Fiction: Karachi

By Shama Dossa

‘Granny’s Theory’

By Zeeshan Sahil

Granny says

The world is balanced

on a cow’s horn.

When it gets tired

Of carrying the whole world

On its horn

The cow shifts the world

to the other horn.

Getting moved

From one to the other,

For a few minutes.

The world is shaken up.

According to Granny’s theory,

Karachi is located somewhere

In this world

perched on a horn.

But these days the cow gets tired

Very easily

And shifts the world

From one horn

to the other.

We do not understand this

And like Granny

We are worried

That when the cow

shifts the world

From one horn to the other

Why does our Karachi

Always get jolted

(Sahil, 2010, p. 241242)

(Translated from Urdu by Asif Farrukhi)

It was ten thirty on a sticky Monday morning and Atiq Shaikh was seated in his cubicle

drinking his second cup of sweet steaming chai. He had just turned on his computer, waiting for the familiar sound of Windows 2007 to load, when everything went dead.

‘Bhainchod Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation!’ he yelled, livid, the veins on his forehead bulging.

He had not slept the night before because of the load shedding and heat. Even with the privatization of the electricity company the power outages were getting worse. Last year it was four hours a day. This year it had doubled.

            The unscheduled load shedding irked him.

‘How is one to function with this God Damn heat and no God Damn electricity? How is this country ever going to progress? Our rivers are drying up, our dams are near empty. Here we are in 2010 where the world is full of modern gadgets and solar panels and what do we do? We sit in the heat and we wait for God to help us! There is no hope for people like us…’

‘At least in Islamabad load shedding is scheduled,’ he thought. ‘They are organized, it’s the military, they do everything by the clock. But this is Karachi. Nothing is predictable and nothing is planned.’

‘I wish I had accepted that job with that INGO in Islamabad in 2005 when the earthquake happened,’ he thought, clenching his fists, ‘then at least there would have been some option for growth and promotions’.

He sighed and cursed his luck for what may have been the millionth time.

‘I had a chance to do economics! I could have been a corporate mogul with a car and a chauffer! What did completing a masters in sociology get me? After spending two years studying outdated American and British textbooks and another year waiting to get my degree, ‘it’ (the degree) has no value!’ Nobody cares about sociology here anyway. He recalled one of his friends Nadir teasing him about his degree. “Why would you go to school to learn to study people? What sort of technical skills will that give you? Don’t you think being a doctor would be better?” Perhaps it would have been, but it is too late now and truth be known he had applied to medical school but his grades were too low for him to gain admission so the sociology program was his only option.  

            He got up to open the old wooden colonial styled shutters. The rude sounds of the unplanned city[i] combined with a gust of exhaust fume laden breeze caught him off guard. The smog obscured view outside seemed to invite derision and Atiq Shaikh had plenty of it to go around. He was bitter, felt bitter, looked bitter, and even the stale after taste in his mouth from the chai was rancid and tart.

‘I could have been in Islamabad instead,’ he repeated in his head with disgust, ‘instead of this ugly death trap of a city.’ ‘There is no value for professionals in this field. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is running his own NGO; Dentists, Lawyers, Teachers, Car Salesmen. Crooks! All of them scammers!’

He looked out at the jumble of buildings. Old dilapidated crumbling colonial shells barely standing, next to the might of tall glass encrusted high‐rises. Gutters overflowing with gurgling foul noisome liquids. Roads jam packed with vehicles of every shape and nature; rickshaws and buses horns blaring emitting clouds of exhaust fumes; motorbikes and donkey carts competing for scarce space. Karachi had never been the cultural capital of the region. It was no Lahore.

Sweat trickled down his temples and his shirt stuck to his back. It all seems so interminable, the same routine, the heat, the oppressive humidity, and it was only the end of April. He remembered a time when April used to be a cool month, when the breeze that came through this window was fresher.

            ‘This city used to be different too,’ Atiq reflected. ‘It has changed and so have its people.’ Atiq recalled his childhood growing up in Pakistan Chowk. He had Gujrati Hindu neighbours who would invite him over for srikhand and fried puris. During Muhrram the tazia would be taken out from the lane to lead the mourning procession and he would wait for the steaming haleem a savory stew of meat and lentils to be distributed as niaz.  This was no more specially after the targeted killing of Dr. Zaidi in his clinic. Atiq’s neighbourhood was now primarily sunni. All the minority communities had moved away into ghettos where they thought it was safer.

In character the city is prone to amnesia, in addition to its unpredictability. Those who reside here have learned to live with such flaws. Perhaps it is the city that shapes its residents to be forgetful, to forget the blood on the streets, the targeted ethnic killings; corpses in gunny sacks; violent protestors’ lathis in hand and police brutality. We forget being woken by the sound of guns being fired, the awful stench of tires being burned and the sounds of gaskets exploding as cars are set ablaze. The next day the city wakes up and it is business as usual.

            It is a shape shifter this city, and God knows what form it will take in its next mutation… Perhaps the national leaders may yet have their dream of morphing it from a multicultural society to a uni‐religious and a uni‐cultural shell. On the other hand, the city has a will of its own.

Unlike Bombay, Karachi was a nonentity during the time of the Raj; a blip on the colonial radar; a crocodile story[ii]. However, local mercantile activity on the port began to attract the interest of the East India Company and it became a prominent trading post. Wars were fought over who controlled the Khara Dar and Meetha Dar (The sea door and river door).

In the beginning, after ‘47, this used to be the capital until the Punjabis moved it upstream to their side. Really it was we Mohajirs[iii] who built her – we came here on partition leaving our homes and lands sacrificing everything to come to the new Pakistan and be free of the British colonizers[iv].

My mother travelled to Karachi on those death trains with the bloody corpses all around her to get to the ‘free country’ for Muslims. The promise was a false promise for most who flocked to the new country and land of the pure. The government sector failed to provide the migrants and urban poor with land for housing at an affordable price.

Informal settlements, katchi abadis, began to spring up out necessity appropriating state and agricultural land. An informal sector now provides water, jobs, solid waste management, health and education services[v].

I wonder what my mother would think of all this now? Of her Pakistan and of this city? What did she get when she finally made it here? We were no better off. We were persecuted by the Sindhis and Pathan because we were Hindustani[vi]. In retrospect, perhaps she would have been happy dying in her own Lucknow rather than in her adopted city, Karachi. There was a time when multiple faiths were represented, and different points of view were shared and discussed. People had the courage to speak out in those days, and to dream. It used to be peaceful. It used to be relatively safe. But that was before all the killings and the riots and street crime. There were cinemas, dancehalls and bookshops in the center of the city. General Zia helped change all of that.

The non-state religious actors that the General supported became custodians of public morality; budgets for cultural activities were drastically cut; prominent artists and writers were persecuted and had to go into exile; female news casters were forced to cover their heads. The Hudood Ordinances and the Blasphemy law became weapons for the persecution of religious minorities, women and children. Students were incited towards militancy and violence and encouraged bigotry towards fellow citizens. The drug mafia became an important actor, investing in real estate and transport as well as co‐opting the local administration and police. The Urdu–English divide in schools grew as did the deenimadrissah divide[vii].

Now the city is all ghettoized and very few public spaces are shared between the rich and poor. Recreation spaces are only for those who can afford them[viii]. You either live on this side of the bridge, or that side[ix].

A city poised on a tightrope is what it is. It takes just one incident for the entire city of almost twenty million to catch fire. The death of one girl for all the anger to be unleashed[x]. And then the government set loose their dogs, ‘the Rangers,’  and the violence continues[xi].

Atiq looked below and saw the garbage heap that had collected at the corner of the street. He thought of the overflowing gutter he had had to sidestep to cross the street this morning.

‘It is nothing but a landfill of stinking garbage that never gets cleared away. We just pile more and more rotting carcasses and the cockroaches keep coming from everywhere in a violent feeding frenzy. A city of migrants. An interminable flow of garbage washing up on its shores[xii].

A crow landed on one of the electricity wires that crisscrossed and sliced the landscape outside. It picked on the carcass of a paper kite impaled on one of the electric poles.

‘And crows,’ he thought, ‘we are picked clean by the scavenging crows… cockroaches, and rats; this is what we have come down to[xiii].’

‘Pathans; Bangladeshis; Central Asian prostitutes; the bloody Biharis are still here, not to mention the Punjabis, land grabbing mafia ,the Armed forces and paramilitary Rangers who have their hand in everything![xiv]

Overflowing and stretching its waistband, engorging itself.

The city had swallowed up his parents, and then his younger brother to fill its belly[xv]. We are infested with cockroaches and vermin from inside and out. And the Afghans. Who can forget our dear brothers the Afghans, the Mujahideen and now the Talibain. Oh, and who can forget our benefactors, the Americans, and their drone attacks, and their so called ‘War on Terror’[xvi] and the IDPs who keeping flowing in[xvii].

            Had it not been for these roaches and vermin we might never have seen guns in the hands of college students.

Were it not for them we would never have become a trading post for drugs[xviii].

Atiq had recently seen a BBC expose on Karachi, where the city had been featured as a center for ‘networks of international espionage’[xix] – a social space where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, a ‘contact zone born out of conflict’. A city divided across sectarian and ethnic lines where violence and death are an everyday occurrence. A complex and contradictory entity riddled with bullet holes, plots of assassination and suicide bombings; ‘the epicentre of international terror’. A city housing the Talibain.

            ‘Who would believe that we are the financial capital of the country!? This place has no soul, no culture. It is fickle treacherous two-faced like all the people who exist within it.’

The crow saw a dead cat on the road below. He cocked his grey head to one side as if listening to the insults and then, taking offence, took flight to feast on the carcass.

Atiq stood at the window looking out but not seeing. He lit a cigarette. Harris Khalique’s poem kept coming to his mind and he recited it aloud.

Let’s mourn and celebrate Karachi.

Mourn the young

Whose bodies are found in gunny bags every day

With their eyes gouged and limbs broken.

Celebrate the birth

Of every baby with lips like rose petals

And cheeks like plums.

Mourn the streets that caved in

Under avarice and mediocrity.

Celebrate the eating places

Which serve hot and spicy food all night long.

Mourn the libraries that were never opened.

Celebrate the poets who are still writing.

Mourn the cinema halls that were closed down.

Celebrate the artists who are still performing.

Mourn the bigotry, subservience, prohibition, primordial norms.

Celebrate the camaraderie, freedom, consumption, promiscuity.

Mourn the death inflicted on its citizens.

Celebrate the love of life in its air.

Let’s cry for all who are dead.

Let’s sing for everyone who is alive[xx].

He took a deep inhale and remembered his brother.

They had grown up in this city together. His brother had been a doctor and he had loved this city. It had been home to him. But his brother had left his clinic and never came home. He had been at his clinic when his wife called to tell him that the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.

The assassination had been in Islamabad but the riots happened in Karachi.

The traffic had begun to slow down around five in the evening as the news started to spread. Atiq remembered the fear. Karachi was the nerve center ripe for unrest. People were trying to get home to safety; they all knew what could happen in such a situation, they could sense the violent possibilities. Women holding their babies close, school children crammed into Suzuki vans clutching their school bags and lunch boxes. Shopkeepers rushing to pull down shutters, cars lining up at petrol pumps and drivers panicking. Families on motorbikes trying to find alternative routes over footpaths to try and navigate the traffic jams.

Just one match is all it would take to ignite emotions.

Then it started.

            They were caught in an inferno of burning vehicles and looting.

            Mobs of angry protesters armed with sticks, petrol bombs and various light ammunition started attacking vehicles, public and state property.

            Nobody seems to know who started it and how the mobs operated. People stuck in the traffic were easy targets. The flotsam and jetsam residents of the city were held at gunpoint for their wallets, purses and cell phones. It went on the whole night.

Many people did not make their way home. His brother was one of them.

Three days later Atiq found his brother’s body in the morgue. As usual nobody knew who had done this, his body a statistic, one in fifty killed by ‘na maloom afrad’ (unknown individuals).


This story focuses on the context of my research, the city of Karachi and my participants who engage in the process of facilitating ‘empowerment’. It frames the text and provides a context for understanding the challenges of working and living in an unplanned city of almost 20 million as a community development worker. As a story, it demonstrates how contexts and structures shape encounters with research participants and texts, how narratives are constructed and circulate, facilitating and enabling but also blocking and restricting possibilities.

