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A trip to the fatherland.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
I’m standing outside McDonald’s at Park Towers shopping mall. The sea wind is breezy. The evening traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. Suddenly, a bearded man comes running from Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Park, just across the road. A blinding flash of light. A huge bang. Bum phatt gaya. All is black. Am I dead?
This is my first evening in Karachi. The Pakistan International Airlines A-320 airbus landed at Jinnah Terminal at 5 pm. Two hours later, at the most, I should have been killed in a bomb blast. The evening before I flew to Karachi, a friend in Jorbagh had hugged me tight. She asked for my parents’ contact details so that she could attend the funeral once my dead body is flown back to Delhi. The week before when I finalized my trip to Karachi, my parents were puzzled by my sudden 'suicidal mood'. Other acquaintances shrugged their shoulders in resignation and said, “Be careful.”
Pakistan is described in the international media as the world’s most dangerous country. Karachi, its financial capital, is considered a focal point of various conflicts: ethnic, religious and political. Worshipers are killed in the mosques. Bombs go off in 5-star hotels. Commuters are robbed at gunpoint in traffic lights.
As I was going out to soak in the city lights, my host told me: “Don’t be adventurous. Pakistan is under siege.”
An hour later, over fish fillet with tarragon sauce, a friend said, “Oh no, it’s not like that. Yes, we must be careful. But life goes on.”
We were dining at an art-house café called Koyal, in Defense Housing Authority, an upscale neighborhood in south Karachi. On one table, young women were smoking cigarettes with their male friends. On another, a society diva was lording over her wide-eyed admirers. The restaurant manager, a woman in black trousers and white jacket, was cheerily bossing around her team of very professionally-trained stewards.
This could have been any hip place in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore. But this was Karachi in Pakistan. I wanted to get up from my table, shake the shoulders of these stylish diners and ask them, “Aren’t you afraid that bombs can go off here? Why are you risking your lives? Why not eat at home?”
Later the friend drove me through Zamzama Road, the glittery district famous for its showrooms and cafés. Whooshing past the walled mansions of Old Clifton, he showed me the ‘massage boys’, or ‘men prostitutes’, sitting discreetly on the roadside. A little later he pointed out 70, Clifton, which was the residence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s most charismatic politician. The friend then took me to the sufi shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in the same locality. He later talked of taking me to farm-house bashes and beach parties later in the week. He talked of Clifton Bridge and Kala Pul, the landmarks that divide the snobbish part of the city (Clifton and Defense) from the rest.
The day ended uneventfully. I was still not dead. Karachi seemed like just any boring international metropolis. But is it really like any other city? I will soon find out.
The café crowd
Abdullah Shah Ghazi's sufi shrine, Clifton
Happy in Pak