Karachi: Chronicles of a mad man - the girl who never smiled
Each night starts off the same way. Something is happening. I can feel it. Someone is calling my name. I have no choice. I have no say in this. I must respond. The echoes of the screams bounce off of every wall in this city as they make their way towards me.
Where will it be tonight? Where will I finally see my own reflection? These streets haunt me. The electric energy of 15 million people all radiate through one light bulb. It is hauntingly beautiful. The very light it radiates not only throws me into a sea of confusion, but also attracts me like a moth to a flame.
I go out every night looking for her. She is out there somewhere. I just don’t know what she is. Is she a wandering soul looking for me as well? Is she a mother looking for her lost child? What if she is a street alley that swallows people up and spits out their corpses? What if she is a painting that puts all of this to reason? Perhaps she is a man who has just written the perfect song. I have to find this song. I need to find that song.
I drive through this city, looking for my next prey. I don’t know which way I am going but the scent keeps on getting stronger. I pass the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, and can see its impact on the eyes of people swarming around it in hopes of getting a better grip on their reality.
What are they hoping for?
Will they get what they came for?
Tired eyes continue to drop tears of hope to the tune of a beat. This hypnotic and repetitive beat is being played by a stoned drums-playing-duo on the side of the shrine. I understand the stoned duo. I know what they are doing and why they are doing it. It is the only constant noise in this city of madness. It beats with a rhythm of a perfect heartbeat. It reminds me of how alive everything is.
Karachi has been given her own musical composition as I drive through the sea of people looking out from my car window.
Is this all real? The colours of everything through my window are so rich and scary. People are reaching into my heart and yet still perfectly placed on the other side of my screen.
This must be high definition TV.
I make my way towards Boat Basin. My hands, suddenly and on impulse, turn the steering wheel towards the side of the road. I stop the car. There she is right in front of me, and yet she doesn’t see me. How can she see me? We are situated less than ten feet away from each other and yet are living in completely different worlds. To her, I, in my car, am a reality she is far away from. I am just a blur in her eyes with no face and no structure. But I see her. I instantly know that she is my story tonight.
She is now you and you will be given a name for my records. Your name is Safia. I can tell of the heartache you have lived through. Your beaten-down skin and aged feet reveal your age to be about 45-years-old. However, on closer inspection, your eyes scream a bitter truth: you are no older than 20. You are wearing your best dress tonight. Why wouldn’t you? It is a beautiful night littered with stars all over the sky. Sadly, it is also your only dress. I see the stains and tears of your clothes do not impact your confidence of being in them. I can tell that you can still see the beauty of the colourful yellow flower design going up and down your clothes.
Have I ever seen a more beautiful dress?
Perhaps the many stains on this print each tell a different story of your life and now you have simply given up trying to rid yourself of these stains. I can understand why. What good is it removing the physical stains if the memories are permanently tattooed on you?
You start walking past people in a quicker pace than normal. I make my way out of my car and into your world. However, I am still protected with a layer of invisibility in your eyes because, you see, I am wearing clothes that cannot register with your mind. My clothes are far too clean and expensive, and ironed for you to see through your blur. I am relieved at the power of my invisibility so that I can continue to follow you.
You make your way past people munching away into their chicken tikkas and plates of samosas. I can see you walk up to a group of people smoking a shisha. You talk without smiling. You are a hardened woman. I see eyes, a mouth, nose, ears, and a body, but your skin has become as hard as rubber. There is no smile. The people nonchalantly brush you away, and without losing face, you simply turn and walk to the next group.
Eventually, I see you approach an older man, who is probably in his fifties. You stand in front of him and start to talk. Again, there is no smile. I wish I could see you smile. I invisibly walk right next to you so I can hear you. You continue to speak. You tell this man you want him to buy you some milk for your two-year-old boy. You insist you don’t care if he doesn’t give you money, but you just need the milk. The man stares at you. You have a poker face. All the stares in the world cannot change that poker face of yours.
The man takes out his wallet and proceeds to give you a hundred rupees. I feel a rush of excitement come over me. I look at the man who has just started to smile as he hands the money over. I recognise that smile. He is pouring all of his guilt into that note and depleting himself of any further mental stress for the night. It is all he can do and he has done it well. You take the money, still without smiling, and walk away. Surely, a little smile now wouldn’t hurt, would it, Safia?
You continue onwards. I don’t take you for a married woman. There is too much awareness and knowledge in your eyes of the grim reality of your situation for anyone else to be a part of it. I conclude you are the parent of a bastard child. I feel comforted with the fact that you will feed him tonight.
You make your way to the little store nearby and pick up a carton of milk. You pay the money, get some change, and make your way into the night. But you can’t shake me off so easily. I am right behind you. You cross the street and walk towards the entrance of the park right opposite Boat Basin. I don’t see your child. In fact, I don’t see anyone else around you. Where is your child? What have you done to your child Safia? As I make my way closer to you, I suddenly see the great mystery of the night unfold itself right in front of me. You have no child, my dear. You lied.
As you sit down and open the carton, I see in front of you, three incredibly small baby kittens hidden behind the rock you just sat on. There is a metallic small bowl right next to them, which you have just filled up. Without wasting a moment, the three kittens dive their tongues into the bowl and start slurping away. They aren’t scared of you. They aren’t scared of anything. They are just grateful that they are being fed.
You sit on your rock and turn back around to face the might of the Boat Basin market in front of you. Of course, you don’t see me on the other side as I continue to stare. You take out a cigarette and light it up. You take a drag, and look back at the kittens. You turn back around again, and for the first time in the night, you start to smile. You smile for a few seconds as you continue smoking your cigarette.
I realise that perhaps I have never seen a more justifiably earned smile before. I try to imagine what kind of a cruel reality you are a part of where you have to lie about a starving kid just to feed a bunch of homeless kittens. I know you conjured up a kid because if you did not, those kittens would not live through the night. You continue to smile. I also realise that that is my cue. I smile back at you – of course you do not see it – and make my way back into my car.
As I leave Boat Basin and make my way back into the night, I pass yet again the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. The beat emerges back amongst the many other sounds of the night. I drive through taking in all these sounds. There are of course some sounds that I know are of sadness and pain. However, on this starry night in Karachi, I can also very clearly hear the sounds of three kittens meowing away merrily. And I know, somewhere, Safia has smiled yet once again.
This is my Karachi. I am a superhero. I am invisible to millions. I am no one. I am you.