Monday, 17 June 2013

Postcard from Karachi (via Suffolk)

It’s not long since our visitors departed and the flag was hauled in. The house resonates still with the energy generated by the extra bodies and souls, and the delight of sharing historical and familial connections. Now is time to reflect on the news brought back from Karachi, 4,000 miles and a whole world away from our corner of Suffolk.

I have to thank the lush Suffolk countryside for its part in the visit’s success—anyone coming from the 40+ degree heat of early Karachi summer would think they had arrived at the epicentre of an oasis such as ours. Karachi stands in what was desert in the Sindh province of Pakistan, right on the coast of the Arabian Sea, and the climate veers between arid (winter) and tropical (summer). Respite from the summer heat is hard to find—and while the sea breezes cool a little they also sting with salt, oxidise and corrode.

Keamari Harbour
During my father’s childhood there, Karachi was reinventing itself from a humble fishing town to a centre of trade and industry with the construction of oil refineries and its development as a major port by the British. Add to this the influx of refugees during Partition, then other refugees in more recent times, and Karachi has exploded to become the most populous city in Pakistan today—currently accommodating 21.2 million inhabitants. And while the city’s area is vast—1,360 square miles—it’s not big enough for the population crammed into it. A snapshot of the city at rush hour—residents hanging off the sides and onto the roofs of buses, the mass of cars and highly-decorated trucks on the potholed roads, each working to their own interpretation of the Highway Code, the people on donkeys, the people everywhere—tells you that the place is big and bustling and full of life.

Compare this to the population of Suffolk of 728,000, the whole county inhabiting an area comparable to the city of Karachi—1,480 square miles—and you get a shock, rather than a sense of comparison.

There are oases in the city, though. The mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, is a focal point, and a refuge from the relentless hustle and bustle. It sits atop a hill, and gives you a sense of spiritual elevation as you transcend noisy, messy, chaotic everyday life. Visiting just before dusk is a magical experience: the marble is supernaturally cool under bare feet and the changing of the guard ceremony is bewitching in its elegant reverence.
View from Jinnah's mausoleum
Jinnah’s vision for a Muslim state, and the subsequent complex (and brutal) birth of the separate countries of India and Pakistan, clearly played a part in Karachi’s population explosion. At the time of Partition in 1947 the city’s population stood at around 400,000. Around half—Hindus—migrated to India. But only four years later, it had soared to over one million.

For this, and many other reasons, Karachi is a melting pot ethnically—and like so many aspects of the sub-continent, it’s impossible to extricate the layer upon layer of history, ethnicity, and linguistic and tribal divisions from one another. The indigenous folk are the Sindhis, known for their warmth, hospitality and beautiful, erect posture, a result of binding their babies to boards when newborn. (You can spot a mile off anyone who was cared for by a local ayah, their noble posture giving them away instantly.) You will also find representatives of many ethnic groups from the sub-continent, a result of migration during Partition.

From further afield, and according to official sources, migrants from 64 different countries have chosen Karachi as their new home, with most coming from Bangladesh. Karachi has long provided a home for Afghan refugees, from those fleeing the Soviet War in the 1980s to others escaping more recent conflict. There are significant communities of Burmese and Ethiopian people migrants. The vibrant Ethiopians are famed for their love of donkey racing, mainly in the old part of town, Lyari, where the faded elegance of the colonial buildings provide the backdrop to the clattering across the pebbles, the braying of the donkeys and the whooping of the crowds, Balochi music blaring out encouragement.
Traditional truck
The heat, the dust, the weather, the people are all talking points, so too is last month’s election in Pakistan, important historically as it represented the first time the government had changed over democratically rather than by the habitual military coup. Change, and a desire for change, could be felt.

Sadly, democracy has not quite won through—eyewitnesses say that while polling stations were open early in the morning in some areas, voters were made to wait hours in the searing heat before they were allowed to vote. But many remained undeterred—those only just old enough to cast their vote waited, the elderly, patients on stretchers, the terminally impatient. ‘The spirit is there,’ they said, defiant in the face of the most bloody campaigns in the country’s history, with 130 people fallen victim to violence in the lead-up to the election.

In the end—or even before all votes had been counted—the Punjabi Nawaz Sherif of the Pakistan Muslim League won the day. No coincidence, some say, that the candidate hailed from the most populous area of Pakistan and that local loyalties often supersede careful examination of policy and political conviction.
The vibrancy of Karachi
The news confirms what we already know: life in Karachi, the “City of Lights” is hot, vibrant, intense. A world away from sleepy Suffolk, where the sun set this evening in a quiet hush over the countryside, it’s a universe within a universe—and like the interminable Asian soaps, in a single episode contains enough storytelling, drama and life-or-death scenarios to last you a lifetime.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Hope Springs Eternal

It’s a late and lazy spring…but not too late to catch up with the stories and articles in our latest edition…read on for a hint of more…

It’ll All Be Gone Tomorrow
Amanda Block
Amanda’s story explores the periods before and after the First World War through a triumphant female’s eyes. Amanda’s prose is intensely visual (‘For so long, his palette held only shades of mud and blood. He can hardly bear it, seeing the world now, shimmering so’) and her storytelling striking. The reversal of fortunes presented in It’ll All Be Gone Tomorrow is thought-provoking and leaves you wondering about the characters and as much about what has been left unsaid…

A Time in the City
Edward Clark
Edward is a natural-born writer, with an incomparable style and skill, and he certainly lives up to our expectations in this vignette of Sixties London. His prose makes you feel like you are really there: ‘…the Underground’s essence of swirling air currents freighted with the pungency of smoke and sparking electricity; the rhythmic swaying clatter of the red trains…the broken tempo of people now stationary, now suddenly mobile’. Edward weaves in important milestones—Martin Luther King’s famous speech, the Kennedy assassination—and lets us live history through his eyes.

The Vernon Inheritance
Bruce Harris
Bruce—a skilled storyteller—charts the rise of Luke Astle, a humble stable lad, during the English Civil War to become Sir Luke Vernon, whose line has survived to this day. And it’s not just a feel-good story, but a beautifully detailed one: ‘The late spring afternoon is warm and disturbed by a breeze enough only to wave the leaves gently in the trees…Luke trots his horse Thunders…into the trees behind the river bank…He steps to the edge of the water, strips off, and spends half an hour swimming luxuriantly up and down the Hollow, enjoying the cool caress of water and a rare sensation of cleanliness in the remorseless daily military life’.

David Dobson
David’s enthusiasm for all things Henry V is infectious. His account of the Battle of Agincourt brings history to life with its vibrant description and narrative: ‘The archers stood ready for the battle…There was a pious hum of men reciting anxious prayers…Bright pennants and flags fluttered from countless tents and bugles, pipes and drums thundered across the fields’. David brilliantly tells the story of how Henry V, the soldier and the strategist, won the day, and leaves us intrigued with his consideration of “what if?”.

The Yellow House
Lucy E. M. Black
Lucy weaves her tale set in rural nineteenth century Ontario with a delicate and expert skill. It’s a poignant story, beautifully illustrated by her sensitive description and realism. So hard to pick a highlight, as they come in every paragraph, I particularly loved her understated description of the home her new husband has set up for his bride: ‘Inside all was orderly and quiet and tidy. William, and his mother, had thought of everything…There was a new rocker by the fireplace with a woven hickory bark seat. A small bedroom had been sectioned off from the open living space, and a heart was carved on the pine headboard’.

The Georgian Development of Dublin
Michael Montagu
The growth of Dublin in the eighteenth century is a fascinating tale expertly told by Vintage Script favourite Michael. ‘Then, as now,’ says Michael, ‘the answer was location, location, location!’ and he explains how the south side of the city became the place to be, how the Georgian style fell out of favour after independence came in 1922, and how redevelopment in the Sixties cut a swathe through some of the city’s finest Georgian architecture. ‘Fortunately enough has survived to give us the idea of how it used to be,’ says Michael.

For Those in Peril on the Sea
Clare Reddaway
You know you’re set for high drama on the seas as Clare opens her story with the words: ‘The chapel cowered only yards from the beach, defenceless as the storm lashed its grey granite walls. Inside the roar and crash of the waves drowned out the voice of the preacher. The oil lamps stuttered, throwing shifting, elongated shadows onto the damp-stained pulpit’. Clare’s writing continues to work its dark and enticing magic as the drama unfolds on a stormy autumn night. Inspired by St Agnes, the smallest of the Isles of Scilly, Clare’s story leaves you with real emotions, and a tantalizing feeling of wanting to know more…

Digging up the Family: Lessons in Social History
Gill Garrett

Inspired by the discovery of her grandmother’s mourning brooch stuffed with a lock of her mother’s hair, Gill takes us on an intimate tour of unearthing her own family history, and of the fascinating history behind mourning jewellery. She reveals that hair, so often used in such items, has long been employed to symbolise remembrance and affection—from Ancient Egyptian times onwards. While Gill has not been able to reveal much detail about her great-grandmother, she says, ‘…I have that lock of hair, a tangible, incredibly personal link to her’. Gill brings the personal touch to “digging up the family”.

An Unwelcome Chill
Lucy Charles (Penny Alexander)
We’re back to the Civil War with Penny’s tale, as she interprets the “I See The Birds Have Flown” story from 1642—the point at which Charles I lost control of London, and from where the country slid into Civil War. It’s a dramatic turning point in history, and Penny’s storytelling instantly transports us to this crossroads in history. And it’s not just the drama but the chill atmosphere that Penny conjures up so vividly: ‘It was dark, and still. The candle flames rose in the chill air, illuminating with quite golden light the narrow table where my friend worked.’

No Business Like Showbusiness
Roger Harvey
Roger’s lively style is perfect for his account of his parents’ days managing the Comedy Cinema in North Shields. When his father took on the role of manager, war was in full swing, and it’s easy to see from Roger’s vibrant descriptions how the cinema became an oasis of escapism for the local population. His mother, ‘the golden-haired girl in the pay box’ and his father, ‘the well-spoken, dapper manager in his evening dress’ represented another world, that of big screen glamour, to their patrons, and they were rewarded ‘by many acts of generosity wrenched from a life of real hardship: one cigarette, a kipper, an egg’. Funny and poignant, Roger’s article is a heartwarming and uplifting read.

Living Statues
Jennifer Falkner
Jennifer writes about Herculaneum and Pompeii—and more than brings them to life with her easy style and natural storytelling. She’s an expert too on subtle detailing which adds a depth to her tale: ‘Like so many tourists, he lingered over one cast in particular. A young girl…The detail on the cast had come out so clearly, the small curls like gentle waves framing her face, her fine jawline, her delicate nostrils and open lips, the small ring on one finger’. We see the humanity preserved in the cast of the girl, the inhumanity of her “admirers” and the perhaps misguided heroism of her saviour…

The spring edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.