SEPTEMBER 14, 2012
EARLY MORNING one day this past July, a bomb went off two streets from my house in Karachi. I was asleep. “There was a bomb blast outside the Chinese consulate,” my wife informed me when I woke up. Nobody had died, I was told. It was a motorcycle bomb—as in someone had fitted a bomb into a motorcycle and parked it outside the consulate. My first reaction was, why would anyone explode a bomb outside the Chinese consulate? Since our childhood, we have been told that the Chinese are our best friends and our friendship is taller than the Himalayas and deeper than the Arabian Sea. Maybe someone was jealous of our friendship. It didn’t really occur to me that the bomb had gone off in my own neighborhood.
Then a friend wrote from London: Heard there was a bomb blast in your neighborhood, hope the family is safe, and the dogs not too traumatized. It was nice of her to write, but my first reaction was that the blast was two streets away. For me, the explosion might as well have happened in another city. None of my friends in Karachi called to check on me. They had probably seen the news on television, had found out that nobody died in the blast, and had promptly forgotten about it. I hadn’t even heard the blast. Maybe I have learned to block out small motorcycle bombs.
You live in a city not because it’s the prettiest, most peaceful place in the world; nor do you choose a place because it’s exciting. Karachi, for me, is a perpetually shifting combination of nice memories and minor tragedies, commerce and convenience, familiarity and strangeness, and, ultimately, the coincidences that brought me here. The air, as someone said, is easier on your skin. But all that the outside world sees is a bloody-minded sentimentality that keeps one in a place even when it’s blowing up bit by bit. When I visit my hometown in central Punjab, I am often asked by my family: How can you live in a city like Karachi with all its rampant violence? I can’t really confess to the folks in my village that, unlike in the rest of Pakistan, in Karachi you can buy beer without much hassle. (Alcohol is illegal throughout the country.)
Nobody knows how many people live in Karachi. Current estimates range between 17 and 20 million. I have never met anyone who has seen the whole of the city. Every few months, you’ll hear of a neighborhood that you’ve never heard of before. “I have to travel all the way to Kala Pani [Black Waters] every day,” a friend and a construction engineer told me recently. “Why is it called Kala Pani?,” I asked. “Because it’s so bloody far away.”
Half a dozen people are killed on an average day: for political reasons, for resisting an armed robbery, for not paying protection money, and sometimes for just being in the wrong spot when two groups are having a go at each other. If the victims don’t belong to your family or your neighborhood, or if you are not carrying out the killings, you are not likely to hear the gunshots. On television, you’ll catch a glimpse of ambulances—white shrouds with Edhi logos—and you’ll thank God that it was a relatively peaceful day. And just like any corner shop owner or cab driver, a writer needs a bit of peace and quiet to keep working.
When I occasionally travel abroad, some of my white writer friends say, with barely concealed envy, how lucky to be living in such an exciting place! So many stories to tell! Sometimes I am tempted to ask the writers abroad if they would like to swap houses for one summer and sample the exciting life for themselves.
There was this famous European writer I was introduced to a couple of years ago. He had almost won the Nobel Prize a number of times. He sighed after we were introduced. “You are so lucky to be living in a place like that, so many stories. What do we have? Nothing.” I tried hard to explain that living in a chaotic, unpredictable place—where one moment there is a massive traffic jam and minutes later streets are completely deserted—is not conducive to creativity. I tried to reason that the constant fear of being robbed, the niggling guilt from having a full stomach when others may or may not get three square meals, is not very exciting.
Last year, when a Norwegian killed more than 70 people, many of them kids, I recalled the almost Nobel Prize–winner and wondered whether this was the kind of story he was missing. Then I admonished myself for that horrendous thought. Because the day I woke after the bomb blast at the Chinese consulate, I didn’t rush to my writing desk thinking, Wow, I live in an interesting place, a motorcycle bomb has just gone off in my neighborhood, now I can sit down and resume my work on the great Pakistani novel.
Foreign journalists visiting Karachi use the word “resilient” about this city and often tell their audiences: There was a killing spree yesterday, but people have shown resilience and are out on the streets. As a citizen, I know that after a traumatic event, people don’t decide that they must go out and show the world how resilient they are. They go out and pretend everything is normal because they need to make a living. But then visiting journalists also need to make a living.
A couple of years ago, an American newspaper ran a story that speculated that the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar was hiding here. As you would expect, dozens of foreign journalists descended and started looking for him. I received a few phone calls from them. I said that I really had no way of confirming or denying, that they should talk to the police or the Taliban, or Taliban experts. Then I got a call from an Italian journalist who seemed to have a different brief: He wanted to talk to me about Karachi. What was it like living and working here? How had I seen it change? He came over, and I offered him tea.
Karachi is a real city—huge, monstrous, full of strange people. I said that the weather might be horrendous during the day, but in the evening you sit outside and catch the nice cool sea breeze. OK, if you are too close to the beach, on certain days you might catch a whiff of rotten fish, but it’s still a sea breeze. The city is full of poor people, but they were so poor where they came from that their cousins are constantly joining them here. You can walk on the streets. OK, if you are a woman, you should be careful, but even that warning doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands who set out to work every day. I said clever things like, “Here’s a city where you can tell people’s class by how they approach the sea: The not-so-well-off take off their shirts and rush toward it; the middle class and the rich hitch up their trousers and cover their noses.” I told him about people telling their therapists how they feel when their home-delivery pizza costs more than their security guard’s monthly salary. And the therapists don’t tell them to eat less pizza and pay their security staff better. We talked about reading and writing. And I said, “In this city, girls read Paulo Coelho and boys pretend to read Paulo Coelho.”
In my enthusiasm to impress the Italian journalist, I went a bit too far: that coming from a small village or a town, you suddenly feel free in Karachi because nobody knows you. Nobody cares if your father was a cruel landlord or if your aunt eloped with someone. You can be anonymous here. That’s what cities should be about; they give you an opportunity to take on a new identity.
My visitor had already put his cup of tea aside. “So you can be anonymous here?” he asked. “Yes.” I said. “Not just that, you can become famous also. You can make a new clan.”
“So that means Mullah Omar could be living in this city; he could be living anonymously somewhere?”
“Yes,” I sighed, as I visualized an Italian newspaper headline with the words “Karachi,” “anonymous,” and “Mullah” in it.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.