Letter from Karachi

The city is not different from one in India, and the talk is always about shared heritage

October 18, 2016 12:19 am | Updated December 01, 2016 06:29 pm IST

62 per cent of the population lives in KatchiAbadis, informal settlements in the city and increasingly in its hinterlands.

62 per cent of the population lives in KatchiAbadis, informal settlements in the city and increasingly in its hinterlands.

Somehow I thought that if I ever went to Pakistan, I would perhaps cross the Wagah border and make my way to Lahore and then Gujranwala, where my four grandparents came from. It was an idealist vision, fuelled partly by another generation’s nostalgia, and my years of teaching colonialism, Partition, and all the rest. Instead, as it turned out, I landed at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on an Emirates flight from Dubai.

I went there to give a keynote address on Delhi at a conference on megacities organised by my university in the U.S. and the University of Karachi. I was on the opening panel with a Brazilian and a Turk, who talked about Sao Paulo and Istanbul, respectively. The idea was to start by showcasing megacities around the world and then focus on the issues and problems of Karachi.

There hasn’t been a census taken in Karachi since 1998, and the Karachi doctoral students and faculty presented findings from their own recent surveys of over 11,000 residents in the city. The conference platform was that the city’s policies should be determined by data — empirical facts and figures about health, education, water, sanitation, transportation, and youth — and not by the politics of prejudice. The elephant in the room was urban governance, despite the appearance of Karachi’s Acting Mayor at a few sessions. I was surprised to learn that Karachi — a city of an estimated 24 million — does not really have its own city government but rather comes under the jurisdiction of the state of Sindh, a government more concerned, many told me, with its rural constituencies. Meanwhile, the power centre, Islamabad, is a two-hour flight away, in neighboring and politically dominant Punjab. This leaves Karachi’s management somewhat at sea, even though the city’s production represents well over half of the country’s wealth.

The conference was attended by over 300 people each day — mostly faculty and students from the University of Karachi, but also journalists, urban planners, and a few politicians. When my turn came to speak, I was conscious of the fact that Delhi was not only another world megacity but also a neighbor down the road. Even if Delhi may be more like Lahore (two heritage cities) and Mumbai more like Karachi (two colonial port cities), certainly Delhi had more in common with Karachi than most other places in the world. I felt this immediately when I got down at the airport and was met by my host, Mustafa, a 30-something Ph.D. student with an infectious smile. I spoke in Hindi and he in Urdu, and my academic knowledge about the Persianisation of Urdu and Sanskritisation of Hindi crumbled to bits. We were both speaking the same language, and it was Hindustani.

In my talk on Delhi, I spoke about transport challenges in the city, our own urban politics of inequality, and my ethnographic studies of the social impact of the Delhi Metro. I mentioned the ladies’ coach of the Metro and the continuing debates about whether there should be a separate space for women or not. I talked about the city’s erstwhile BRT and why it might have failed politically, even if it was a success to those bus riders who whizzed along its corridor. Karachi has little in the way of public transport (though its first BRT is to open soon); its buses, numbering only 2,000 for the entire city, were the most intricate and colorful I have ever seen, and yet so crammed men ride on top of them. One of the Karachi Ph.D. student researchers caused a stir by presenting data on the high incidence of sexual harassment on Karachi’s buses; on the one hand, her research was covered extensively in the press and she was later interviewed about it on Pakistani television; on the other, forces on the religious right called her a traitor for reporting news that could in no way be true.

People in Karachi spoke to me about about security issues, but I soon realised they were talking about petty crime, armed muggings and house break-ins, not terrorism. While I was there, I heard of someone’s friend who had been shot while having his iPhone stolen. I also learned that the wealthier segments of society often live on military cantonment land — the military is also a property dealer in the city, building housing stock and offering more secure neighborhoods. Meanwhile, 62 per cent of the population lives in KatchiAbadis , informal settlements in the city and increasingly in its hinterlands.

One night we were driven to the outskirts to a new private housing development, 45 minutes along a potholed highway with traffic going in multiple directions. It had picture-perfect lawns and playgrounds, a Pizza Hut, and imposing gates. We saw a model home with marble floors and choice amenities in a row of elegant attached homes, going for over a crore each. It was a contested site, likely built on archaeological ruins and with no public utilities, yet a few of the students I was with said they would be happy to live there. It was serene, uncluttered, and completely unconnected to the city.

Back in the conference hall, people wanted to know more about Delhi life, how people lived there, how similar or different it really was, and especially — perhaps because more than half the audience were young women — how easily women moved around in public space. The students did not have a single question or comment about India-Pakistan or Pakistan-India. In that conference hall, at least, we talked city-to-city, people to people, and spoke of many common social issues.

Relating through cities rather than nations began, I realized, when I first arrived on campus and was led into a Dean’s office for chai. With him were five of the city’s newspaper editors, all sitting around a coffee table. Our formal introductions quickly led to where I was from, and when they learned the specifics of that, they each went around saying they hailed from “Meerut, Allahabad, Lucknow …” — places they had never been to but which meant something to them.

The conference was not just a formal affair. There were teas and lunches and dinners and wanderings in the city. There were chats with drivers, servers, and guesthouse staff. It was impossible, in my mind, not to compare everything I saw with the Indian cities I knew — Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai. One beach reminded me of Juhu in Mumbai, another of Elliot’s in Chennai. Jinnah’s portrait appeared where I was used to seeing Nehru’s.

On the first day, wearing a long kurta and churidar pajama, I realised I was the only woman in the conference hall in short sleeves halfway to my elbows — the rest all wore kurtas that went to their wrists, though only a third of the women in the hall had their hair covered, and few were wearing hijabs. When I asked one of the students if people would mind if I was in short sleeves, she responded cheerfully, “No, not at all, everything goes here, you’ll see women in short sleeves, too.” She was right in a way. On a Friday night in Dolman’s mall — as fancy as Delhi’s Saket mall and with many of the same shops but with a more vertical orientation and seaside location — girls and women wore jeans, slinky tops and all the rest. When the call for prayers happened in the mall, the women I was with discretely slid their dupattas over their heads for a few moments.

On the last day of the conference, I was part of another Q&A panel, and the Dean introduced me by saying I was not only Indian but from Gujranwala as well. I felt embarrassed by the attention, but this news brought cheers from the audience and added a different dimension to the warmth and incredible hospitality I had been shown all week. At the tea break, a junior faculty member I hadn’t met before came up to me to say he was also from Gujranwala. I explained to him that it was an abstract place for me, an association passed down but not experienced in any real way. He said it was a good place and that I should come there sometime; he also joked that we were probably related. We both laughed, took a selfie and went our separate ways.

RashmiSadanateaches atGeorgeMasonUniversityand is the author ofEnglish Heart, Hindi Heartland: the Political Life of Literature in India;rsadana@gmu.edu

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.