Letter from Karachi

They eat the city, but they do not feed it.
-Local official

Dear H,

What is it about the word Partition? Singularly clean and tidy. Surgical even, for an event that undammed tides of blood, changing what may have been the equally tidy course of Karachi. A blameless word, really. In French, it refers to sheet music, sound split neatly into sections. Useful for, say, breakups, where blame bubbles in the air. “Oh him? We partitioned a while ago.” A fresher take on the overused “Mistakes were made.”

The first change manifested itself before I’d even landed: a section for Chinese visitors on the disembarkation cards. Tick here if your visit is related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), there if related to a non-CPEC project. One of the most ambitious power and rail initiatives for regional integration in Asia, CPEC has dominated news coverage in Pakistan for years. It has been spoken of in glowing terms, equally by the prime minister, though a minority express skepticism over the actual benefit to the country, and of Chinese bullying. The English-speaking intelligentsia resent certain aspects of the increased Chinese presence in the city, referring to them as “our new colonial masters.” In the end though is the feeling that nobody really knows what’s going on. Mostly, it annoys the Americans, as attempts at regional cooperation naturally do. But America needn’t chafe. One thing hasn’t changed. Stepping out of Jinnah International Airport into the middle of an uncharacteristically brisk January night, beyond the small crowd seeking loved ones or holding up placards for strangers, beyond the dark parking lot, glow the yellow arches of the current world order, McDonald’s, spelled out in English and Urdu. The second change slaps me some days later.

If legend is to be believed, an illiterate eighteenth-century fisherwoman, tired, sweaty, unsuspecting, settled on the delta of the Indus River. Mai Kolachi, as she was called, lent this contemporary megacity her name. The handful of indigenous Sindhi and Balochi tribes that settled here did indeed christen their fishing village Kolachi, a term others hold simply to mean “respected aunt” in the local vernacular. The wily British colonials, operating from Bombay, 500 kilometers down the Arabian seacoast, quickly gauged Karachi’s strategic location and its natural port as valuable assets for their enterprise. They nurtured and finally annexed their “Kurrachee” in 1843, which had by then grown to a reasonable town of 9,000 inhabitants.

In an existential sense, Karachi had been registered on the page of history and, unbeknownst to fortune-tellers, would be set upon a headlong path of growth and recognition. The next half century witnessed a rush to urbanization and modernity. The 1901 census recorded 136,000 inhabitants, a Hindu majority closely followed by a large Muslim community and tapered by a lively smattering of Parsees, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists, living in multi-religious coexistence in a generously planned, expanding space dotted with faux Gothic civic buildings and connected to the outside world by a port, the great North Western Railway, inaugurated in 1878 and, of course, the telegraph. The Prince of Wales (soon to become King George V) and his Consort dignified Karachi with a royal visit in 1905 to gaze upon the Empress Market built to honor Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Karachi had been bestowed the stamp of imperial approval.

Fast-forward to 1947. Karachi is now capital of the independent State of Pakistan, the largest Muslim country in the world. The last census of the Raj recorded a population of 435,000—still a small town with its enduring social dynamics and personality. Streets were washed each day at dawn, and the air was still as clean as when Bombay millionaire Shivratan Mohatta built his summer palace beside the sea two decades past for convalescence of his tuberculosis-ridden wife. The iconic PanAm 1 and PanAm 2 round-the-world flights flew in from Beirut, as did a dozen international airlines, and their crews were seen all over the city—crabbing in sailboats in Karachi harbor, picnicking at Hawke’s Bay Beach (indeed Karachi’s French Beach took its name from the Air France crew, a label it carries today), shopping “exotica” in the souks, riding horse-drawn carriages and striking friendships with the debonair young men about town. The diplomatic corps brought their own inimitable culture of cocktails and dance parties. Prince Aly Khan, eldest son of the Aga Khan, and his latest bride had their honeymoon in Karachi; Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner shot Bhowani Junction, albeit in Lahore; Marlon Brando came in unrequited pursuit of his Pakistani love.

Unseen, hidden under this veneer, seminal and deleterious changes played havoc with Karachi, helped on by brutal regional geopolitics and mindless misgovernance. Religious cleansing at Partition, a 60-fold increase in population since, and ethnic compartmentalization has yielded the bitter harvest of fundamentalist/madrasa fervor, sprawling slum life and societal disconnect. Karachi is preyed upon by rent seekers, and there is none to take ownership. As a local official once explained, “They eat the city, but they do not feed it.”


