Karachi: A Day in Five Acts
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
Even in sleep, the city is restless, humming. Like the sea at its periphery, it is never still. It thrashes beneath the first light. The call to prayer is a tinny prologue to the day, drifting discordantly from the windows of minarets. No doubt, it is a little boy tasked with the first adhan. His voice is uncertain, half-formed as it rouses the most pious from their beds. They will stumble their way into unlit bathrooms, eyes closed against the first baptism of the day, the icy water and sleep-swollen faces. They pray on shaky feet, unstable as they bend and bow before God. Most of them have work in only a few hours. Their children must be dressed and taken to school. And yet, I have always envied these people. They seem to exist on a different plane, closer to God for beginning each day in His private audience.
Elsewhere, the city begins its economic ebbs and flows. Shopkeepers unlock the glass cases shielding their wares. A banker in pressed pants takes a motorcycle to work, his feet awkwardly positioned to avoid grease stains: the portrait of upward mobility. Vegetable vendors begin their rounds of the city’s residential neighborhoods, their smokey-Sindhi-nomad voices subdued by the afternoon adhan. People pause in their moneymaking and ladder-climbing to snag a spot on which to pray. Men flock to mosques like children in a schoolyard--pushing each other as they form an endless series of orderly rows. A renegade dove, trapped in the building, might swoop over them like a gull, clearing the air over their bodies. From above, I imagine that they look like a tidal wave of cotton. A sea surf of sweaty backs. Rickshaw drivers pray in the street, next to their vehicles. Women are relegated indoors, praying in their offices and homes, squeezed out of the city’s public spaces. An apt illustration of the soaring price of real estate.
Later, the industrial clamor dials back to an omnipresent roar. At midday, a jeweler’s head droops into his chest as he is visited by an intended bride. A group of medical students yawn over an undissected cadaver. At this point, chaiwalas cut a heroic figure on street corners and on college campuses, dazzling passersby with the organic beauty of their furrowed brows and thin, village voices. Karachiites are austere in their tea habits. A strong brew, a splash of milk. The true devotees will forgo sugar for a cake rusk, dunked gracelessly into a steaming glass mug until the base of it is gritty with crumbs, a caffeinated seabed. This prayer is quieter, less of an interruption. Motes of dust refract light in the mosques. Housewives use it as a bookend for their after-lunch naps. The city is rubbing its eyes and unfurling its spine, a rehearsal for what the night promises.
Evening arrives on a crisp breeze. It shakes households out of their reveries. A father returns home from the office to find his children still in their school uniforms: the girls with ribbons in their hair and the boy with drooping socks. They run to the gate when he comes in, and he drops down to embrace them, kneeling on stained concrete. A very sweet vignette of the very modern family-man. The inflection of the adhan weaves itself into their own domestic composition, and they pray together in the garden, father and son leading mother and daughters as the grass crunches beneath their bare feet. Several streets over is the home of heroin addicts, all in varying states of recovery, with their roof patched in tin sheets and the finance columns. They also worship together in this simple, familial way. Later, as they all sit around a fire, rolling up the sleeves of their shirts, one of them mentions that his mother taught him to never miss the evening prayer, because the hour in which it can be performed is so short.
Night swells over the city like a high tide. In a banquet hall, crammed between a chemist and a Western Union, a young couple is married beneath strung lights. Outside, discarded threads of jasmine are ground into the dust of the road like a half-baked municipal scheme. The rapid, electric rhythm of the dhol carries over to quieter parts of town, to a cool, marble-floored home where a captain of industry enjoys his nightly bring-your-own-black-market-brandy. The final adhan is longer, sweeter than its forbearers. It is quietly aware of its mortality. Women pray alone, after their husbands and children have gone to sleep. I imagine them floating, apparitional, through their darkened homes, picking clothing up from the floor and checking the locks one more time. The day is bound by their prayers, their bodies shrouded in dim light. They braid their hair in the twitching quiet of midnight. Their sleep, like the city’s, is noncommittal. Soon, it will be time to wake again.