The Karachi paradox

July 18, 2021

Through three finely wrought stories, Sascha A Akhtar examines the disparate experiences of living in the City of Lights

The Karachi paradox

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that Karachi is a melting pot of cultures - a city that thrives on its inherent diversity. Critics tend to engage in animated debates on whether the city’s rich flavours have been accurately depicted in fiction. These concerns aren’t entirely unfounded. Most fiction writers find it difficult to write about Karachi without lamenting the gradual corrosion of elite suburbia at the hands of ethnic strife and political turmoil. Over the years, this has proved to be a successful motif and inspired tough, cogent writing that paints an intimate portrait of lives impacted by the city’s chaos. Even so, there is ample space for fiction that vigorously resists the temptation to portray Karachi through the reductionist hues of ethnic and political frictions.

In her debut collection of short fiction, poet and fiction writer Sascha A Akhtar doesn’t seek to situate the city within our current geopolitical milieu or offer yet another nostalgic meditation on a utopia paralysed by ethnic tensions. Instead, Of Necessity and Wanting liberates itself from any extra-literary purpose and attempts to capture the seemingly disparate experiences of living in Karachi. Through three finely wrought stories – two of which can be treated as novellas – the author examines the intricate negotiations involved in the business of survival in the City of Lights.

With a welcome freshness of perspective, Akhtar depicts Karachi as a postcolonial society steeped in prejudices that can be attributed to an ever-present colonial hangover. The impact of these notions is more pronounced for those who remain on the fringes. As a result, the characters that populate in Akhtar’s stories are ordinary people who have encountered some semblance of social marginality at close quarters. Unmarked by privilege, these characters wander through the streets of Karachi as dreamers, migrants, interlopers and astute observers of the city’s paradoxes.

Akhtar’s decision to shift the narrative gaze is a clever attempt at providing an alternative perspective. The teeming multitudes experience Karachi through a different lens and their vision is often at variance with that of the microscopic elite. Fuelled by the spirit of social realism, Of Necessity and Wanting, therefore, presents a dazzling study on the politics of class and subaltern narratives in one of the largest cities in the world.

Akhtar’s stories aren’t shot through with the clamour of dramatic confrontations or intense conflicts. Each tale is steered by a soaring sense of quietude that permits readers to focus on the internal struggles of the characters and their relationship with their surroundings. The setting exerts an abiding influence on the stories and may even come through as a meddlesome force that restricts the narrative to specific parameters.

Though Karachi is presented as a warehouse of decay, its unfading mystique continues to hold characters in a trance. In small yet meaningful ways, the city inhabits the stories in Of Necessity and Wanting - an invisible presence that whispers secrets into the protagonists’ ears. This overpowering presence either makes them conscious of their inadequacies or allows them to follow their dreams and aspirations. In either case, the city remains little more than a locale in the book.

The White Cage, the first novella in Akhtar’s collection, can be viewed as a vociferous critique of patriarchy that, when combined with capitalism, produces grave calamities. The novella explores the middle-class milieu of Rumina who surrenders her freedom in “the not-so-beautiful” Karachi for the promise of independence in “cooler, cleaner places” she can only access after marriage. The compromise comes at a steep price on account of her mother’s efforts to make her adhere to toxic beauty standards and prevaricate to snag a rich husband for her daughter. While Rumina treads the beaten path to reach her destination, she soon discovers that her newfound independence is no different from captivity.

Throughout the novella, Akhtar chronicles Rumina’s transformation from a naive, self-conscious Guddi to the wife of a wealthy man with sensitivity and quiet restraint. Her tentative steps into the cloistered, glitzy world of Karachi’s elite enables her to dissect the neurosis of a privileged set from the perspective of an outsider. In the initial stages, the prose has its rough edges, a technique that seems to mirror the protagonist’s naivety. As the narrative progresses, the prose acquires a crisp, lyrical quality that reflects Rumina’s maturity in tackling the turbulence of adult life.

At first, the title of the story Paani: Water may seem like a thinly veiled attempt to translate local realities for a global audience. However, the author’s decision to juxtapose an Urdu word with its English equivalent highlights the inherent contradictions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in Karachi. Akram, who leaves behind his rustic setting to cultivate a life in Karachi, becomes curiously attentive to the inequalities in securing access to potable water. Driven by insights about the city’s complex hydro politics, Paani: Water is an intelligent, eye-opening glimpse into social disparities and their implications.

Jannat Ki Hawa: The Air in Paradise turns an intimate gaze on Javed and Zainab as they struggle to achieve their dreams amid the chaotic rhythm of Karachi life. Javed, who resides in a hostel in the city and reckons with prolonged power outages, bears a distinct fascination with air-conditioners - a much-needed relief from the thick, muggy air. Zainab, a beautician who wages a daily battle against the city, steadily becomes his counterpart in their shared search for an oasis in the midst of a desert. The novella has a slow-moving, meandering quality that creates a vivid sense of place and allows characters to emerge as full-blooded, multidimensional individuals.

A striking feature of Akhtar’s collection lies in its ability to use the elements of air, heat, water and earth to weave compelling tales about Karachi. Another telling aspect of the short fiction published in Of Necessity and Wanting is its skillful use of the local literary idiom. Akhtar uses dialogue to engage in a form of linguistic gymnastics whereby Urdu and English coalesce to spark conversations that are at once true to the ear.

By marrying the politics of necessity with the economics of desire, Akhtar’s collection presents an elegant examination of survival in a city that is known to indiscriminately accept people in its comforting embrace.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

The Karachi paradox