According to Cornwall (2007a), importance of place in theorizing about empowerment is significant. Analysis needs to be grounded and contextualised, given the enormous differences between the countries that are the targets for development’s one-size-fits all interventions. Context also embodies the broad conditioning factors which help to shape understandings and experience. For Kabeer (2007), specificity of social relations challenges the assumption of stylized universalist assumptions around empowerment as a concept and empowerment strategies. Hence understanding historical shifts in societal and cultural norms and practices, migration patterns and historical disputes; the role of state and non-state actors; transnational actors; politico-religious groups; patriarchal and gender structures; religious and ethnic discrimination poverty and class; the density of donor engagement, the broader landscape of organisations and social movements are all important in theorizing about empowerment (Andrea Cornwall & Edwards, 2010). Context is therefore crucial in making sense of empowerment narratives.

The story ‘Karachi’ centers on the musings of a particular character, Atiq Shaikh, an NGO community development worker. Through Atiq’s ruminations I take the reader through a partial topography of Karachi, providing a socio-political context to locate my stories in. Migration has played a significant role in changing the cartography of the city. Transnational political and local ethnic and sectarian political actors have over the last two decades made mutually beneficial arrangements which place the city and its inhabitants in an ongoing position of insecurity. For most residents of the city the state has offered close to no social protection services and the process of access to amenities and service is purely based on self-organizing and local philanthropy. The frequent power outages in Karachi are a source of ongoing frustration for all home and workspaces. The hours spent waiting for the electricity to return accelerates as the summer commences. All my participants and I suffered through daily power outages which resulted in poor sleep and intolerable work conditions affecting mood patterns and delaying work.

The reader here is introduced to the politico-religious contexts that influences the everyday lives of community mobilizers as well as researchers like myself. The volatility of the situation in the city and the precariousness of existence are reflected in the story to provide the reader with a glimpse of what it is like to live and work in a city so fraught with tension and the smell of death. The targeted killings of ethnic political party workers and MQM doctors has once again become a strategy of rival political entities. Each one of us (including myself, my participants and fellow colleagues) who live in the city have such stories to share. Stories we hold close to our hearts of a lost loved ones, scars we hold within us. This fictional depiction is a cumulative representation of stories of such loss from my data. Stories we tell ourselves to construct our own identity moving between optimism, bitterness and despair. It also reflects the apathy frustration and what it means to live with violence in the everyday. It also reflects the challenges of doing research in such a context. The story moves between past and present highlighting how encounters of the past shape the present and detail the history of the city in which the study takes place connecting the local and the global. How violence affects us and scars us and how we live with fear and insecurities and yet continue. Zeeshan Sahil (2010), Karachi’s poet wrote both in English and Urdu often expressing his ideas through the voice of children and their presumed innocence to ask questions adults have no answers to. Sahil’s poem ‘Granny’s Theory’ draws on a childhood fairytale which explains the cosmology of the world. Yet the violent changes brought about in the world no longer have a fairytale or rational explanation. The symbolic shifting and jolting Sahil refers to evokes the feelings of fear and instability that we as residents of the city experience. Growing up in this city I can relate from childhood the never-ending strikes, school closures and bomb drills. I too ask, why us?

[i] Arif Hassan (1999) renowned Urban Planner and Architect of Karachi in his book highlights the multiple attempts made at urban planning in Karachi. He specifically sees Karachi as a city where none of the Master Plans have

been implemented (Hassan, with, Younus, & Zaidi, 1999)

[ii] There is a legend that the city got its name from a fishing village named after a battle of a Sindhi fisherwoman Mai Kolachi, who battled a crocodile (Farrukhi, 2010)

[iii] Mohajir literally meaning ‘one who has migrated’ Muslim immigrants who had come to Karachi from India after 1947 became known as Mohajirs and formed a political identity Mohajir Quami Mahaz (MQM) headed by Altaf Hussain which came into being when 1984 General Zia-ul-Haq banned all student movements. Later the MQM enjoyed state patronage in opposition to the Benazir Bhutto led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) (Chaudhry, 2004).

[iv] At the time of partition the population of Karachi was 450,000 (Hassan, 1999, p. 24). According to Hassan (2009) this included the migration on partition in 1947 of (600,000 refugees). The Hindu population decreased from 51% to 2%, Muslim population increased to 96% ; Sindhi speaking population decreased from 61.2 % to 8.6%; and the Urdu-Hindi speaking population increased from 6.3 to 50 % (p. 210)

[v] Within the last generation these neighbourhoods (Kacchi Abadis) have changed from purely working class to become home to white-collar professionals and entrepreneurs (Hassan, 2009).

[vi] 12 Although Karachi had witnessed sectarian and ethnic riots before, “the 1985 riots, and subsequent 1986 riots between Pathans and Mohajirs were unprecedented in the level of cruelty exhibited as well as the extent of death and destruction” (Chaudhry, 2004, p. 265).

[vii] The colonial system of English medium education persists in creating urban elite in opposition to state run educational system producing subjects categorized by their English speaking alternates as ‘Urdu Medium Types’ (UMTs). With the advent of the Islamist policies of General Zia mosque schools were substantially funded. They tended to present a militant view of Islam and aided in many cases in the Indoctrination and preparation of fighters to join the Afghan War. Many of the students in these madressahs have been foreign Muslim trainees. Recent government policies have now focused removal of foreigners from these madressahs and reforming their curriculum. (Hassan 2009)

[viii] (Hassan 1999)

[ix] The Clifton Bridge located near the US consulate is a marker for crossing into elite and gated communities. Since the bombing outside the US Consulate public transport vehicles, motorbikes and vans are not allowed to cross the consulate and continue over the bridge.

[x] According to Chaudhry (2004) the riots of 1985 in Orangi marked the onset of Karachi’s contemporary ethnics conflict. The riots initially occurred between transport-users, Mohajirs and Punjabis , and transporters (often Pathans), and escalated into a protracted armed conflict between Mohajirs and Pathans. The death of a girl run over by a bus driver sparked the conflict.

[xi] Deployment of state security forces to quell the ethnic unrest in Karachi set the tone for subsequent crackdowns by repressive state apparatuses which continue till today (Chaudhry, 2004; Chaudhry & Bertram, 2009).

[xii] Urbanization: Approximately 37 million (underestimated) Hassan (2009) estimates that if the municipal boundaries were redefined close to fifty percent of Pakistan’s population occupies urban space (Hassan, 2009, p. 183)

[xiii] The conflict in Karachi is a “complex amalgamation of civil war, state-induced unrest, cross-border intervention and violent state repression” (Chaudhry & Bertram, 2009, p. 298).

[xiv] Hatred and ‘othering’ of multiple groups in order to consolidate own subject identity.

[xv] 21 Khattak (2002) estimates than an average of 630 violent deaths (95% male) took place each year between

1990 and 2000. A case series study of persons suffering from intentional injuries and transported by Edhi Ambulances (the largest emergency service in Karachi) between October 1993 and January 1996 claims that approximately 58% of those violently injured die before they reach hospital. The most common weapon used was a firearm. On days of political strikes people were more likely to get injured, and killed, compared with days without a political strike. Violent injuries were concentrated in areas of single ethnic and political affiliation (Chotani et al., 2002, p. 59).

[xvi] Of the 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted Al-Qaeda leaders. 687 innocent Pakistani civilians were killed. The success percentage of the US predator strikes thus comes to not more than six per cent. January 2006 in 60 American predator attacks targeting the tribal areas of Pakistan (Mir, 2009).

[xvii] With the increase in Military Operations against the Pakistani Talibain almost 3 million people were internally displaced many of whom made their way to relatives and friends in Karachi. 12,000 IDPs reach Karachi in three days(“12,000 IDPs reach Karachi in three days,” 2009)

[xviii] US supported Mujahideen in Afghanistan responsible for the scale of brutality and the influx of weapons into Karachi – (Chaudhry, 2004, p. 265)

[xix] (Farrukhi, 2010)

[xx] I’m Alive and So is My City, By Harris Khalique (2010, p. 243)

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