Karachi Raj


“Aiy, Seema, open the door! What, thieves will come and rob you, so you have to hide?”

Hafiz’s nineteen-year-old sister, the unacknowledged pride of the Basti, was hiding out. Late afternoon, when her parents and brother were at work, was a precious time to study. She loved solitude. But neighbors had other ideas.

Mithi bai was having a Qur’an-khwani for her son’s circumcision. He was eight years old, late for the ritual. The humiliation the poor boy would undergo! He’d be in bed for a week, the target of jokes. He’d miss school, normally cause for envy, except in this instance. The word circumcision was never uttered publicly. Instead, euphemisms circulated. Sunnat. The way of the Prophet.

Seema opened the door. The wart on Mithi bai’s cheek was bigger than ever—it used to be the moon, now it was Jupiter. She had two daughters who were married to “office workers,” Mithi bai’s proudest claim.

“Amma isn’t home. How can I help you?”

“You can read the Qur’an, can’t you?” Mithi bai flung her chadar over her shoulder. “This college-shollege, if they can’t teach you the Qur’an, what good is it? The women who usually come mumble the words. They come for mithai, not blessings. They skip entire sections. Thirty women, thirty surahs, it should be over in an hour. Are you coming? Or do you have better things to do? Maybe some college function, with boys and girls?”

“I have nothing else to do.”

“I know you don’t look down on your poor neighbors. I’ve known you since you were a baby, running around naked in the lane, almost getting drowned in the rains. I always saved you. I knew you’d never become a nakhrey-wali looking down her nose at poor folks. We didn’t go to college. Nobody in our family ever went past Matric. We wake up at dawn, get in line for water, make nashta at our broken stove, put on ragged clothes, get in line for the bus, squeezed like ants in a matchbox, and so the day goes. How can you find time for college in all this jhamela?”

“You can’t.”

Mithi bai stepped inside. She looked as if she intended to rifle through the drawers of the lone cabinet, to detect any articles of luxury.

“Make me some tea,” she ordered Seema, settling on the charpoy. She started looking at pictures of film stars in old magazines.

“This one, Reema, she’s grown so fat. They like fat girls in Punjab. They call it being healthy. They eat makhan and ghee, and have heart attacks at forty. One should respect one’s body. It’s the only one Allah has given you. If you lose an eye or a leg, can you ever replace it? I wanted my Rashid to be a doctor. He would have had to go to college, which is impossible for people like us. How would he go to college to learn to cure fat film stars, if he’s jammed in the bus every day to support his poor mother and father?”

 Tea was ready. Mithi bai was sweating. “Turn on the fan, hai, the heat is killing your poor khala.” She took a sip. “First-class tea, rich and creamy. You’d make a first-class wife. Don’t be like other college girls who give up getting married for the sake of work. Job-shob, it’s here today, gone to- morrow. What lasts is family. When I’m old, my Rashid will be my sup- port. He won’t be one of those modern boys who abandons his parents to please his modern wife in a modern home with modern children, living so far away no rickshaw can take you there.”

“When is the Qur’an-khwani?” Seema didn’t read the Qur’an well, but she couldn’t admit this to Mithi bai.

“Don’t change the subject!” Mithi bai smacked herself on the head. “You smart college girls, you make fools out of us. I was saying, Do you know any good boys in college? You should get married the day you finish. So who is he, who are his parents, have your parents met his? If you can meet a boy on your own, no need to go through matchmakers. Some people call me a matchmaker. That Sauda bai in the next lane, now she’s a matchmaker. I just like to bring people together. I’ve never charged a rupee. So who’s the boy?”

“There’s no boy.”

“Who are you trying to fool? I knew you when you ran around naked in the lane, floating like a duck, sharing toffee with everyone, obeying your nice khala. You were a sweet girl.”

It was good that Mithi bai’s son Rashid was too old for her and she was too qualified for him. Mithi bai tended to lapse into melancholy. Some- thing was not right in the stars; an ancestor had set them on the wrong path so that misery would be their lot for generations. What was the original mistake? Disloyalty to an employer? Where had the fork in the road occurred? She pondered the unknowable, commenting how children had become monsters who selfishly exploited their parents. Today was one of her better days.

