Karachi, for a year I wrote you love letters, swearing my undying love with the devotion of a spaniel, determined not to be the lone resident of this city who lacks the instinct to defend you. Love and defensiveness are one and the same here, you have made it so. Sometimes I think all we learn living here is how to seek out beauty in the saddest places, or how to look away. Do you see then, like all fickle lovers, how your people watch life through poetry, camera lenses and lies? How every part of their anatomy is obediently, subserviently, trained to appreciate you in all your cruelty and ugliness? From the eyes that anxiously seek out the sunsets made wild and unique with smog and dust and the sea below, to the noses that anticipate salt and petrol and garbage and dying fish in an attempt to soothe nostalgia, to the feet that hurry up in crowded bazaars and the hips that deftly avoid strangers' hands in public places. All the time repeating to themselves mantras and tributes and metaphors about melting pots and stepmothers, without daring to leave the parameters of their safe spaces.
And daring to leave, the feeling of daring to leave, is what unites your many lovers who see each other feel but how can we leave everything we know and where would we go? Because to leave would be to let our eyes and mouths seek out more straightforward things and we are used to not understanding so easily. The path to loving this city is never a straight line, it is winding roads and broken homes, fear and comfort, familiarity and strangeness, the joy and panic at the first drop of rain, a love-hate relationship with water. How, then, could we go someplace where beauty is right there, carefully cultivated, cherished and protected, not sought out or understood over years? How would we belong?
You have really only enslaved us all, like the most manipulative of lovers and we can never be free because to choose freedom would be to belong nowhere. The children who shrugged off dead siblings in conversations with me last summer, the doe-eyed girl in purdah to whom you gave such big dreams, the seventeen year old teacher who lived by the railway tracks, the chain-smoking social worker who stubbed her cigarette in a dirty chai mug and said it's best to leave this fucked up place but never left herself, the delicate-skinned lady at the museum whose eyes widened when she learned what kind of children I taught, the free-thinking driver who told me he didn't believe in god, the flag-waving students who loved Salman Khan and boy scout lessons, the eunuch who was more graceful than all her patrons, the butcher whose skull was broken for opening his shop the day of a strike, what do they care for romantic notions of home? In conversations with Lahoris they will all sigh longingly at descriptions of smooth roads and traffic control, scheduled power cuts and homogenous neighborhoods with fewer guns, but they will all say we come from the big city and we have the sea and they will memorise the way the gray foam of that sea carries away slippers and long days and its stench will become part of who they are.