Illustration by Maheen Eatazaz

Tales of Karachi: the city by the sea

“We took it upon ourselves to excavate these stories of Karachi, for a comfort and an escapism that allowed us to imagine our city as we wanted it to be, with all its complexities and paradoxes.”

Dec 12, 2022

My friend Abdullah and I would venture out into the city in the blocks by the sea. These blocks became the banks of the rivers that would flow into the large expanse of the Arabian Sea. Similar to these rivers, the stories in these blocks converged into one larger narrative: the narrative of Karachi, the city that it was, the city that it is, and the city that it could be. We took it upon ourselves to excavate these stories, for a comfort and an escapism that allowed us to imagine our city as we wanted it to be, with all its complexities and paradoxes.
We started with the concrete carcass of the unfinished, incomplete and abandoned skyscraper which overlooks the houses on the banks. This skyscraper is a skeleton. While undoubtedly formidable, and poignantly elegant, there is no heart at its center. The blood vessels, swollen and emptied, are the walls of this building. Abandoned in its construction, it was a maze of concrete that was impossible to navigate through. But the walls remember that week of the strike, that day of abandonment, that hour of non-completion and that second in which, in a flash, all the workers were forcibly kicked out from something that they had made with their own hands.
We took this opportunity to let out a loud scream in unison — no one answers except our own echoes, the walls acting like an auditory mirror. The air in the building brews with a tinge of marijuana, complemented perfectly by the crackling glass bottles of beer as they roll around the floor with the cold wind that makes them dance to its directional tune. There are other markers of the building’s guests, who long for memories of their visit to this shaded building. The graffiti on the walls speak boldly of things unsaid in public: “Queer Rights are Human Rights”, “Tullon ki Maa ki Choot” (“fuck the cops”), of the graphic murals of hairy penises and hairless vaginas, of sex therapists claiming to cure your infertility, and of herbal medicines affirming to eradicate your gastric problems.
We were not taken aback by the sexuality of this place. This is the only place where the sexual and the sexualized are secure from the clouds of judgment that surround the city. There are no Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) supporters here to chastise you for your escapades. The floor is so high in the sky that one can barely hear the sound of the afternoon Azaan. Everything about this place embodies resistance: a quiet, untouched and unseen revolution, secure from the eyes of the detractor, protesting high in the skies of Karachi where only the followers of this insurrection seek its meaning. But the walls do not belong to this present moment of defiance; they still long for their makers, the shapers of this massive structure of dissent. Their erosion by the wind, humidity and sea salt reminds them of their creators, as they call them out to come back and reconstruct them, to give them closure by finishing what they started.
From the top of the building, the view is endlessly panoramic. To our South is the blueness of the sea which effortlessly permeates within the blueness of the sky, almost like an osmosis. To our North is the hustle and bustle of the crowded shopping areas and the chaos of Karachi’s traffic. This tumultuous dichotomy left us wondering about this urbanized city that we call home, and how the violent traces of this urbanization disrupt the peace of the sea. The sand of the beach is almost invisible owing to the layers of trash, from banana peels to wrappers of chips and biscuits, to shit-soaked baby diapers, to used condoms. From up there, you get an expansive view of how the city is betrayed by its own dwellers, the ones like us who stand in adoration of its brilliance but then become the very cause of why this beauty is snatched and worn out.
As dusk approached, at the end of the back alley, we discovered a banyan tree beside an empty bungalow outside which sits a security guard, shielding the abandoned house the same way a dragon shields a cave. There wasn’t too much monstrous about this massive man, despite his unwelcoming disposition. We approached him to inquire why the bungalow is empty despite it looking perfectly well-dressed and in shape. With a rebuff, he replied that it is none of our business.
To spook us, as if we were children, he narrated a short story of how the banyan tree beside the bungalow was a site of violence during the time of partition. He went on to tell us how the men of a Hindu family were hanged from this banyan tree, the bodies of whom were replaced by hanging branches on the thin wood trunk, and how these hanging branches still continue to occupy a place on the tree. The women of the family were made to watch this hate crime and were taken somewhere else afterward, their whereabouts unknown. Most hauntingly, he told us that if one stares at the tree long enough during the Maghrib Azan, one can still see the memory of the dead and their unquenched desire for revenge. The hyperboles and the performance of the melodrama were at the very least commendable. We, of course, dismissed him as another exaggerated character in our journey to explore these areas who probably fantasized about these stories, the same way we mused about ours.
As such, Karachi is a city inhabited by ghosts, both real and imagined. Sometimes these ghosts are self-constructed fantasies in search of comfort and companionship, to rationalize the life that is given to us when things seem unscrupulously incomprehensible. Sometimes, they are real: not seeking revenge or vengeful violence, but a recognition of their existence, and closure of their lives. They have moved across walls and doors, into the doors of distraught families and estranged couples, into corporate boardrooms which abandon ongoing projects without any disregard for their employees, into the camps of shady guards who one cannot place, with certainty, as a liar or a truth-teller, and lastly into the vast mass of the sea, fluid and mobile like the waves which sail them away.
Ibad Hassan is a contributing writer. Email him at
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