By: Naushaba Burney
W hen, as an excited schoolgirl, I first arrived in Karachi from the big and beautiful New Delhi, I was delighted. The first capital of newly-independent Pakistan was relaxed, uncrowded and with the added attraction of a breezy seaside. It was also as clean and safe as can be.
It didn’t take Karachi very long to change and we are all familiar with our thrusting, jostling metropolis that has bloated into one of the world’s largest cities. Until recently though, this port city was an exciting place with people of every hue and variety engaged in trade and industry, art and cultural activities and a host of other professions. Job-seekers, not just from the four corners of the country but from across our borders east, west, north and south flock to this metropolis to earn a livelihood.
The focus of these enmeshed and inter-connected millions started to change some years back and today the countless divisive groups are at each other’s throats. Violence, in other words, has become endemic. Newspapers print a daily tally of death — young men mostly plus a woman or two — that is going up alarmingly. That large numbers of highly trained and heavily armed Taliban are holed up in various parts of the city today is no secret. Their ferocity and total absence of humanity, the bloodletting of countless innocent souls including children are no longer unknown to Karachiites.
I heard an interesting story about tolerance at a recent meeting I attended. At a new housing development for people of average means there was only one mosque. All the different groups that constitute Islam today wanted to take over the mosque for their exclusive use. Since that was not possible and violence loomed, sensible leaders from all the diverse factions got together and actually, yes actually, agreed to share the mosque. Harmony was restored without a shot being fired or a head broken.
But let’s focus at this point at the daily struggle we wage on the city roads as we head towards offices, schools, markets, whatever. Homeward bound in the evening, it’s the same story. In other big cities the incessant traffic flow, even heavier than Karachi’s, appears well-managed since everyone obeys the traffic rules. Nobody, not even the police, bothers about road rules and regulations here and push, shove and thrust forward as if moving ahead of the other drivers is a matter of honour and pride, even if it means scraping or knocking down other road users.
The staggering escalation in the number of motorbikes swarming on Karachi roads, exacerbated by the recent explosion of modernised motor rickshaws has made getting anywhere not just a difficult but dangerous activity. Especially since the bikers insist on crowding in the fast right lane normally designated for automobiles. Karachi must be the only giant metropolis without a mass transit system. All three big cities in neighbouring India now have acquired mass transit systems. Even tiny Dubai has launched mass transit, can you believe that. The bridges, flyovers and underpasses that have appeared on the Karachi road network in the last few years are a boon no doubt. But they cannot substitute for a mass transit system, preferably underground.
The traffic police who look so smart in their starched white outfits tend to act as if modelling their uniforms on the city roads is their sole function. Getting nearly killed by a speeding car which drove right through a red light, I stepped up to a nearby traffic policeman and asked him why he hadn’t hauled up the offending driver. His reply: ‘What can I do? It is big people like yourself who should write in the media about drivers who break traffic rules.’ While quite baffled by his response, and upset too, I suppose the traffic policeman should be commended for at least being aware of the power of the media. It would help, of course, if traffic policemen were also aware of their own power. But wait a minute! Haven’t we all seen people break all kinds of rules and laws and get away with it simply by dropping a few big names? So until this city gets a mass transit system, it would help if the police strictly enforced the traffic rules. Also, shouldn’t the educated, or at least literate, white-collar types also stop cutting corners when driving and scrupulously obey traffic regulations?
Introducing any kind of change in a monolithic metropolis like Karachi is a laborious process, but the crazy wedding scene which had broken all bounds, with rukhsattis taking place at 3am, has, of late, improved markedly. The lights-out-at-midnight rule has taken hold, and with food being served on time guests start to leave around 11pm. But then event managers or wedding planners have moved in and what a difference that can make. Wedding spaces are now decorated with such flair and taste that they compete with the bride for your attention. And the profusion of flowers, with heaps of roses massed in elaborate arrangements, can only be called dazzling. Life in Karachi during this heavenly winter weather can be great if only the violence and crime graph could be lowered. ¦