Today I am in Saddar, the former colonial center, clamorous and poetically falling to bits. Pakistan is a particularly loud country (“Well, yes,” a famous doctor once countered, rolling his eyes, “there are people here,” yet I stand by it), and Saddar is no different. Once a pedestrian zone crisscrossed by tram lines, it is now clogged by technicolor buses and auto-rickshaws, dusty vans, beat-up cars, or the tinted 4 x 4 of a Very Important Person, complete with armed bodyguards limply hanging off the side like party streamers. Traffic cops, elegant in starched white uniforms, stand bravely amidst the chaos to direct it with waving arms and screeching whistles. Saddar is home to the Karachi Press Club, the Cotton Exchange, the City Railway Station and, of course, the experiment in human ingenuity that is the parking lot outside the National Bank. Cars are parked in tight rows, squeezed into whatever available space, no sensible way to vacate. A smattering of biryani restaurants lines the far end of the lot. Dilawar (a young Pushtun with green eyes, a migrant from the cold north) hollers for the other “valets” and, consolidating their manpower, lift stationary cars out of the way, hooting encouragement, so I can reverse.

Some streets here are wide avenues, running between old colonial buildings, grand, crumbling structures of an Indo-Gothic aesthetic, built with Gizri stone by masons from Rajasthan. Others are labyrinthine gullies snaking across pockets of communities. Children poke their slender fingers through the wrought-iron balconies of peeling six- or seven-level apartment buildings, perpetually curious and aroused by strangers who ignore them below. Seemingly innocuous doors open to hidden masjids. But foremost, Karachi is commerce, that binding glue that builds big cities. Zainab Market holds a special place in the area’s cultural makeup, where vendors haggle in all languages, and the struggling and well-to-do shop side by side. Jewelry, handicrafts, swords and guns, furniture, coexist as do, at least in the brief act of exchange, representatives of all Pakistan’s provinces and ethnicities.

Close by, next to the unfortunately misspelt Tit Bit Book Stall, a used bookstore functioning since 1944, is the Parsee Fire Temple. Painted an inviting yellow with white piping, a sign at the gate nevertheless bars my entrance. Open to Parsees only. No Admission. If not for the engraved faravahar, or the winged figure symbolizing Zoroastrianism, you may think you are looking at a European building, a library or municipal building. It is a reminder that post-Partition Saddar was once home to a different demography, home to Karachi’s Parsee and Goan Christian communities. The former were the great businessmen, the latter the jazz musicians who entertained the elegant in the area’s now shuttered casinos, cabarets, clubs, hotels or, for the more working class, decidedly male population, saloons with swinging wooden doors like something from a Western.

Today these places have become banks, carpet shops, furniture sellers, tea houses, post offices. A combination of growing intolerance—the result of state attempts to strangulate cultural diversity in favour of a more governable Sunni Islam-tinted monoculture—and the fallout of the Soviet-Afghanistan War, flooding the city with guns and “white gold,” eventually drove our compatriots away. While some Parsees do remain, as the fire temple attests, our Goan, Jewish and Anglo-Indian brothers are gone. Valet Dilawar’s kin were yet to enter the city in great numbers at this time, though a number did migrate to work in construction. All groups squabble over whom the city belongs to, but Pushtun labor quite literally built postcolonial Karachi. They are not always welcome here. The West at large sees Pakistan as a country of terrorists, but at home Pakistanis point the same finger at the Pushtuns; they, an entire class, are blamed for the bombs.

Assaying the tumult from a serene height of 140 feet is the central clock tower of Empress Market. Completed in 1889 in the Indo-Gothic style, named for Queen Victoria, the building is arranged around a large courtyard with four galleries at each corner. The tower terminates in a flat-topped triangle, beneath a lattice-work balcony and a high, arched entryway. It is one of the busiest shopping areas of Karachi, selling everything from dry goods, vegetables, meat, household appliances, clothes, shoes, and even species like macaws, falcons and flamingoes until raided by the province’s wildlife department. Outside the market ground squat a long row of Hindu women in bright saris—hot reds with gold lining, parrot greens, purples, pinks—like sunlit sparrows guarding the ancient facade. They are selling nuts in hefty jute sacks, unshelled almonds and peanuts, cashews, pistachios. Some sit under small umbrellas. Others simply tolerate the sun.

The second change: past the sun-bronzed women, the sandy ground outside Empress Market is empty. Once crowded with stalls and shops, a publicly unpopular “anti-encroachment” drive by authorities has shut down these small businesses that have existed for over fifty years and bestowed on Empress Market its heart, inherited from one generation to the next. The bulldozers came at night, in November. By some estimations, over 10,000 shops were razed. The colorful sparrows outside must surely feel the precariousness of their vigil. The sand is to be turned into a garden, something manicured and peaceful. On one side, this has already started, and small groups of men sit on the grass. Despite local disapproval, Karachi’s mayor was quoted in the New York Times, saying, “We need open spaces. We need gardens, trees, public areas, benches. . . . The era of the concrete jungle has gone on for too long in Karachi.”

