Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sights & Sounds of Karachi - Morning scene

The city of Karachi was, once upon a time, known as the city of lights. At present, it is the city of no-lights, and almost no-delights.

As the sun rises and its rays penetrate through the grey smoke which permanently hangs over the city, all Karachi’s faults are exposed. Ours is a plain city; blemished and tarnished by years of abuse and neglect. And at no time is this more prominent than in the mornings when the entire city, with its sins, is bathed in golden rays of sunshine.

The look of the streets in the morning varies according to your location in the city. In some residential areas the streets bear the same look every day. Sweepers, their dark complexions in complete contrast with their bright orange jackets, sweep (or pretend to) the dust from one corner of the street to another. The milkman (an almost extinct species in the more affluent parts of the city) and the newspaper boy make their daily rounds.  Birds chirp merrily in the trees, crows circle around some burnt garbage and there is the occasional barking of a stray dog. Nothing seems out of the ordinary on this rather typical bourgeois street.

Change your location to the opposite end of the city and the morning scene is a complete antithesis of the above. Sunlight might reveal a few bullet marks in your courtyard wall and maybe some bullets, too, thanks to the wedding in your neighbourhood the night before. There is no electricity because the transformer caught fire during the celebratory firing in the wee hours of the morning. The street outside your door is filled with remnants of the wedding; chicken bones, paper plates, tissue papers, golden tinsel and condoms. Stray dogs and cats are all over the place, gnawing at the bones and fighting with each other. Nothing seems out of the ordinary as long as you and your family are alive.  

In case your house is located on the same street as a school, regardless of your geographical location, you will be under house arrest till the school starts. Every nook of the road is covered with school vans playing loud Indian music, honking at pedestrians and other drivers to find a spot right in front of the gate. Unless the school is slightly upscale, you might find the road blocked a little longer as the van drivers take their breakfast in the nearby local tea- shop and compare notes about fares.

There are some streets in this city which are blocked to public thanks to embassies and politicians. There are other streets where the rich drive by homeless people; the former in their shiny cars while the latter are curled up in tattered blankets. Here, also, you will, occasionally, find body bags behind garbage dumps in the corner of the street.

Most streets in the city are broken or encroached. The latter are occupied by all sorts of people; vegetable vendors, card readers, quacks offering a cure for all diseases known to man, book sellers, stalls of social workers, masons, carpenters, beggars and even lawyers. The street is their office, their source of livelihood and in some cases, their entire world.
There are blood stained streets during Eid-ul-Adha, and betel stained streets throughout the year. Some streets have pavements while others are barely paved. Some house the rich and famous while others wound through shanty towns. Each street is different but the sun rises for all and its rays illuminate the world for all living creatures in the city, regardless of which side of the bridge their street is.

I wrote this piece for a competition by British Council to celebrate the birth centennial of Charles Dickens. Inspired from his work, Sketches by Boz, the piece was titled Streets by Morning. I am, and this is pretty ambitious thinking on my part considering my recent period of inactivity, planning to do some sketches of Karachi - of the people, the places & generally, mundane events.