Many summers ago when I visited Karachi, I was struck by daily news reports of young men being robbed at gun point, guys being dispossessed of their mobiles at traffic intersections, and even guests coming back from a wedding being lined up on flyovers, robbed, and, mercifully, allowed to go home. Occasionally, a body was found in a gunny bag. Considering the daily newspapers confined such shocking incidents to single column insertions or a small report on the inside pages made it clear that these cases were an every day occurrence and had long lost their shock value for weather-beaten journalists of Karachi. As an outsider though, I was both appalled and afraid.
I had entered the city after reading noted author Kamila Shamsie’s warm words about it. I wanted to take in the sea waves and discover Pakistan’s commercial Capital — it contributes about 25 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. A few days here and I realised that far from bring the idyllic fishing village it once was — Karachi is named after Mai Kolachi, a fisherwoman — it is close to being the South Asian Beirut of the East. A city where disputes are settled through guns, it is a deeply fragmented place, divided deep by ethnicity — there are zones of Pashtoons, the Balochs and the Muhajirs; the latter bringing up some 44 per cent of the population, and ready, it seemed, at a moment’s notice to answer any call by MQM leader Altaf Hussain. That Hussain, recently arrested for alleged money laundering, was based out of London, mattered not a bit to the locals.
However, for all the media reports, I did manage to see a bit of the city, going to Clifton, a couple of malls, the good old Tariq Road and the rest. Everything seemed so normal. Yet the killings were for real as were countless cases of road theft. The truth, I figured, lay somewhere else, between the fanciful and the ghastly. It took some time coming. And I just chanced upon it. It came in the shape of Laurent Gayer’s book Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (a HarperCollins publication).
Systematically, Gayer sets about demolishing many stereotypes about Karachi. Early enough, he proves that Karachi is no South Asian Beirut, even if the term itself is quite dated in 2014. Nor is it a dangerous city. “This title (South Asian Beirut) was won in the most unfair way, as Karachi is only the most violent of the largest cities in the world, with a murder rate of 12.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 (still well behind smaller cities with a 100-plus murder rate, such as Caracas and Guatemala City).” Yet, Karachi survives, in fact, it even thrives. After all, as Gayer reveals, “Karachi remains the jewel in the Pakistani crowd: the first source of tax revenue in the country (it accounts for 54 per cent of central government tax revenues and 70 per cent of national income tax revenues)….handles 95 per cent of the country’s international trade, and holds 50 per cent of its bank deposits.”
Yet there is violence, robberies, reprisals and bandhs. Yet again, Karachi overcomes them all, a wonder of “ordered disorder”. Yet again there has been a history of violence; irreducible from to mere slum wars, affecting middle class colonies, not leaving upper middle class localities immunised either.
Yet in a delicious irony, it is a city where denizens express it all through a couplet, a ghazal. Ghalib is often quoted, Iqbal preferred by millions. And it takes somebody like Fahmida Riaz to say it all, “(This city) where disorder is permanent.” Then there is Zeeshan Sahil, whom Gayer quotes at the beginning. “Everyone in the city, while attending to business everyday, is afraid of getting hit by a stray bullet. Those who get hit, either they die or, laying wounded, wait for their turn in hospitals. Every day, death in the news. Every day, piled of charred car wrecks. The newspaper, in the manner of a firecracker, from dawn till dusk, blows in our hands. Now, when we look at the dead, tears no longer come to our eyes. Instead of pain, our hearts are filled with smoke.”
Shocking? Maybe. Surprising? No, not really. Nothing surprises in a city with an Aligarh Colony, a Bijnore Society, a Pilibhit Colony, an Ajmer Nagar. Here what matters is not where you are headed but where you come from.
The author is a seasoned literary critic.