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Residents blame gangs with political support for high crime rates. Photo: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg
Residents blame gangs with political support for high crime rates. Photo: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg

Class divide in Karachi

Aakar Patel's latest Karachi trip includes an encounter with arms

And so off to Karachi for their literature festival, Pakistan’s biggest, organized by the Oxford University Press. The Bengaluru posse was represented by your columnist and Arshia Sattar, translator of Valmiki’s Ramayan and the Kathasaritsagara. There we were, two fine specimens from the martial race of Gujaratis, a Memon translator of Sanskrit and a Patel translator of Urdu, looking like an ad for national integration.

The 75-minute Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight from Mumbai was on a leased plane and crew with pretty but grumpy East European air-hostesses. PIA was down to 19 aircraft last year, according to its chairman, and that is a shame because I personally have found its crew to be warm and friendly. The flight begins, as I remembered, with a prayer in Arabic, something that began in the Zia-ul-Haq years. But since the plane was leased, the recording was not available and a man on board actually delivered it live. The passengers were mainly Gujaratis, as may be expected—Memons, Khojas and Bohras, who dominate the economy of Karachi and so of Pakistan.

From the air, Karachi looks more orderly than our cities, particularly Mumbai, and is laid out in straight lines. It is also much cleaner than Mumbai, but more about the comparison later.

Karachi airport was empty and almost deserted when we landed in the evening.

I had written about Pakistan’s airports when I first visited a decade ago, that they were nicer and more modern than those in India. Now they appear small and outdated, not because they have changed of course, but because India’s airports have. Taxpayers are so rare and prized in Pakistan that they get a separate immigration queue. Indians are sent off to their own line for ritual harassment (from which we were excluded because of our VIP status), and this is something that is inflicted on Pakistanis visiting India as well, of course.

Our stay is at the Beach Luxury Hotel, owned by the famous hoteliers, the Parsi Avari family, a beautiful property by the mangroves at the edge of the sea. In my room, the man fixing the telephone, James, speaks to the operator in Gujarati. I ask him how and he grins and says all the old staffers speak it. Karachi produces 70% of the state’s revenue, and my guess is that 70% of that comes from the tiny community of Gujaratis. I asked those I met what the numbers were, and a Memon told me his community was 100,000 strong and a Bohra told me they were 10,000. I do not know if the actual numbers are wildly off from these, but I would be surprised if my guess on the economy is off.

Anyway, my panels for the lit-fest were the usual stuff and I don’t want to go on about that. Let me instead record some things about Pakistan in general, and Karachi.

Pakistanis are better-looking than Indians on average, as visitors there will notice immediately, at least about the women—but I think that may also come from our perspective that conflates fairness with beauty. That brings me to the other thing, which is that caste is as visible as in India. The wealthy are fair, the middle-class is wheatish and the poor are the darkest.

On our first night, I teamed up with the Malayali writer Benyamin, famous for his novel Goat Days. We were hosted by Omar Quraishi, opinion editor at the Gujarati-owned Express Tribune, for whom I have long written a column. Quraishi took us out for some excellent street food and then drove us around after dinner.

At a signal, a battered white Maruti 800 (called Mehran in Pakistan) on the other side was stopped by two policemen. We heard a man shrieking something obscene as a challenge (“go ahead, cut my penis off"). Then he rushed out of the passenger door, in shalwar kurta, carrying a pistol in his right hand. This he pointed, elbow held high, at the forehead of the now cowering policeman whom the man was holding with his left hand, by the scruff of the neck. The other policeman stood aside, stupefied in fear. At this point Quraishi sped off through the red light.

Karachi’s citizens say the high rates of crime are from gangs that have political support, whether it is the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (the party of refugees from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) or Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party. I wonder if the easy availability of modern weapons is the real reason. Many people say they have been mugged at gunpoint and one man said he had been mugged twice. What is taken is usually cellphones, and for this reason many people don’t carry smartphones. I haven’t written about the sectarian violence and the terrorist attacks, and there are more of the latter in Karachi alone than in all of India.

Given this reality, it isn’t surprising that the speeches at the lit-fest from the organizers were grim stuff about Karachi and its intellectual depletion and its future.

My friend Ayaz Amir wrote this in his column: “Pakistan’s problem is not so much the power of the religious right as the fecklessness and lack of spirit of the liberal left, what may be loosely called the liberati…the liberal, English-educated classes.

“Take in the evidence. Whereas the half-tutored and half-lettered battalions of the religious right are ready to take to the streets at a moment’s notice, and at the slightest provocation, in defence of obscure and often hard-to-understand causes, the liberati for the most part are armchair samurai, waging their battles—in a language and an idiom which most Pakistanis find hard to comprehend—from the deep comfort of their sofas."

The cliché about Pakistan is that it doesn’t have a middle class, as India has. In my observation, the proportion of middle-class (meaning “not poor" in our parts) Pakistanis is probably larger. One doesn’t see as much wealth as one does in India, nor does one see as much poverty. The sea of blue tarpaulin that hits the eye when landing in Mumbai is not to be seen in Karachi, where the katchi abadis or hutments are not as ramshackle, nor the poverty as desperate. It is true that the Anglicized middle class, those who own cars and go on foreign holidays but are not truly wealthy, is disproportionately bigger in India and growing.

It is this group that Pakistan should target. Currently it is impossible for Indians to get a visa unless one is invited from Pakistan for a conference, or one has relatives (and even then it is difficult). The refusal to let the other side’s tourists in is reciprocal and so is the process. If we make Pakistani tourists register themselves (twice!) at a police station on landing, they also do that to us. If Pakistan forces Indians to enter and exit only from specific cities, we also do that to them. India may or may not have gained from keeping Pakistanis out, and certainly the events of the last few years, particularly the attack in Mumbai, mean that no government, much less this one, will let Pakistanis come over easily.

However, in following blind reciprocity, Pakistan has lost by denying itself Indian visitors.

Nobody else is coming to Karachi or elsewhere in Pakistan in the near future, whether tourists or businessmen. Indians went to Kashmir even when it was violent. They would flock by the thousands to Pakistan if given visas-on-arrival. Think of direct flights to Mohenjo Daro and Indus river cruises (I can even see my misguided Hindutvawadi friends lining up). Indians will not need special food, will be happy with the accommodation and dress modestly. Sindh has easy access to alcohol (Karachi itself has over 60 official outlets, one of which friend and Mint Lounge reader Imran Yusuf took me to). It is legal to have a drink in Karachi, but not in Gujarat—think about that.

In one area, Pakistan has already acted more maturely and let India in unilaterally, and that is entertainment. Pakistan’s multiplexes all show Bollywood, while it is difficult for Pakistani films to get a screening in our halls. The same is the case with television.

Pakistan needs to think selfishly about tourists as well, and not just about how it can pay India back for some silliness in a process that is ultimately damaging to itself.

Read Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns here.

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