Karachi is a city of 16 million people. Or 18 million. Or 21 million. No one is really sure.
It is a monster city, a mega city.
Until 1960, it was Pakistan’s capital – the landing point for millions of refugees who moved with the fractured tide of Partition in 1947 and brought their families and their language, Urdu, to the erstwhile twin city of the Bombay Presidency. Exploding with refugees, within five years of Partition, it went from a coastal fishing town of around 4,00,000 citizens to a city with more than a million people.
Karachi is a city of migrants; those who have sought refuge in the city of lights include Parsis, Bene Israel Jews, Anglo Indian Presbyterians and many more, some of who have since fled and some who remain.
It is a city that exists in the unfolding of its shadows, beneath the smoky haze of food vendors pushing tin carts of food, bun kebabs made with spicy minced meat with stray feathers caught between the sticky patty and bun.
It exists in the buses painted in wild fluorescents and piled high with travellers who hang off the doors and windows. In these, you see a parting in the seating – a separate section for women, built like a cage, cordoned off from the rest of the bus by steel and metal.
When there is electricity, Karachi glimmers: there are the green lights of the mosques, the pink, blue and yellow fairy lights that adorn the beloved Sufi shrines, the impatient red of traffic lights that cannot hem in the crush of motorcycles and rickshaws, the naked bulbs that light the dark unpaved paths of the city’s bazaars.
Otherwise, when there is no light, when the city is enveloped in now-standard 12-hour power cuts, Karachi hums in darkness.
Three years ago, I was supposed to be writing a book about this city – my home for the last 20 years. By the autumn of 2010, I began to spend my time in archival libraries and museums and interviewing a motley crew of Karachiites – from the scientologists who have infiltrated the city’s jails (who, understandably, don’t like to be known as scientologists, so they hide behind the cover of a health NGO curiously led by the principles of L Ron Hubbard) to South Korean evangelicals, urban planners and transgender rights activists.
But it wasn’t the right book for me. As I isolated myself, I lost feeling for the idea of documenting my renegade city. I spent my mornings in the company of a book that tore at my heart. It was not the city I grew up in, it was not the city I loved from my father’s tales.
It is a different place now. Like with love, when you know, you know. And I knew I had fallen out of love with Karachi.
But long before the idea of chronicling a lost city was born, I had started writing a novel,The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon.