By Sumera S Naqvi
It was an ordeal getting writer Maniza Naqvi to write about her memories of Karachi, but it was worth it. She shuttles back and forth to Pakistan and remains logged with work at the World Bank, while also filling the insatiable desire to write. She is author of three English novels, Mass transit, Stay with me, and A matter of detail, and has many short stories to her credit.
Here is a nostalgic piece by her about city that she claims introduced her to the feeling of independence...
‘A city's past — or even its present is different for every —one who lives there or has lived there at some point. Millions of us, cramped in close proximity, live parallel lives — crisscross with each other daily perhaps, without ever meeting. We are all each other’s possibilities of pasts, presents and futures. We are all each other's shared stories. The same events may affect us differently.
An event of importance for one or many may go unnoticed by others. The same events may be seen differently, experienced and absorbed differently depending where we are in the city, socially, economically, geographically, emotionally, demographically. Name your ‘-ally’. That's what makes cities great. That's what makes for great cities. My experience of Karachi, I find remains to me uniquely mine. Karachi is my city.’
Nostalgia from a far off land…
‘Nostalgia and memory seem to have become terms of the past in this world where you can Google just about anything and Skype 'home' using a webcam — where-ever and whatever home might mean to you any time for hours on end. In this age of Skype, video cams, Google, Western Union and pinhead sized digital cameras in our cell phones one never leaves — one can never leave even if one wants to! Long after one leaves physically, one is forwarded, rewound, played over and over again.’
On coming to Karachi in 1990 for work…
‘I came back to Pakistan to live and work in Karachi. And that choice of being in Karachi was driven by the job I got, just like it is for millions of Karachiites. But it was perhaps also because Karachi had always been for me a place of freedom and mobility — a place where people could be themselves or reinvent themselves.
‘A place of fun, because as a teenager I visited it from elsewhere in Pakistan in the summer holidays unfettered by parental discipline and doted on by relatives who seemed to want nothing better then to show me a good time. Karachi always seemed a do-able — live and let live place — it had always been an adventure for me, a teenage place, of teenage love, of fast cars whose interiors thumped to the sound of a perfect stereo system playing Super Tramp's Don't leave me now, while we accelerated down Karachi's wide shiny streets way past midnight or to Breakfast in America on drives to the beach — or headed for dood ka sherbet on Burns Road.’
On a sense of independence lent by Karachi…
‘Those cars and my own much later in Karachi was my most beloved place to be in my portable mobile café - my office, my closet, my sanctuary. Can the cool air-conditioned interior of a reconditioned car be considered a place in Karachi? For me the answer is yes. And much later my own car — its stereo fitted near my foot near the accelerator to prevent another car break in — was the place where I lived most when I was working in Karachi.
Me, my car, the music I listened to and all my stuff, my camera, my notebooks-my sketch books, shoes — stuff — we travelled from one end of the city to other searching for history, details and beauty. Oh and the places I would go — in search of beauty. Old godowns in Mitahdar and Jodia bazaar — the rooftop of a spindly four-story house in Orangi-from where a fragile looking, yet unbelievably strong architect and urban planner implemented breathtaking change for Orangi guided by the legendary Dr. Akhtar Hamid and the urban legend Arif Hasan.
‘Another place much loved by me was the place where I whiled away endless hours into the night sitting outside on a mosaic tiled terrace at my aunt, Amiam's house, shooting the breeze so to speak- and then heading out at early dawn for puri and halwa in Kharadar or Soldier Bazaar. In terms of details — it's the mosaic tile floor that obsesses me — and it is the detail through which I access Karachi — it graces my first novel, Mass transit and my more recent novel, A matter of detail. The mosaic tiled floor at my aunt's house in New Town, one of those old ramshackle evacuee properties, is the place that I return to in my mind's eye to connect with Karachi. It symbolises for me everything about Karachi — take the place as a whole, its rundown — its ugly — take it in details and it's breathtaking.
‘As a teenager visiting Karachi during summer holidays, I experienced the city at the best of times, welcomed and loved by relatives and by friends who were more than relatives. It was during these visits that I tagged along with a cousin to Karachi University, to the national student federation rallies — where slogans of Asia is red — were de rigeur — and promptly developed crushes on all the student leaders shouting fiery speeches from the makeshift stages of university boundary walls, balconies and roof tops.
At that time I thought Karachi University was the most excellent place to be — an ideal — that was a very long time ago — obviously. Coming from ‘up country’ or ‘up North’ as Karachiites are still prone to calling the rest of the country — the city life and lights of Karachi were dazzling for me — I was amazed by the neon lights that we went out to see at night on 'drives' when we went out to get paan and soft drinks — or coffee — or Polka choc bars — remember them? For me Karachi was all about feeling welcomed by relatives and friends and about fast cars — with heart shaking music blaring inside — long drives to no where in particular.’
On living in Karachi…
‘As a new resident of Karachi I explored it on my own — my vantage points were special for me — a large roundabout in New Town on the edge of the Quaid's mausoleum — a roundabout edged by palm trees — a favourite place for me to sit on a bench with a cousin late in the evening — anonymously, watching the world whirl about us in every possible mode of transportation — bicycles, motorbikes, cars, donkey carts, buses.
‘My routine apart from spending a lot of time with my best buddies, was of going to work during the week and on weekends getting very inspired driving everywhere around the city on my own —exploring every nook and corner; from browsing around in Ali Imam's Indus Art Gallery to sitting for hours on the boundary wall of the large dusty ground on the outskirts of Khudadad colony, watching kids play cricket on Fridays; or making a hobby of taking photographs of beautiful old buildings in the Saddar area and in Amil colony and so on; or attending political rallies in Lyari or PIB colony — or at the Quaid's mausoleum, just to feel the thrill of people thrilling to the sound of hope — reading eveningers; attending group meetings of Shehri —with the other nine members; writing stuff, parts of Mass transit, hidden away and from my vantage point on the rooftop of the dilapidated and lovely Hindu Gymkhana, having climbed over the rusting gate, my car parked at the gate. Not a care about security. Odd.’
On security problems
‘Those were not secure times. And I used to get so excited by the sub contracting home based garment industry thriving all over Liaquatabad and SITE and Orangi, which I visited regularly for work. Some time a fourteen year old cousin of mine accompanied me on my adventures — as protection. He was a kid and I was 26! But those adventures, those drives and all the Bombay filmi songs we sang on top of our lungs in my car — are our deep and solid unbreakable bond. To this day he will call me and ask if I'm up for a drive and then we'll go aimlessly all over the city — filmi songs playing, us singing — heading to all sorts of interesting destinations all over New York.
On cherished memories
‘My memories of Karachi, perhaps the ones about the old haunts are all second-hand — from my parents and their friends and of course friends of my own. It's hard to say what constitutes your own memory of a place or a time — once you've read a novel — or listened to the stories that people have to tell of their lives — they become your own. So you see — I can still see the Gojra refugee camp and smell the tired bodies; feel the dust on my skin — I can still see the hustle and bustle in Saddar's cafes — I can hear the clanging of the tram bells — and blush at the sight of the sensuous, lithe, shimmering, swaying naked body of the belly dancer or stripper in a Karachi night club — and I was never even there — never.
‘But I was there for a great game of street cricket; or the fantastic Moharram pageantry — the freedom of my first real job — my own car — discovering every nook and corner of the city — its politics all of it but that was a very long time ago when I was unafraid and very foolish. But the long drives, the sea breeze — the walks on the beach — the conversations all night long; the belief in ideals — the carefree days of total freedom and fun-all that I find — when I arrive, often enough, its not the same anymore.
On whether Karachi is the same as when she left it
‘Of course it isn't. The flyovers, the expressways, bypasses and underpasses take me away from negotiating a city that I am unable and unwilling to walk in — that is not conducive to walking in. But even these new developments — I'm getting used to them, even if Karachi has been changed forever by them — turned into the same old, same old by them.
On what keeps bringing her back
‘Karachi itself is forever young — still growing and growing — developing — always youthful — and therefore always brash and hopeful. I think that's what keeps me coming back. And maybe that's why on my most recent sojourn in Karachi — I said to a friend — perhaps it was the light — or the evening sea breeze — or the music we were listening to, or the memory of a peacock walking languidly across a black and white tiles floor of a quiet temple while just outside its boundary walls there seemed to be nothing but harsh noise and apparent chaos.
I declared to a friend: I feel that the great love of my life lives right here in a parallel existence to mine in Karachi — I feel love's presence here — And she had laughed and said – you are such a hopeless romantic — grow up — when will you grow up? What? In Karachi? I grinned, Never!’