“Friday at four sharp! Don’t forget. It’s Independence Day, so no one can say they have to be at work.”

At last she left and Seema locked the door. She still had an hour to read before the house came alive. She set the table fan so it blew straight into her face, making herself comfortable on the charpoy Mithi bai had vacated. The heat of her body still warmed the sheets. Mithi bai had a good heart, despite her furies. She’d never admit it in so many words, but she was proud of Seema. It was no use fussing over her interference. And she had watched Seema when she was a child.

She was eager to get back to a book that was really exciting. Her best friend in the world, Professor Ashiq Rasool of the history department at Karachi University, had loaned it to her. It was a memoir by a British diplomat about partition. Jinnah, Nehru, Mountbatten, Gandhi, and other figures were revealed as never before. These men had been elevated to gods, yet they ate, slept, drank, fought, cheated, yelled, and betrayed like any other men. The book felt illicit, especially when it came to Pakistan’s founders, but she had no doubt it was a true account.

The hour went by quickly. Books made her forget everything.

She rubbed her fingers along the book’s spine, caressed the cover as if it were a kitten’s head, and smelled the paper. The motivations of writers were difficult to understand, but at least they had the courage to put their thoughts on paper. She recognized her own shyness, knowing she tried to please too much. She was afraid some ominous authority figure at the university would pull her aside any day and ask her to vacate the premises since she didn’t belong there. Hafiz was the confident one. He didn’t read much, but he was always fearless. She tried to please him, but she failed, especially since the awards ceremony three years ago when she won the big scholarship from the Basti to attend university. Mithi bai should be paying attention to Hafiz, not her. He was the one who needed to get married. If she’d been a confident girl, she herself would be looking for a girl for him.

She returned the book to her bag. Should she return it? She didn’t think she would finish it. It would be an excuse to visit Ashiq at his flat.

That had been her great adventure of the last two years, going to see her professor in secret. If anyone knew, she would be finished. All her liberty would be taken away in a minute. Sometimes she wondered if it was a great blunder from which there was no return. Yet her heart jumped with joy when she reached his place, dressed nicely, knowing he noticed her scent. It had become ordinary, just two friends talking about books and politics, gossiping about teachers and students, letting off frustration. He was about as old as her father, yet he behaved mostly like a boy. It made her happy to see him act that way. She realized she had a lot of untapped power. She hadn’t betrayed her family. Was it so wrong to spend time with someone who made her feel smart, unlike silly classmates who discussed nothing but cars and clothes?

Her father came in, with a light rap at the door. He wanted some tea.

She would make it strong and milky with cardamom.

Always when turning on the stove she was grateful for the miracle of electricity. No partition separated off the kitchen, but there was still plenty of room for pots and pans. The tap usually worked in the afternoons, and below water drained through a hole in the floor. Seema and her mother squatted on the floor to cut and chop and slice. What did her mother do before they had these facilities? How had she cooked and fed them? They had a small refrigerator now, but electricity was so unreliable they used it only for milk and yogurt, eating what they cooked each day. They also had a covered shower stall in the back, although water rarely flowed in it, so they used buckets. The day the latrine inside their home had started working was the proudest moment in any of their lives.

Muhammad Khan stretched out where Mithi bai had just been, kicking the magazines out of the way. He had no time for such frivolities. He played with his left foot. He’d been limping for a while, explaining that he’d slipped when he was carrying a sewing machine. But Seema’s mother refused to believe the explanation because supervisors weren’t allowed to lift heavy objects. “Did I hurt it playing football?” he’d said irritably. Seema’s mother rubbed ugly ointment on his foot every night.

“Are you tired, abba?” she asked, handing him the tea and settling across from him with a cup of tea for herself.

“Work gets more and more difficult each year. Employees make more demands, the boss complains about every little thing. You’re lucky you won’t ever have to do such labor.”

He didn’t want to talk about himself, he only wanted to know about her day.