I have it in mind to buy a fine head of broccoli. As I walk through the wrought-iron gates of the market entrance, the more enterprising vendors smile, catch my eye. Others sit on the counters of their own little shops, swatting flies, sipping tea from white cups. In the center of the courtyard, women sift through piles of mismatched clothes and rubber slippers. Cats sit tucked in corners like loaves of bread.

Butchers are the natural allies of cats. They are generous in Karachi, sharing scraps with battle-hardened street felines. In one of the galleries, home to the meat shops, men sit atop steel tables covered with slices of flesh I cannot even identify. One holds a leg of something with both hands, cuts slices with a knife clinched between his big and second toe. Severed hooves are placed in neat rows like shoes. Remarkably, there is no hint of a smell, perhaps due to the cavernous ceiling and open windows. For a mild-mannered vegetable eater like myself, I leave with only three heads of broccoli and a handful of German chillies. Outside, to my left, behind an unpainted block of low-income apartments, the steeple of the multilingual St. Anthony’s Parish gently pokes the sky, a place where weekly mass is held in English, Urdu, Punjabi, sometimes even Tamil and Konkani, an Indo-Aryan language of Goa. (It is a strange irony of this now predominantly Muslim city that two of its most elite schools are Catholic, where nuns past smacked students’ hands with a ruler for speaking anything but English.)

I have stepped out onto another kind of emptiness too. Beneath my feet, in 1857, Hindu and Muslim sepoys were strapped to the mouths of canons and blown to pieces as public punishment for rebelling against their masters. Once their remains were scraped off the ground and dumped into pits, their supporters were exiled to the Andaman Islands, then a British penal colony off the Bay of Bengal, to die of torture and starvation. For Indians and Pakistanis, 1857 marked a first war of independence. For English historians and keepers of the national narrative, it is largely still referred to as a mutiny. Many believe that Empress Market was built on the site of the massacre to prevent the construction of a mausoleum to commemorate the soldiers. In any event, the reasoning was clear: the manufacture of forgetfulness. A small steel plaque is nailed high up inside the entrance wall, near my broccoli man. You have to squint to read it: EMPRESS MARKET. Built by the Karachi Municipality to Celebrate the Jubilee of Her Most Gracious Majesty Victoria, QUEEN EMPRESS. Opened 1889.

The empress herself used to guard the entrance to the nearby Frere Hall, built in 1865 to serve as Karachi’s town hall. Her marble statue, soon joined by one of King Edward, gave the expansive gardens the names “Queen’s Garden” and “‘King’s Garden.” In the 1960s, ahead of a state visit from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s first military ruler Ayub Khan worried for their highnesses’ safety. To pre-empt any possible disapproval from ultra-right-wing clerics who could view the statues as idols, they, along with several bronzes dotting the city, were removed under the pretext of restoration. The agitations of Karachi’s working class and political parties’ student wings may also have contributed to the federal government’s fear for their erstwhile monarchs. Karachi Metropolitan Corporation personnel dug a trench near their offices and buried the pair. The bronzes were locked in a room with windows and doors bricked and cemented over. Ironic really, that while statues were defaced and destroyed in England during the Reformation, her former subjects were going to such great lengths to protect their history. A 1951 article referred to the statues as “historical treasure,” asserting, “Sad or sweet, the past is ours and it can never fail to be of invaluable guidance and absorbing interest occasionally to have glimpse into past struggles and fulfillments.”

It’s a question that reasserts itself across times and cultures. In Trump’s divisive America, statues of General Lee became the center of rallies in 2017. When the Abu Ghraib story finally broke in 2004, I recall talk of destroying the prison. As Empress Market shows, to destroy is to forget, perhaps neutralize.

Today, the monarchs and bronzes find residence behind Mohatta Palace, located some thirty minutes from Saddar, not far from the sea. Made from traditional Rajasthan stone and replete with seven soft domes, the palace was the final home of Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and who unsuccessfully contested federal elections in 1965. Today it is a museum, but the public still isn’t allowed behind Mohatta Palace. As with everything in the subcontinent, strings are pulled, calls made. A staunch “no” turns into an accommodating smile. We are escorted to a sunny courtyard partially covered by tarp, with piles of tiles and wooden logs in one corner. Queen Victoria, about nine feet high, stands in flowing robes on a stone pedestal, missing her hand. Edward has lost his whole head. Like the marbles of ancient Rome, her eyes are devoid of pupils. A chunk of poor Edward lies at his feet. In moving the statues, parts were destroyed.

