The spitters end up generating copious volumes of red saliva. PHOTO: MAHEEN HUMAYUN

An open letter to the Karachiites painting the city red

Look around and you will observe many Karachiites spitting away as if participating in a well-orchestrated symphony.

Asad I Mian May 03, 2017
Dear Karachi,

Ptooey! Did you know that’s onomatopoeia? A written sound, in other words. Or more precisely, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
“The naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss).”

Ptooey! That’s the commonest written version of the sound that is presumably made when you spit. Why presumably, you ask. Well, because the esteemed composers of the dictionary obviously did not travel to our city prior to drafting that onomatopoeia.

Why do I say that? Simple. Have you ever spat on a wall here? You don’t have to. You don’t need to. Simply look around and you will observe several fellow Karachiites spitting away as if participating in a well-orchestrated symphony. And not just on walls, but also on footpaths, roads, grounds, gardens, flowerbeds, schools, colleges, public and private spaces, and so on. The young and the old, rich and poor, all go about it as if one big happy family, transcending gender too at times.

Now did I mention hospitals? Even those haven’t been spared. The expectorating ones are particularly energetic outside the emergency room, where I work. One would think they would spare the high-stress location given they have brought loved ones there. But I suppose when the urge is upon them, the spitters do what’s got to be done, disregarding signs discouraging littering and smoking. That the signs don’t categorically forbid spitting might have something to do with it.

The only places the spitters don’t spit on are their own houses. That in itself is an interesting observation, worth delving into at some point in the not so distant future.

The spitters don’t just produce small amounts of drool that splatters on the above mentioned surfaces. They tend to generate massive amounts of saliva.

And why does that happen you ask.

I think the volume is more because of mastication – like cattle chewing the cud because of which more saliva is produced. Although like cattle the spitters masticate, they don’t do so on cud. Instead they (the spitters) chew incessantly and invariably on some combination of paan / gutka / chaalia (betel leaf or areca nut). So the spitters end up generating copious volumes of red saliva. And when the red saliva comes into contact with hard surfaces such as walls, the sound is not ptooey… it’s more like phutoosh!

Hence, I propose that the onomatopoeia for spitting in Karachi should be phutoosh! I shall request the honourable Merriam-Webster dictionary composers to create an addendum for us, the Karachiites, so we may rejoice about our significance in the world of onomatopoeias. Yes, spitting might not be very fashionable to be written about in a dictionary, but I’m sure we can live with that, among all other ailments of the mega city that we are already notorious for.

Other than fame for the newly coined written sound, there are aesthetics to Karachi’s white-washed walls and pavements now covered in red blotches (for the sidewalks, you might want to imagine them without heaps of trash first, just for a moment). We are in the creation phase of community-based abstract art. A red tapestry. Crimson patches with ill-defined margins that are reminiscent of microscopic images of amoebas engulfing bacteria. If nothing else, we shall enter into an imaginative, lateral thinking population of spitters.

Fellow citizens, I intend to share this letter with the relevant movers and shakers of the system, i.e. political and intellectual intelligentsia, so they can put the right amount of pressure on the dictionary composers. There is a possibility that a petition might be needed with thousands of signatures. When and if that happens, I shall keep you posted.

In the meantime, I shall write to you about the aesthetical yellow patterns on white walls of Karachi that have signs stating,
“Yehan pishaab karna mana hai.” 

(Urinating here is forbidden.)

Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

A (not so) concerned citizen
Asad I Mian The writer is a pediatrician, ER physician, and researcher by profession, at the Aga Khan University, but his proclivity for writing is his means of creative exploration and expression. His articles on health, education, children, humour and popular culture have appeared in newspapers in the US and in Pakistan. Other than the Biloongra series of bilingual books for children, he has authored 'An Itinerant Observer' a book of brief narratives first published in the US in 2014 which will be reprinted by Bookgroup in Pakistan in June 2020. He can be reached on Twitter @amian74 and he blogs at
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


khusro shamim | 5 years ago | Reply very well elucidated dr Asad. walls are painted red and yellow in our region.
Faisal Malik | 5 years ago | Reply Each city has its own cultre and aread which they are proud of. Unfortunately the issues highlighted by the author are some thing we have not addressed so far despite they negative impact on the enviorment and people lives. It is a shame for Karachi that the walls & streets are competely filled with grafiti (mostly non family type), tambakoo/gutka and garbage. It is an interesting sight when you talk to local traders / shopkeepers because when they try responding to you Spittle is sprayed from their lips and most often some of it lands on you as well. These walls / streets ofcourse also act as open air toilets especially when one cannot wait to got a mosque to use a toilet (only place where public toiloets are available). There is an urgent need to educate the people on the harmful effects of these gukas/tabakoo and also ban these from being manufactuered locally or imported to the country. Visit any building in the city & we will find the corners of the staircase red with tabkoo / gutka.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