“Make friends, Seema. This is why we don’t want you to have a part- time job. The money would come in handy, but your time is more important. The friends you make now will be useful all your life. Don’t ruin your eyes in the library. Don’t come home early just to read.”

Seema’s mother came home with a bag of vegetables, the cheap remainders from the end of the day at the bazaar.

She thought about how confident being around Ashiq made her feel. He was sophisticated and adult and responsible, and it rubbed off on her. She was still shy around men, but who wasn’t? She was sorry for Hafiz being stuck with mazdoors at the godown. What could he possibly learn from them? Ashiq couldn’t believe the older brother of a girl like Seema had settled for manual work rather than pursuing college. He preferred not to talk about Hafiz, although she’d tried to explain that maybe Hafiz wanted to be as different from her as possible. But she didn’t know the real reasons, and neither did her parents. From Class One onward, her parents had pushed her, never letting her take it easy. Even after flu or malaria, she was forced to return to school as soon as possible.


A few days later, Seema found herself piling pomegranate seeds in a bowl as red as blood.

She cleaned the kitchen floor and counters with disinfectant while Ashiq talked to his mother, Zaitun, on the phone. She was speaking loud enough for Seema to overhear.

“When will you visit your poor mother? We live in the same city, but my only son won’t visit unless I send a messenger with a written invitation. Did we upset you? Just because your sisters claim you’re lazy doesn’t mean I feel the same way. Even if I felt so, would I say it? And if I did, would it mean anything? I’m your mother, I gave birth to you, I washed your bum when you were a baby, in that green plastic tub I’ve never thrown out, I was there when you got your first moustache hairs—would I call you a good-for-nothing, and if I did, would I mean it?”

“Busy semester, Amma, I have students to take care of—”

“Students you have time for, but your own mother-father you haven’t seen for so long we don’t remember what you look like.”

“I look the same, Amma.”

“Not too thin?” 

“Certainly not.”

“Better a little fat than a little thin. Are you using the neem toothpaste from Hamdard Clinic? Your father waited three hours in line. If you don’t use it, give it to one of your sisters, although Allah knows, they have drivers and servants at their beck and call, they don’t need anything.”

Both of Ashiq’s beautiful sisters had married up. One brother-in-law was a construction magnate, heavily invested in Dubai, where Karachi’s real estate developers had lately gravitated. Another was a car dealer fond of hanging out with Sindhi and Punjabi feudals, even though he was a dyed-in-the-wool Muhajir, like Ashiq’s family. His sisters’ five children, ranging in age from six to twelve, spoke English with the cheeriness of Enid Blyton characters, never soiled their uniforms at the dining table, and treated Ashiq less as an uncle than a servant—respected in the family hierarchy and valued for his ancient service but a servant nonetheless. At large gatherings, jokes were made at Ashiq’s expense, particularly about his permanent bachelor status. Rauf, the car dealer, kidded that with so many beautiful girls at Karachi University, no warm-blooded man would settle for one woman. Moin, the real estate developer, couldn’t under- stand why Ashiq didn’t apply for a lecturer’s position in the Emirates: “If they say no, they say no, what have you lost?”

Ashiq’s mother called every afternoon. If he didn’t answer, she panicked, calling neighbors to check in. There was the dreaded Mrs. Ikram, who thought he was a good match for her sister and told him what every- one in the building was up to if he so much as cracked open his door.

Ashiq’s mother reminded him to drink Ovaltine before bed. Then Ashiq’s retired engineer-accountant father, Mehboob, picked up his end of the conversation.

He never revealed anything personal. His own anxieties were reflected through comments about politics. “Parliament is not doing its job” meant his doctors at Agha Khan University Hospital were miserable. “The president will soon leave his military uniform” meant his blood pressure was normal. Mehboob neither praised nor condemned Ashiq. His list of ailments, from gout to glaucoma, was more extensive than his wife’s single problem of diabetes, yet he didn’t like to talk about it. When Ashiq received confirmation of his appointment in the history department, his father only said: “Make copies of the letter. Go to a good quality photostat shop, not those five-paisa-a-copy thieves.”

