When we speak of the greatest cities in the world, Karachi barely makes the list, if at all. It’s not an ideal city by any means; pollution, traffic, and chaos reign, making things a bit more inconvenient than usual. But the citizens, especially those who have lived here long enough, have adapted to the unique struggles of life so much so, they refuse to move elsewhere even when given the opportunity.
Karachi is the definition of chaos. But what makes life here attractive are those beautiful moments when you forget the madness and are not distressed that you have a family to feed, a job that may be in jeopardy, or that you won’t reach home at time. It’s when you witness a father embracing his 10-year-old daughter on the streets, or an old man enjoying a cup of tea on a scorching summer day.
In this photo series, I have attempted to capture those moments in the lives of Karachiites – people who find the calm amidst the storm.
A smile to start the day
The photograph was taken at Empress Market, one of the remaining traces of the British era that’s very much a vibrant part of Karachi and a synecdoche for the city. Built in 1889, the market was apparently a gift from Queen Victoria, who had celebrated her golden jubilee only two years earlier (the actual reason it was built is a story for another time).
The boy in the photograph is a coolie trying to make a living early one morning. It’s interesting to note that among hundreds of people who earn their daily bread through the market, most are not aware of its history. Some have their own versions, some are too caught up in their lives to care. The boy, unaware of all that takes place, exuded a bright energy in his candid smile, reflecting the beauty of that moment as the city wakes up around him.
An encounter over tea
Tea is the most important beverage in the subcontinent. Clearly then, tea time is most cherished in Karachi. This image captures just one part of an interesting story. Walking through the Empress Market, I came across a yellow wall in a section that I had never explored before. As I approached, I realised there were some men sitting inside a room, chatting. They invited me in for some tea. The three shared their stories of youth with me over a cuppa. This particular man, however, only listened and posed for my photographs as I clicked away. It was certainly a precious encounter with strangers, cherishing and sharing their tea time.
Carts selling numerous cheap and everyday items such as scissors, mirrors, plastic household goods are really popular here. The sellers are called harmaal wala (har means every and maal means item) spend their days walking around, pushing their carts or standing outside marketplace to wait for customers. This shot shows a senior citizen sorting out the products on his cart, which give off a pink hue all around, while his expression is captured in one of the mirrors he was selling.
Can you see it?
The streets of Karachi are crowded with less-privileged children. Sometimes, you can tell whether they have had a good day or not. Hard times, however, aren’t enough to hold down the children’s innate energy and glee. Growing up on the streets is a masterclass in life itself. In those microseconds, while talking to this kid, I could see a natural joy in his eyes… and I caught that look on his face, of reflecting about life.
Crazy Clown Time
While I have borrowed the title from one of David Lynch’s music videos, the story behind this photograph is as Karachi-esque as it can be. While exploring an area under the bridge where roadside barbers set up shop, I came across this setup: A mirror and several chairs in front of thick pillars. It was only after I took the photo that I realised the kid, who was standing nearby, had jumped into frame. His spontaneous action turned what would have been an average photograph into a memorable one.
The small body of the boy, in contrast with the big furniture and giant pillars, makes for an interesting metaphor for the urbanised lives of Karachiites. Karachi is about finding meaning in chaos as well.
Pause and ponder
I believe that whoever visits Karachi will learn to cherish their little smoke breaks. At a railway station in the city, an old man, possibly a worker, relaxes on the bench as he enjoys a cigarette, while the two boys on the adjacent bench wait for someone. Their body language shows their different dynamics. The children, possibly anxious as they await someone, while the old man is free from all worries.
Snapshots is our photo essay section, where we ask readers to share a curation of their favourite images to tell the story of their city or a destination they have travelled to. We welcome contributions from readers; if you have a photo story to share, email [email protected] and indicate ‘Snapshots’ in the subject line. Published submissions will receive a token sum from us.