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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Super Savari

A few months back, I read an article about a bus tour that takes you around Karachi with an armed escort, and I immediately wrinkled my nose at the elitism. I prefer walking on the streets minus any type of escort. But, just a fortnight ago, a cousin insisted that we should take our kids on this tour, and so we decided to give it a try. I am glad that we listened to her advice.
   The tour started on a back street close to the Metropole, took us to the Masonic Lodge, the Kabotar roundabout in front of the Sind High Courts, Zoroastrian Dar-e-Mehr, and Empress Market. We disturbed the pigeons at their feast, waved at the Fire Temple priest who blew a kiss in response, and drank fresh coconut juice standing in the square used in 1857 by the British to literally blow sepoys, who dared revolt against the Raj, to smithereens.
    I found myself fighting tears and not just for the sepoys, but for Karachi. I have never seen any place dirtier. Piles of garbage lined the roadside. Electric wires hung in ugly bunches and ran like cobwebs creating a mesh that hung over the streets. The British left behind pavements, but these were now broken and filthy. Sewage ran along the sides. Emaciated cats prowled along hoping to surprise a bird. The few old colonial buildings of Saddar were caked in layers of dirt, green shutters hung limply, and despite the delicately carved woodwork and chiselled sandstone facades, it required concentrated imagination to picture the buildings as they once were. The entire scene was a study in neglect and as we all know, neglect is abuse.
    Instead of crying, I focused on the youthful enthusiasm of the other bus passengers. Everyone on board seemed friendly and the tour guides were exceptionally courteous and charming.
     We stopped for parathas and omelettes and my son and I indulged our book addiction at the bookstore next to the eatery.
      Fed and energy levels restored, we visited Pakistan Chowk, a public space carefully renovated and furnished with benches boasting the names of famous Karachiites. Next, Jinnah House, Merewether Clock Tower, and finally the most impressive restoration of all, Karachi Port Trust. Our guides filled us in on the relevant history throughout and were always on hand to answer questions.
     The second half of the tour rekindled hope. Because while so much has been already lost, and so much continues to decay, the citizens of this city have taken upon themselves to clean, restore, and maintain much of its history.
       Super Savari helps by bringing people to see landmarks that they, in many cases, otherwise would not even be aware of. Thank you, Super Savari. Perhaps, there is hope for a better future.
      Best of all, you get to ride for part of the journey perched on top of the brightly decorated bus and are rewarded with PIDC paans. Things may get you down, but with the wind in your face and a paan to chew on, the only place to go from here, is up. And they were no armed guns accompanying the bus!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Best Things in life are Free

It is three in the morning and I am wide awake. I woke up at two to the sound of firing that went on for what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably five.
    I have returned to this city by the sea after four years, the longest stretch that I have ever been away from it.
    We arrived at five in the morning. I stepped off the plane, and took deep gulps of "Karachi air," - that lovely mix of smell and scent.
   In the queue for passport control, there were nasty words exchanged in the line next to us. An elderly gentleman dressed like an Arab, shouted obscenities at a woman my age, because she objected to him butting in the line.
   While waiting in line, our kids asked how we managed the heat in the summer, when we were younger and still lived in Karachi, considering that it was so suffocatingly hot in the winter. According to Google, it was 18 degrees centigrade, and because Canada is home, let me clarify that is a positive 18.
    My father and mom-in-law came, at this ungodly hour, to fetch us from the airport. Both wore thick sweaters and smiles full of love. My father on seeing my thirteen-year-old daughter informed her that she has become even prettier. I acted as if the compliment was for me and thanked him, causing both grand parents and grandchildren to laugh. I joined in, but did wonder at all the laughter.
    At home, there was homemade channay ki daal ka halwa, parathas of the kind that are crispy and layered, aloo ki bhujia, omelet, and karahi murghi. Listening to my mom-in-law, my parents, my children, and my husband converse was my favourite part of the meal. "The best things in life are free."
    Later, we walked to the graveyard to visit my father-in-law. I don't believe in visiting graves, in principle, but in practice, I derive some comfort from this: That old friend may have been laid to rest, but he is not forgotten.
   Later still, we dropped off my son's cell phone for repair and then spent the rest of the day, under the blanket of jet lag, drifting in and out of sleep, resurfacing only to fill up on food: Brain masala, chicken tikka, seekh kabaab with Afghani naan, and fruit chaat. The phone was ready for pick up at eight at night. Ahmed, the storeowner, works twelve hour shifts, and yet, was courteous and dignified.
   Tomorrow morning, we are invited for halwa puri to my parent's home. At this rate, I will have to be rolled back onto the return flight.
   While walking down the street outside my mother-in-law's home in the evening, stepping over garbage and plastic bags and dodging pot holes and random construction materials, my fifteen year old said of my country of birth, "I thought it was a country on the brink of collapse. Now, I know that it is past that point."
   He may be right, though, it hurts me to acknowledge the truth in his statement. The government of the country seems to barely function. It provides little security, hardly any health care or education, no protection of the rights of minorities, scant water, electricity, or gas, and everywhere you go, you see the heartbreaking disparity between the lifestyles of the rich and the existence of the poor. It is a country where nothing is free. You need money to purchase private security, water, paid for in cash, is delivered in tankers in this city, good schooling is private, and the same goes for health care. And yet, collapsed or not, it is still my country of birth, and walking the dirty streets feels like homecoming.