I visited Karachi after 10 years: Here's what I saw!
People hardly walk to friends’ places. When they do, conversations revolve around the city’s unending troubles.
I recently returned from a trip to Karachi, the city of my birth. It was my first visit there in ten years.
I was asked many times how I’d noticed the city changed from what I remembered of it. Much could be said in response, but one observation merits particular mention- Karachi’s new (at least to me) rickshaws.
Growing up, no trip to Karachi was complete without a bumpy ride in an incredibly noisy, cramped but airy rickshaw. Rickshaws then were arty, individually coloured affairs, sporting pretty geometric patterns on the sides and rear, sometimes accompanied by crafty names or one-liners.
Karachi’s rickshaws today are roomier, cleaner and quieter.
Gone, thankfully, are the trails of toxic black fumes they used to leave behind. But gone also, mostly, are the bright colours and designs, replaced by dull browns and blacks and insipid identifiers like “CNG”.
Much to my dismay, the old art-on-wheels kind of rickshaw is a rare sighting.
The rickshaw’s makeover is illustrative of how Karachi itself feels changed. The city is much cleaner, greener and less polluted than before. New thoroughfares, flyovers and underpasses make for a smooth ride between practically any two points in the vast metropolitan area. Tidy malls, supermarkets and restaurants compete with the old bazaars and outdoor food sellers. But, like the rickshaw, Karachi seems to have lost its spirit and vibrancy.
The Karachi I remember was chaos - a mess and a struggle. However, with a prevailing joie de vivre that now has all but disappeared.
Its new malls are sterile, confined and boring spaces. Bazaars and markets, though not in want of customers, lack their old lustrous bustle and purposeful disorderliness that made shopping a true Karachi experience.
Shopkeepers, street vendors and shoppers alike appear dulled and preoccupied. Bargaining, once an anticipated game for both buyer and seller, has become a forced exercise or has gone out of fashion altogether.
Bookstores are also dying out.
Photo: Rashid Ajmeri
Women drivers, once common on Karachi’s roads, are now a rare sight. Cheerless abayas and uninspiring Western garb are pushing out the infinite patterns and colours of the shalwar kameez.
Better roads and traffic systems mean that distances are covered faster, but people no longer drop by at friends’ and relatives’ as they used to. When they do, conversations invariably revolve around the city’s various and unending troubles – ever rising prices, mindless public strikes, wanton violence and rampant crimes.
Pakistanis have earned a reputation for being bravely resilient in the face of hardship, but Karachiites’ seem helplessly resigned to a downward spiral for the city’s fortunes.
Like the old rickshaws that brought together many colours, lines and shapes on one canvas, Karachi once presented a picture of a multiethnic, many-layered but single society, if not a true melting pot of locals and migrants from across the country and beyond.
Karachi today appears plainly fragmented, an uneasily shared space for its distinct groups and classes, not much more than the sum of its separate parts.
Karachi may function better in many ways, but it is a city removed of its old soul, rather like its new rickshaws.
Follow Syed Ali on Twitter @saahmed1