Bandar Road say Kemari

September 6, 2020

A personal narrative of a Karachiite on a city that is home and never home enough

In the imaginary conversations with my unborn children, Karachi is a place of the past.

In these stories from the imagined future, the stories that they hear all their lives, they know how Kharadar is lit up all night in Muharram, where close to Ashur, Hindus, Sunnis and Shias take out processions all night and women running roadside stalls rule the streets, on how once mangrove forests lined the road leading up to the port, on how few places could compare to the grandeur of the Custom House building at night, and that, when the heart is broken one can always walk up the steps to Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazaar, where they can be sure to find a listener.

My unborn children don’t know any anthem, but they can sing by heart in a moment’s notice:

“Bandar Road say Kemari, meri chali ray ghorra gaari… Babu hojana footpath par…

Ye aya Radio Pakistan, hai goya khabron ki dukaan…

Tu iss ki gummat ko pehchan kahin masjid ka ho na gumaan...”

I like Karachi more in the future-past than I perhaps ever will in the present, for it is a city that is always better imagined than experienced. I have always wondered what it must feel like to call home a place where one feels sheltered, a place where one can feel a sense of permanence, what must it feel like to be in your own city and for it to be a place where you are wanted and welcomed.

Karachi, my city, is a place that I have only longed to love. Whenever I hear someone say they love Karachi, somewhere in my heart I’m always wondering if they are lying to themselves or to me. I have always known that if coincidences of birth had not brought me here, I would have certainly not chosen to make this broken, battered city my home.

In the Karachi I grew up in, there was little promise of a future. Even as children, the days felt numbered. In the Karachi of the ’90s, the most commonly used words of the city were paiya jaam, curfew, shutter down strike, Sipah-i-Sahaba. The children of the city knew well the difference between a TT pistol and a Kalashnikov. It was a city where at least at some point school was always open on Saturdays as it would be closed for at least once a week because of a strike. It’s the city that took its many lovers: Hakeem Said, Nisar Baloch, Parween Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud, Amjad Sabri… the list could be a few paragraphs long.

In 1995, the year when the meaning of sectarian killings was first introduced to me with the murders in Mehfil-is-Murtaza, another 1,800 people were killed on the streets of Karachi. Only 10 years ago, it was in the month of August that Raza Haider an MQM MPA was killed, the city was in another ‘shutter down’ and days of violence led to nearly 100 dead. The killings here were so frequent that headlines read ‘Dozens dead’, and that was precise enough. How Karachi’s violence was allowed to perpetuate for so long and then ‘resolved’ as if a plug was pulled, are simple questions for which we will never have straight answers.

I am often asked how do Karachi-wallahs live here, why people have accepted Karachi as a large garbage dump, how can the city never survive rain whether precedented or unprecedented, and I think that in a city where we were merely navigating survival, most things beyond that seemed an impossible expectation. Even now, at the occasional arts festival or a play at the NAPA, it feels like walking on thin ice. All of it still feels too raw, too new, rarely ever experienced without a sense of disbelief.

Away from my city for the past few weeks, I watched images and accounts of a flooded, paralysed Karachi with both horror and a sense of familiarity. There was also a sense of urgency to return home while knowing fully the futility of such a journey. It was the same familiar feeling of desperation I had felt in 2007 living in Turkey and glued to Geo News, sometimes watching the people of my city killed on main Shahra-i- Faisal, at other times hopeful for a new beginning with the coming home of Benazir; that feeling, of course, lasting a mere few minutes.

Karachi, once a city where you could be killed for having spent a few extra minutes in closing your store, is a city where one can now drown in one’s own car. But in a city where the number of bridges keeps increasing as does the number of people sleeping under them, where a bridge can fall down while you make your way home, where a few hundred can be burnt alive, where you can be sitting in your living room and a gunshot could come and kill you, to live, is a miracle.

Any possibilities of accountability and hope for better governance have slipped fast. In our family WhatsApp group the multiple updates on phone signals, WiFi and bijli were quickly replaced on how many had now been charged with blasphemy. Memories of the past that had yet to be dormant, swiftly came back. The city once again reminded us that to long for anything more than life was a clear case of asking for too much.

Perhaps one is always better off away from Karachi, a city that is always home and never home enough. It is a city better loved from a distance, where it can retain its place as a place of longing, and from where joy can be sought in the stories of a past one has never experienced:

Bandar Road say Kemari, meri chali ray ghorra gaari… Babu hojana footpath par…”

The author is an independent journalist based in Karachi. She tweets at: @ZehraAbid 

Bandar Road say Kemari: A personal narrative of a Karachiite on a city that is home and never home enough