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.

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