Breathing Karachi: A Poem about Life in Pakistan
You leave the house with
your face half unveiled,
black kohl lining the loath of
your hazel eyes
staring straight into the
questioning your loneliness,
stripping you stark naked
through your discomfort;
a brutal gaze
of biting lust,
of chewing assault,
of sucking censure
of hunting scavengers
licking the last drop of
but protecting you thoroughly,
escorting until you turn to
My life cannot be painted with careful and conscious brushstrokes; there is a need to allow things to develop by just letting go. I want to be the painting which embraces all the colors of life: a splash of modernity, slathered culture, varnished religion, embossed kinship, chromes of practicality with daubed pain, washed independence, rouge of passion and ambition, and hues which haven’t yet been created in the palette of my mind. I don’t believe in palmistry, but when I see my wrinkled palms, I know these uneven and broken lines describe my life to be all-inclusive and complex.
Rattling on the way from N.I.P.A to Civic Centre, halting breaths at the fish reeking of Sabzi Mandi, waiting for Jail Chowrangi, Khalid Bin Waleed Road, Shahrah-e-Quaideen to pass through the cramped lanes. The cracks and rugged asphalt grates the tires. I am traveling in the minibus in the swarming streets of Karachi, rushing through the labyrinth of vehicles, tilting along the roundabouts, avoiding open gutters or sometimes the seeping water with floating grime of the overflowing sewage. Small cars speeding their way in between, Suzuki Mehran, Alto, Cultus; the antique Datsun Sunny taxis, not in their very best condition, one to the right and one there, far in the front, can be spotted easily by the color combination of fading yellow roof and black body. The countless motorcycles and cars parked on the sides of the road are the jarring, wild branches in the forest blocking the way forth.
Outside the window, everything is passing by, the street hawkers with fruit carts under the tree’s shadow appear over and again. It is the season of oranges, plums and most of all, dates, whole brown ripened ones and half unripened ones, bisected into yellow and brown. It is the season of Ramzan.
Today is the first day of Ramzan, but it has worsened my ability to bear the heat. I cover my head and face beneath the eye area with a white cotton dupatta in a vain attempt to be shielded against the brutal sunrays stinging my skin. The sunblock cream smeared on my face melts, dripping with sweat. Along with the desperateness to reach home, I have an intense thirst for water. I daydream about breaking the fast and drinking gallons of water, or my favorite red sherbet Rooh Afza with crushed ice and lemon; however right now, it feels like a drop of water would even do. I keep on gulping my own saliva to moisten my throat. In Ramzan, the devils are locked up by Allah and the gates of heaven are wide open; human spirit is secured from wanton desires, and special care is taken to ward off the evil. My difficulties will also ease in this month, at least my exasperating commute.
Duppatta: a light fabric, longer than scarf, worn to cover the breasts, which are already covered. It passes over the shoulders to the hips, its ends dangle as the hips sway when women walk. Duppatta, also worn to cover the hair, especially long beautiful hair. Breasts, hips and hair, feminine marks of seduction; duppatta, is it an attempt to make the womanly features prominent by virtue of disguise? At university I wear it to respect the societal norm, though none of these features stand out in my body. The folds of the duppatta over my chest only give an impression of bigger breasts, my hips swing it back and forth and my concealed head becomes a curiosity for men. I never wear it at home, and if I go for an outing, it becomes a fashion statement that stays around my neck.
In my university’s classroom when the power breaks down, I become nauseated by the heat and lack of fresh air despite the opened windows. It is baffling to look at the girls around me, passively sitting in burqha and scarf. The burqhas are the blackest, well insulated, some sparing the eye area, others limiting the freedom of sight by the crisscross of net over them. The scarves are tightly wrapped around their sublime faces with a safety pin right below the chin. I am somehow relieved to at least see the bare noses of the girls in scarves.
On the contrary, I am neither in burqha nor scarf, one of the few girls who do not veil but still unlike them. I call myself a moderate Muslim as everyone else here, but who would call herself an extremist or a rigid Muslim? “Moderate” is a relative word, a single word which identifies all of us differently. During class when Azaan is called out, the unveiled girls quickly cover their heads with dupatta; I follow them. At home, I never do it. Even while praying, I don’t cover my head; I wear sleeveless clothes when I am with my neighborhood friends, including boys, and most of all I have never veiled in my life. But amongst these people I feel I am immersed in Karachi, which is only depicted through TV and newspapers. It is not that I am trying too hard to mingle with people here, but I am a Muslim and I should do something to uphold its traditions, if not follow its rules.
Karachi University is a path of physical exertion for me rather than an avenue for a burst of mental creativity. By the end of the day it would feel as if I have reached home after doing intensive-labor, but this realization would only happen when I would reach home. Exhaustion will overpower me, but I’ll be content, capable of climbing the rope of independence, bit by bit, each day.
Every morning I leave for university with Baba in his private van service. A convenient yet protected avenue to escape. I sit at the front seat next to Baba because after all it is Baba only, and Daddy knows he is a trustworthy man. He arrives at 7:10 am sharp and drops me back home at 6:00 pm. But this is certainly not how I will waste my university life, always be protected first by Daddy and now to top it off, Baba. I secretly hatch out of my family’s shell of protection. I do not know if lying to comfort someone is a sin, but everyday I reassure Daddy that I’ll be back home around 4:00 pm with Baba. It is Ramzan and I’m lying; have the angels forgotten to fetter the evil in me? The truth is, I’m the last one to be dropped off by Baba at 6 pm. I return home by public bus, which is only reserved for the laborers and lower class Karachiites. I have been traveling on public buses since the second week my university started.
Thanks to Baba’s efficient and safe service, Daddy permitted my sister to study at KU, which is situated in the suburb of the city. Now it is my turn to complete my bachelors, but I am not the one who follows conventions. I’ll prove to all my childhood friends who moved to Canada, partying in their frosh years, that I can be equally or more independent living in Karachi. Despite living all our lives in this city, I am the only one out of all four daughters in my family to share the routine of people who experience the Karachi that recurrently makes the newspaper headlines about the bombings, clashes over ethnic differences and Islamic sub-sects, people who suffer by the inflation of Rs. 5 over sugar, oil or flour.
Today in university, during the remaining half hour of my last class I keep track of every minute, waiting for the class to end. Across the Silver Jubilee Gate the speedy buses slow down and pull over for a few minutes to cramp in the throng of veiled girls. Karachi buses are like the painting of my thoughts, as though all the possible colors of the world have been splattered onto the canvas of the bus’ exterior, forming designs on their own, flowers, deer, houses, grass, cows, or anything imaginable. The entrance and exit of the bus are door-less, like vents. The seating passages in the bus are separated for men and women. Despite the ever-growing number of female passengers, their compartment remains undersize compared to the men’s compartment. Since all the seats are occupied, I squish amongst the women who are standing, holding the sides of the seats or their shoulders to prevent being jerked. A grill, like the one in the prison, divides the two passages, as if men like hungry brutes would lustily grab women to fulfill their carnal desires. The bus conductor’s assistant, announces the bus fares and collects coins among the over-stuffed the women’s passage. He barely has any space to stand at the entrance; half of his body is outside in the air. At the Neepa signal stop, I hand Rs. 5 to the assistant and wait for Super Hassan Zai.
Super Hassan Zai bus takes the quickest route to Clifton, my hometown. By quickest route I mean two hours. I barely have to wait ten minutes for it. The bus conductor pulls over as he sees me wave, and I get onto the bus. Luckily I find an empty seat by the window. Maybe God’s compassionate angels could not overlook my exhaustion since I’m fasting. Placing my backpack on my lap, I sit comfortably with my back fully resting on the seat. The assistant comes in to ask for the bus fare. I hand him a Rs.10 bill and am aware of his intentions to touch my bare palm with his grimy fingers so I cover it with the dupatta. He returns Rs. 2 coins this time by dropping them into my palms. I could clearly see the black dirt encrusted beneath his fingernails.
The bus moves at snail’s pace in the traffic jam. I look out of the window. The motorcycle riders swiftly dodge their way through the cramped spaces between the cars. Here, there are no rules for the drivers to wear helmets or use car seats. Sometimes when the streets are empty in the middle of the night or there is a sense of urgency, signals can be broken occasionally.
The traffic smoke, cigarette smoke, of the men sitting behind me, and dusty air of the city fills my nostrils despite the duppatta covering my face. Karachi sky is never clear blue, like an undusted blue bed sheet, graying by the day.
