THERE IS no dearth of books or information on Karachi. Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, HM Naqvi have all written on the ‘city of lights’. But there are always more stories to tell about Karachi, the sprawling metropolis of about 23 million people and growing. Like Mumbai, another city by the sea, Karachi is a ‘maximum city’. It has to suffer daily battles for survival and bigger wars over real estate, drugs, mafia, ethnicity, water and power. It’s a city where killings have become commonplace. In April this year, rights activist Sebeen Mehmud was gunned down soon after she hosted a talk on ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ about people who had disappeared and were disappearing from Balochistan.
Against this daily backdrop of violence and fear—which doesn’t spill over in the book—author Anis Shivani spins his debut novel, Karachi Raj, around ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives in a city, which can sometimes take the wind out of your sails, but can also propel you to do better. So we follow the everyday issues of a brother and sister duo, Hafiz and Seema, growing up in a sprawling urban slum or Basti, a city within a city. Seema has already made something of her life by winning a scholarship to study at Karachi University, while Hafiz starts out by working as a labourer. He slowly climbs up the social ladder—gently mocked by his sister—as he imitates the social circle he moves around. Also living in Basti is an American anthropologist, Claire, from Boston University studying the slum for a year.
When we meet Claire for the first time, she has been asked to run from a boy who has chucked a stone at her. She is trying to find her feet in the mini city of half-a-million living in seven square miles and is fascinated by women storytellers whose laughs were infectious and who “lacked fear of disease and violence”.
Shivani builds another host of characters around Hafiz, Seema and Claire, who are as interesting as the main trio. So there are Karim and Abdullah, Claire’s colleagues—one bred in Pakistan, the other at the London School of Economics—and Hafiz’s childhood friend and now boss Majid, who has become rich and famous in quick time, dragging Hafiz along. And there are Seema’s stories about university life, which include her relationship with a professor named Ashiq, who cannot commit to love.
So which story of Karachi does Shivani tell? How are the stories of Hafiz and Seema, their joys and sorrows, to be read in the wider context of a troubled city and country? Shivani doesn’t provide all the answers, but what we get is a long and deep look at ordinary lives from all reaches of society, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. And he shows us that the people of the city, exemplified by Seema and Hafiz, are resilient survivors, though not unbroken.
Seema has broken many barriers, but doesn’t find it easy to break through the social classes. Hafiz, in his bid to imitate the lives of others, loses a part of himself every day. The people of Basti, where roads are unpaved, electricity is scarce, wages are low and violence is rampant, make something of their lives despite sometimes living dangerously on the abyss.
Perhaps being a debut novel, Karachi Raj packs in too much vis-à-vis the characters. At times, the commentaries of the characters—main and secondary—can be a bit tedious and forced. When Claire meets the rich, good Samaritan Begum Suhrawardy, she is asked what it’s like to live in Basti. When Claire talks about the dust everywhere, the Begum lets loose: “The new generation is allergic to dust, mould, pollen, dander, everything. Imagine living in Pakistan and being allergic to dust! My great grandchild wears a mask in the garden… but you, an American, are thriving in the Basti. It’s the kind of foolhardiness your country is famous for. It takes you to the moon and it lands you in quagmires in unnecessary wars.”
Claire also runs into freewheeling artsy photographer Tipu, who, too, has a spiel on everything happening around. As he takes Claire around the city—and that’s one of the few times we get a look-in at Karachi’s famous roads and addresses—he tells her on Bunder Road that the lines have disappeared. “What lines?” asks Claire. Tipu explains: “Lines to pay the phone bill, lines to open a bank account, lines to send a fax, lines to pay a traffic challan, lines to renew your ID card. When the lines go, you know you’re on your way to progress.” Well, the lines may have disappeared, but is Karachi really on the way to progress?
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer