Karachi in Fragments by Taimur Khan

Shahid kept his pigeons in a coop on the roof of his home, nested some­where in the anthill labyrinth of Karachi’s oldest neighbourhood, Lyari. The building was crumbling in places, but the coop was of the modern variety, replete with receding ledges and fluorescent lighting, and the birds’ white feathers and painted bodies were plump from a luxurious diet of wheat, black chickpeas and almonds. ‘Salman,’ ‘Govinda,’ ‘Katrina,’ thirty or forty Bollywood-named birds resided here, cajoled and trained for competition, groomed to be ‘flyers’ or ‘leaders’. A young, speckled Afghan pigeon can cost tens of thousands of rupees, sometimes payable in instalments. Upon arrival it is completely plucked. Helpless and flightless, the newly born bird is carefully fed and cared for. Forty days later its loyalty is measured in its consistent return from heights and distances difficult to discern with the naked eye.

Shahid often spent his evenings lying on his back, watching these birds, listening to their barely audible evening coo. Twenty-five nearby pigeon racers had organised a tournament for later that month. Shahid and the others had paid 4,000 rupees to enter; the owner of the bird that stayed in the air the longest would be declared the winner. First prize was a motor­cycle, but Shahid hoped to win the third prize, a television. His friends and neighbours were all lovingly grooming their birds on nearby rooftops, ten­derly feeding them ‘motor-on’ pills, his name for the amphetamine that would ensure the birds’ high flights. The pigeons were his most prized pos­session; every evening he initiated his eight-year-old son into the craft, as Mir Nihal did for Asghar in Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. But the pigeon racers of today aren’t the crumbling oligarchy of old. In fact they are new subjects, with unprecedented desires and novel political affiliations. On the cusp of an amorphous and ill-defined middle class, these are the new actors in the story of modern Karachi.

The deceptively capacious rooftop sat three storeys above the capillary lanes below. Drying laundry hung over the chest-high boundary wall; a baby goat tethered to the leg of a sagging charpoy nipped at a pile of hay. Under the adulterated purple night sky, an accretion of uneven city spread in all directions. It seemed possible to skip along the top of Lyari, roof to roof, all the way to the sea.

From the ports and beaches on the Arabian Sea to the south, Karachi crawls haphazardly north over green mangrove swamps and along the Lyari and Malir rivers, west to the lunar mountains of Baluchistan, and northeast into the flat scrubland of Sindh. Each year, the city colonises a little more of the desert to make space for thousands upon thousands of new residents.

Here, there is room for everyone; Karachi is now a Pakistan in miniature, with all of its ethnic and linguistic DNA in competition and combination. The broad strokes are familiar: Muhajir and Pashtun, Sindhi and Punjabi and Baloch. But these labels fail to contain the multitudes of sub-groups who defy the taxonomy. What of the Kashmiris, Seraikis, Swatis, Biharis, Benga­lis, Goans, Parsis, Hindu banyas?

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Photograph by Ayesha Malik