My eyes begin drooping as we drive on from Nursery to Shara-e-Faisal. I didn’t realize that the bus passed Jinnah Hospital and then Cantt Station. Unknowingly, I fall asleep from all the hunger and dehydration until I feel a spiny object moving back and forth horizontally on my hips.
I wake up in a shock. Jolting up I see a filthy man hiding behind the seat. He was rubbing his fingers against my buttocks. The sight nauseates me. He is still leaning, his head resting at the back of my seat. I can only see his unkempt, oily hair of brown shade burned by the sun. The seats of the buses are constructed in a way that it’s base and back have a vent in between, spacious enough for the fingers to slide through.
With my heart still thumping I place my backpack behind me and block the vent. I don’t blame the angels for being inefficient to imprison the evil in Ramzan. I am drained, my physical energy sapped. I cannot think. I do not know whom to blame. Should I get angry about the seats’ construction or my flesh being groped to sustain the pervert’s erection? I feel nauseated; my head feels heavy with fatigue. Everything is rushing, the countless shriveled and yellowed trees, one after the other, the footpaths’ edges painted in alternating blocks of yellow and black, yellow and black, hard to distinguish when one color would end and another would begin, and then it all became blurry. Hot tears rush from my eyes, I feel dizzy with thirst. I need to reach home, now, safely!
I see a family of four sitting on a motorcycle. A girl of about four years sits at front, her tiny fists clutching the middle of the handlebars. The father sits behind her, driving. Another young girl of about ten is squished in between her father and mother. Her flip-flops dangling in between her toe are about to fall and her arms embrace her father. I miss Daddy. Ironically, he has not even called me yet. He usually texts or calls by now to know where Baba has reached.
Later when I reach home, I shout at Amma to take three minutes to open the door. She snaps back, ‘you’re not doing a favor upon us by fasting.’ Rushing into my room, I lock the door and throw myself onto the bed, the pillow dampening with my tears. Was this the experience I used to be fascinated about, the real Karachi, its people? I was saving the first, tender touch for the man I wanted to spend my life with, and this happened. I am madly in love with a boy, but even he never touched me. How could God, in the month of Ramzan, let the evil loose, and on the day when I am fasting?
In the bus the speakers blare with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s song “mast nazron sey Allah bachaaye, mahjamalo sey Allah bachaaye,” “God, protect from intoxicating glances; God, protect from the moon-faced ones.” The cassette and the tape recorder seem ancient; they make Khan’s voice raucous. Why is Khan talking about staring, when he himself is a man? It is men here who stare at women not vice versa. Men here, especially the laborers, stare at women as if they haven’t seen them before, as if they are their property.
A woman with a baby boy on her lap is sitting next to me, the baby with his green-blue hollow eyes is looking at me with an opened and drooling mouth. His tiny hands tug at the corner of my kameez. A string of black wool was tied around his wrists to save him from the evil eye. Maybe one day he would grow up and have those intoxicating eyes described in Nusrat Fateh Ali’s song, and will greedily stare at women and sing for God’s protection from temptations.
The red and blue tassels attached to the ceiling of the bus jingle with the melody. I can see my shattered reflection on the multitude minute mirror tiles of diamond shape. Some reflect the complete white of my dupatta, others my broken features. Stuck on top of the window, eight tiles are arranged to form a single flower. I am lost in the bewilderment of my own reflection. My journey is no longer confined to reaching home, the kaleidoscopic reflections are the glimpses of my travel in life. These mirrors are the thousands of eyes of strangers accompanying along the way. I am a different Afshan for each one of them. Only if I were able to put all the pieces together, could I figure myself as a whole in all of their eyes.
Palpitating with repulsion I realize there are forty minutes to go before I reach Teen Talwaar. I do not understand where I got the determination to travel alone in raucous Karachi streets where no one could be trusted, where anyone could harm anyone. After one year this determination will be diverted from exploring Karachi to exploring the world outside Pakistan. Even I, like my friends, will move abroad for studies. But, I will not leave home regretting that I didn’t taste Karachi’s authentic flavor.
At Clifton Underpass I finally get off the bus. My face covered with duppatta, so none of the residents in my neighborhood discover my secret opening to escape and seal it by reporting to my parents. It would be shameful for my family if the neighborhood finds out that I travel on public buses.
At home, two hours before Azaan, I drink two glasses of cold water.