A barefoot artisan in a green shalwar kameez sits on the floor, chiselling a wooden door, tools scattered about. The workers unveil the real treasure, uncovering the bronzes scattered about the courtyard. Each one is placed on a large cement block and shines brilliantly in the sun. The statues imitate scenes from ancient Rome: a toga-clad emperor on a throne, two women, one blindfolded, with wreaths ringing their heads, arms lifted in supplication. Another kneeling, asking salvation. A wreathed and winged mother and child. A woman kneeling in a bed of flowers, pouring an urn of water onto the ground beside her feet. In the corner, in stone, two cheeky cherubs straddle open-mouthed fish, blowing into trumpets. It is something you expect to see in London, dotting public squares and parks. Here it hides.

Close at hand to this protected past is another, perhaps truer, history. Those descendants of the legendary Mai Kolachi—of the original ethnic Sindhi and Balochi tribes that first settled in Karachi in the 1700s—are still deeply attached to their prime and old location. Past attempts to relocate them to the city’s periphery have singularly failed. Some say the neglected inner city of Lyari is named for the Lyar tree, said to grow in graveyards. Body bags may be a contemporary symbol of what is one of the poorest and most gang-ridden parts of Karachi, but Lyari has found rather contemporary means to heal its wounds. Football.

Not unlike the football-fueled slum of Kibera in Nigeria, Lyari is known locally as “Mini Brazil” for its football fever in an otherwise cricket-mad nation. It is also home to Karachi’s black African community—descendants of slaves in nearby Oman, who eventually became part of the local Baloch community. Known as Makranis or Sheedis, one of Lyari’s most colorful and vibrant streets pays homage to their roots in name: Mombasa Street, after the Kenyan port city, or as the name has warped over time, Bumbasa Street. In 2012, when Barack Obama won the American presidency for a second term, a group of Sheedi youth performed a traditional dance of African origin known as Liwa outside the Karachi Press Club in celebration.

During 2018’s World Cup, one may have assumed one was touring a Brazilian favela. Brazil’s green and yellow flag was painted all over the neighborhood’s crumbling walls, on the steel shutters of shops, hanging from overhead wires. Posters of players were taped to cement walls. A wooden pole on Mombasa Street had BRAZIL written down its length in green paint. Other teams had their countries’ flags proudly raised as well—Germany, Spain, Argentina. But Brazil rules. Hand-painted murals of Neymar and Messi decorate walls instead of the usual political graffiti. The year before, Ronaldhino visited Lyari to play a match. Tickets were impossible to come by. One wonders if Brazilians know how much they are loved in this troubled corner of Pakistan, which has produced the country’s best football players.

Lyari’s neglect is as old as the city. The Hindu merchants who developed Karachi before British rule had little interest in nurturing a predominantly low-income, Muslim locality, and the colonizers would show the same indifference. And post-Partition, as writes scholar Laurent Gayer, “the primary concern of Pakistan’s ruling class was not with the living conditions of Pakistan’s indigenous labour force but with the resettlement of migrants from India.” Basic amenities like electricity and plumbing didn’t reach Lyari until the 1960s. Coming from the rich part of town, one must drive through Lyari to reach the exclusive French Beach, where the Air France crew will likely never revel again.

Lyari is a microcosm of the question haunting the city since independence: Who owns Karachi? To whom does it belong? Slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto even held her wedding in Lyari to cement her party’s relationship with the area. These questions, Gayer points out, may have been played out with knife fights in the ’60s or ’70s, but with the influx of Russian arms during the Soviet-Afghan War turned deadly. And remain so. Since 9/11 there have been new contenders: extremists bent on quashing indigenous forms of Sufi and Islamic worship in a city of varied saints and shrines, where devotional ghazals are sung late into the night.

Something has been lost. Both for the elite, whose past is shuttered and replaced by tea stalls, and for the local indigenous peoples whose diversity of folkways is constantly under threat through violent claims of ownership.

In some short weeks, I am again on a plane. I too have eaten the city without feeding it. I have, in the past, used Karachi and its people variously for research, academia, writing stories, a place to be still when “real life,” which so often for me has been elsewhere, becomes too much. I come regularly searching for home and, except in the personal sense of family, don’t find it. I leave and don’t find it either. I am part of the “brain drain,” the problem; I am not doing my part. Unlike that clean word, Partition, I cannot cleave myself neatly from a deeply flawed but exceptional place, a warm place. Like Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, sitting in his dorm room at Harvard, I must explain to inquiring minds abroad, “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” But still I am not there.

Alia Ahmed