Standing in a crowded market square in Clifton (amidst a pandemic, with people seemingly indifferent to all government-mandated SOPs) in the blistering July heat, if asked, one probably would have very little to say in the way of praise of Karachi.
But really, attempting to judge the city impartially- outlining all its benefits and its issues- is a disservice to its true essence. Karachi isn’t merely a city, but a depiction of Pakistan at every point in time. Whether one is a long time denizen, or just stepping foot in the city for the first time, Karachi has a way of evoking a powerful sense of nostalgia.
Just the architectural landscape is a testament to Karachi’s eclectic community and colorful past. Mohatta Palace, with its subtly stunning beauty, speaks of the wealthy Hindus who once roamed these very streets. Frere Hall stands proudly, a stark contrast to the rest of the city with its Venetian-Gothic architecture; a remnant from our colonial past. The Archdiocese of Karachi stands tall at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a stunning exhibit of revivalist architecture that has been upheld as sacrosanct by the local Christian community to this day. Empress Market is another one of the many buildings left behind by the British, but the sight of it instills a sense of pride: what was once a symbol of oppression by our former rulers was transformed into a bustling marketplace celebrating local Pakistani traders.
Driving through Karachi and witnessing the concrete jungle that it is now, it’s easy to forget the city’s humble beginnings. The local fishermen on Karachi’s coast are reflections of the initial inhabitants of the city- in the 18th century, Karachi was little more than a tiny fisher village and was mostly based in the area that is present-day Manora. It wasn’t called Karachi, it was Kolachi-Jo-Goth (“the Village of Kolachi”). Just the folklore surrounding the name of the village is fascinating. It’s a tribute to the tale of Mai Kolachi, a woman who lost her husband in a violent storm. The atmosphere was daunting, but she was determined: she would find her husband. She ventured into the unknown, braving the dangers to achieve her goal. In a way, Mai Kolachi’s spirit is still alive: her resilience continues to flow through the veins of the city to this day. Throughout history, the city has both triumphed and fallen. But in all moments of darkness- from the oppressive days of colonial rule to the recent plane crash in Model Colony- the city has always trudged forward.
Karachi’s tale truly begins when the East India Company raised the city from being an insignificant village to a place of industrial development. The British developed the infrastructure and established policies for governing the city. The genuine beauty of Karachi, however, was not in the roads or parks (or even the railway!), but in its people. Karachi extended its arms to all. Whether you were a Parsi searching for your kin or an elite Hindu seeking to build an extravagant landmark, there was a place for you. Karachi is, if nothing else, a friend. Flawed, but still deeply worthy of our love.
With its development and diversity, it was unsurprising that Karachi was chosen to be the capital of Pakistan after partition. However, it would seem that our old friend would take quite the beating during this period. In the last few months before partition, there was a dramatic rise in communal violence in the city. Communities that had lived harmoniously for centuries were treating each other with newfound vitriol. After partition, there was a rapid influx of refugees, far beyond what the city could handle. Buildings were filled to the brim, government officials struggled to find necessities to accommodate all the people. Karachi was ripping apart at the seams, whilst simultaneously acting as the center-point maneuvering our newly born nation. It wasn’t unrealistic to assume that the city was heading towards its downfall.
But Karachi did what Karachi does best: thrive against all odds.
Though the city had lost its capital status to Islamabad in 1958, it was still developing at an unprecedented rate. Soon, Karachi was a booming cosmopolis- not to mention the doorway to Asia, too. This transformation was so impressive that other countries in Asia (like South Korea) sought to implement development plans similar to the “Five-Year Plan”. To the average pedestrian, the city must have looked like a painting: colossal skyscrapers standing against the night firmament, strewn with lights. The epithet “The City of Lights” was born out of awe and endearment- to the people, Karachi seemed like a city carved from a dream.
Like all eras in history, however, Karachi’s golden period was soon to end. By the 1970s and 1980s, the population was multiplying at a rapid rate. Not only this, but there was a vast inflow of people from impoverished socioeconomic backgrounds, like Afghan refugees from the Soviet-Afghan War. This inevitably led to a rise in crime rates and political instability. Drastic changes in government policies led to a recessing economy. To top it all off, Karachi also lost its “Gateway to Asia” status to Dubai.
Our friend was struggling to breathe.
Unfortunate circumstances woven together by fate caused Karachi to become a mere shadow of its former glory.
It would seem that between then and now, that not much has changed. The cynic would go so far as to say that Karachi has been perpetually living in its nadir. But again, wouldn’t it be disrespectful to the city to measure it solely by its statistics, to ignore its wonderfully complex history?
Because, despite it all, our old friend is still standing. Not only just standing, but standing with pride. No other city in Pakistan is so definitively tied to our Pakistaniyat as Karachi is. It has the ancient elements of Lahore whilst carrying the modern air of Islamabad. It is the microcosm of everything Pakistan is: a region of duality, a blend of the cultural and the contemporary, a place that lives in both the past and the present.