The Karachi I grew up in was haunted by memories of Mumbai. My father, grandparents and aunts had all left Mumbai in the decades after Partition, chasing jobs and the promises sold to the Muslims of the subcontinent. At every dinner table conversation, every afternoon tea reminiscence, and every late night stroll, we were accompanied by the omnipresent ghost of Mumbai. Against the mythic Mumbai of their memories, Karachi always fell short: the fish was fresher in Mumbai, my father sighed, and the nights were cooler, my grandmother complained.
The imagined Mumbai that punctuated my Karachi childhood was an idyll of fresh food, better infrastructure, kinder people and those glorious Bollywood movies that lit up our screens courtesy of borrowed VCRs. Impressionistic remembrances muted all dissonance. The imagined Mumbai my father brought with him had been delivered of the daily annoyances that everyday life in the city would undoubtedly have had.
The Karachi of my childhood thus existed very much in relation to and in conversation with a Mumbai whose reality for me was only defined by other people’s recollections. Saddened by the discontent of the transplanted grown-ups, I wanted to exorcise the ghost that seemed to be the ever present lament of my father that inevitably distanced him from loving Karachi, the only city I knew and loved. How could he love me and not love Karachi, I wondered? My twin brother and I, united in our devotion to Karachi would mount vehement arguments in its favour. Our childish reasons for loving Karachi were constructed both from our childlike love for the only home we knew and the propaganda about India that we were regularly fed at school.
Karachi may have fallen short against the idealisations of my father’s memory, but it offered much to the children. My brother and I both went to Zoroastrian schools that had helped form pluralistic core of the city more than a hundred years before Pakistan had ever been in existence. I grew up in classrooms where religious pluralism was not an abstract concept but an everyday reality. Close friendships between the Muslim, Hindu, Parsi and Christian children who shared classrooms were so commonplace that writing about them as exercises in diversity seems somewhat odd. We went to separate rooms to pray in the morning and during religious classes, but our shared personal dramas and competitive hysteria over tests defined us as similar in a way that could not be divested by our religious differences. Karachi’s locale, and its conglomeration of migrants from all over India and Pakistan, offered a cornucopia of culture and cuisine. Chapli kebabs in Shah Faisal Colony, Dahi baras in Hyderabad Colony and delicious dossas near the Agha Khan Jamatkhana became the varied flavours of our childhood.
The foundation of tolerance that was such a part of our lives was valued because it was often tested. In the early nineties, Karachi was torn and bleeding from ethnic violence between migrants from India and indigenous Sindhis over control of the city. Karachi was rocked with shootings that often killed hundreds in the span of a week. Curfews would be imposed in various parts of the city and schools like ours in the centre of the city would often be closed. The first bomb blast I remember as a child was one that hit Bohri Bazar, a market in the heart of the city in the late eighties. It had hit a store called Liberty Uniforms, where we had purchased our first school uniforms a few weeks earlier. The charred, inside stairway, suddenly exposed because of the blown up store front, was an image that would soon define the city. As the first democratic governments of our lifetimes sputtered in the face of ethnic identities, violence and Karachi became a compound word. That ubiquitous question, “what are you”, became a part of Karachi children’s vocabulary. It defined our allegiances, our origin and for some others who saw our transplanted parents as suspect, also our loyalties. This period of violence defined Karachi’s break from Mumbai: the calcification of ethnic identities, the hatred toward the transplanted “other” entrenched violence into Karachi’s political landscape just as surely as the Arabian Sea defined its geographical one.
As I write this today, the irony of my childhood consternation at my father’s memories of Mumbai does not escape me. I make my home far from Karachi, in the United States but am haunted by its pain as I watch my native country all but unravel in the face of insurgent terror. It is a curious exercise for Karachiites when they have to digest the news of bomb blasts in other Pakistani cities. Reactions are complex. Some scoff at the fear of our fellow Pakistanis while we, oddly proud of having already borne nearly every sort of terror, can make a spectacle of our resilience. Others, point optimistically to our having learned by necessity the lessons of security decades before the rest of the country, where ethnic contiguity inured then from the ravages that plagued Karachi. The latter point to the fact that going through metal detectors and having our cars searched are all old hat to Karachi, a city that has never been able to take peace for granted.
But the tough-guy badness that makes Karachiites wear their war ravaged history as a badge of resilience cannot hide the weight that the current conflict is having on the emotional and spatial psyche of the city. Women’s bodies, always a mirror of the politico-religious landscapes of a city have again become testaments of these changing climes. In years past, women in burqas existed side by side with women in brightly coloured shalwar kamiz but the latter are now harassed by the former. My mother, who has worn shalwar kamiz without covering her hair her whole life, was lectured by another woman at a park about how she ought wear a hijab. A cousin was spat upon at a traffic light because she has short hair. Another friend was threatened with an acid attack for wearing capris in a crowded market. The onslaught has begun here; in a place where diversity of religious practice, if not ethnic diversity, was heretofore taken for granted. Women swathed in black are everywhere; and while it is difficult to tell whether their new garb is the product of intimidation or choice it is tangible presence pointing to the constriction of psychological and cultural vibrancy which was such a trademark of Karachi.
Mumbai’s ghost remains ever-present in this new Karachi; whether it is the sweet shops that sell delicacies from there, or the Bollywood blockbuster screened at one of the new cinemas or the many boutiques that promise clothes straight from Bombay. Last year’s catastrophic attack in Mumbai broke the heart of many children raised by its ghosts in Karachi; children who have envisioned Mumbai as a realisation of all they hope for in their own city. Perhaps also it made those who live in Mumbai also realise how the ravages of terror have harangued its estranged twin where a second generation is now growing up with terror and insecurity as a historical constant. There is much that Karachi and Mumbai have in common, megacities peopled by those fuelled as much by dreams and ambition and food and water; they both tread the tightrope between the harshness of survivalism and the tempering kindness of strangers in crowds. Yet as their political narratives fall farther apart and the generation that kept the ghost of Karachi alive fades into the past, their estrangement threatens to become a permanent break. It is this possibility; so proximately real, that represents the most terrible tragedy to befall both Karachi and Mumbai.
(Rafia Zakaria is a Director of Amnesty International, U.S.A.)