KARACHI: Over 20 million people in Pakistan warrant 20 million plus stories. In Karachi, the world’s third most populous city, there is never a moment of stagnation. The city grows and evolves as we talk. There is the heritage of the past with nostalgic remains in the form of colonial buildings and tales of simpler, safer times and a futuristic side to the city where buildings are being torn down and electronics replace tender connections. For instance, the quintessential 5:00pm tea with family is being replaced with fast-paced techno music on radio stations as one gets caught in heavy traffic jams during the evening rush hour. Therefore, in her new book Street Smart, Rumana Husain does what a true lover of this city must. She builds a bridge between the Karachi of yesterday and today. And for this, the artist-cum-author uses the lives of 60 people on the streets of the city as her canvas.
In Husain’s signature style, which made her previous offering Karachiwala a favourite coffee table book among Karachiites, Street Smart is a 160-page long photo essay. The language is simple but the subjects are not. Flipping through the pages of Street Smart is like listening to the untold story of what Karachi has been through. The city has been ravaged by violence, while also facing problems every megacity faces; yet, its beautiful diversity continues to thrive.
The book’s component, which has a touch of romanticism and nostalgia, is the profiles of people in professions that have begun to fade. The roadside ear cleaner, the roaming tinsmith (kalai wala), the handcart puller (haath gari walla), the ferris wheel operator, the typist and the knives sharpener. In the future, our children may not even know they existed. Documentation of the lives of people like Khadija Bai, a poppadum hawker, and Mariam Ahmed, a female potter, is thus invaluable. The book also includes some new professions like a guard and a food delivery man, including peculiar ones like a vendor selling fried liver. However, some new street ‘workers’ have deftly been left out on purpose, such as the mobile snatcher and the stalker.
The most ironic selection would have to be that of a water carrier, also known as bahishti (person of Paradise), who has a newly-found importance in this water-starved city. It is also interesting to note how the book features some very similar, yet different street professions. These include the oil grinder and the masseur, the scavenger and the junk dealer and the peanut hawker and the dried fruit seller. A critical look, however, reveals that some of these come across as repetitive and unnecessarily take up pages. Other professions could have been included instead, such as a gajra seller, children who wash windscreens at signals or even the entertaining and engaging transgender.
Author Rumana Husain
The book’s photography captures the correct sentiments and freezes the right moments. The cover, instead of using the fortune teller with the parrot, could have perhaps featured one of the better photographs in the book, for instance the photograph of a Sindhi cap seller. But the overall impact is nevertheless delightful and moving.
Farahnaz Zahidi works as a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 21st, 2015.