a fair amount of paan ki peek on the walls.

But it’s also not as bad as people might think. The occasional bout of violence does occur, but the students I talked to here did not, for the most part, think it was that big of a deal. “Yes, we heard administration block mein koi scene hua tha, but we completely missed it,” and, “Oh yeah, one time we saw groups of guys running at each other with danday, so we hid out in our department until it was over,” are some of the things they said, always with a laugh. They laughed. That’s got to mean something. Maybe I’m being too much of a glass-half-full person, but a little excitement in life can’t be that bad, right?

Also, nobody talks about the good things: the faculty is highly qualified. They’re all either PhDs or on their way to becoming PhDs, so you can be sure that they know what they’re talking about. There are 53 departments and 20 research centres and institutes, including research institutes on space astrophysics, marine biology, molecular genetics and clinical psychology. The languages departments include Japanese, Italian and Persian. There is even a space observatory inside the campus!

The university has been a training ground for a long line of people who went on to become distinguished in their respective fields. Notable alumni include A. Q. Khan, the scientist renowned for being the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Ibn-e-Insha, one of the best humorists and poets of Urdu, Haseena Moin, the playwright behind the famous television dramas Dhoop Kinaray and Ankahi (among others), Muhammad Taqi Usmani, a well-known Islamic scholar, and Shaukat Aziz, former Prime Minister of Pakistan.

There is also the three-storey library (although a bit dusty). It has 350,000 books, some dating back to the 17thcentury. The library is also home to the personal collection of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. And if the old and dusty books did nothing to sway you, can we take a moment to talk about the food? There is a lot of good food around. From French fries and chaat to biryani and chicken tikka (which the guy, I kid you not, barbeques right there in front of you), you can find pretty much anything you want to eat somewhere in the campus. I already tried the infamous aaloo kay samosay, and they really are as good as everyone says they are.

And the people. The people are like they are everywhere. Despite the various backgrounds from which they all come, all the girls appreciate the attractiveness of Humsafar’s Fawad Khan (seriously, that guy can rock the angry-young-man-with-the-clenched-jaw look like nobody’s business). They are regular people, people who complain about the cancelled classes and laugh when the nerd of the class makes a fool of himself. You can find common ground with every one of them.

Of course, the downside of choosing to go to Karachi University despite everybody’s “warnings” means I can’t really complain. I can’t whine on Facebook about how the first class scheduled at the crack of dawn got cancelled because, well, bus nahi ho rahi. I can’t go on and on about how guys came in with batons and told us all to leave our exam papers on our desks and run along — both things, let’s face it, are more or less an inevitability — because everybody will just smirk and say knowingly, “Aur jao Karachi University!”

My friend, when I told him I was going to Karachi University, said to me, “Try not to get yourself killed, would you?” Here’s to not getting myself killed, devouring aaloo kay samaosay and walking 10 miles everyday. And possibly getting an education and bagging a degree somewhere in between.

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.