Zaitun snatched the phone after Mehboob finished mumbling about the United Nations having become a paper tiger, unable to stop the war in Iraq. “When are you getting married, Ashiq? I’ll fail my duty if you don’t get married in my lifetime. Allah will ask if I was too lazy to take care of my biggest obligation. I’m responsible for your sins. What exactly do you want in a girl? Will it be a hoor-pari descending from heaven? Can I talk to Sabra Auntie? Rahmat Auntie? See whom they know?”

Seema thumbed through a Reader’s Digest from the fifties with Stalin on the cover. She could hear everything.

“Shaitan loves an unmarried man. The eyes and ears and hands all commit sins. An unmarried man will not easily enter jannat. Don’t you want to meet us in jannat? Imagine, pomegranates and grapes, unimaginable delicacies, whatever we desire, at the clap of our hands. Houris to do our work, and the sight of Allah whenever we wish it.”

Ashiq put his hand over the mouthpiece and reminded Seema, “Pomegranate, hurry up!”

She brought him the bowl. He didn’t like getting the seeds out because the juice made his fingers look like fungus.

Accha, I’ll do what you say, Amma,” Ashiq said, ending the conversation.


The professor crossed his legs on his beloved rattan chair. “You eat too!” “I had some in the kitchen.”

“You don’t eat and drink. All you girls want is to stay thin. Those stick figures at the university, you’re like them.”

“I’m not like them. I eat and drink.”

“You’re not a sensualist.” Pomegranate juice trickled out of his mouth. “You rely on your mind. What’s right, what’s wrong—not what feels good. The Basti’s done this to you. If you lived in Gulshan, you’d be looking for the fanciest tikka and chargha places, like a woman starved, even if you weighed two hundred pounds.”

“Why would I want to be like those women?”

“Always serious, our Seema, always trying to please the scholarship people. They already gave it to you, now they’re gone. You don’t have to worry about them.”

“What was your mother saying?”

“Wants me to get married. So we can add to the brood of grandchildren. Even if I have children, mine won’t be the robots my sisters have produced. They’ll be sloppy and rude, half-wits who break mirrors and smash heads. A hundred and seventy million Pakistanis already. Isn’t that enough?”

“Your mother’s unhappy—”

“I’m not a slave to my mother’s wishes. Once parents hit their seventies, you don’t argue. Let them think you’re obedient, then do what you want anyway, and everyone is happy.”

“Maybe getting married would be good for you.”

“I’m not the marrying kind.” He spit a pomegranate seed at the waste- basket but missed his mark. “It’s charming to be unattainable.”

“If your flat was more healthy, it wouldn’t interfere with your charm.” “I live how I please.”

She’d always wanted to improve his flat. An old woman in the Basti sold clay dolls, putlis, wearing ethnic dresses—Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi— and Seema once bought a set of them for Ashiq’s flat. She lined them up over the empty TV cabinet.

“They look beautiful, so lifelike. The woman is eighty, I don’t know how she still does it.”

“Take them away. They don’t go with the decor. They look like ancient relics, and they’re depressing.”

“They’re so alive.”

“Take them back. I’ll give you a hundred rupees; surely they didn’t cost more than that. Give them to someone else.”

She didn’t talk to him for a week, but in the end Ashiq bumped into her on campus and apologized. He still didn’t want the dolls though.

What he had in plenty was junk. Every wall had a shelf of books—the complete Toynbee, the complete Bigglesworth, the complete H. G. Wells, the complete Jules Verne—but she never saw Ashiq read anything. He seemed allergic even to newspapers. He was always searching for plastic to wrap around his books.

In one corner was an old phonograph with a stack of records—the Carpenters, Eagles, ABBA. Ashiq panicked if Seema wanted to play the records. He’d stopped listening to music long ago.

Remnants of past fads and obsessions crowded the flat: the astronomy period, the cooking period, the archeology period. She was careful not to trip over artifacts. Once Ashiq had started building a model of Moenjodaro. The unfinished product—tiny red clay buildings (the same material used for earthenware pots)—was hidden under the sagging sofa. He liked to say if he ever lost his job, he could make a living as a potter.

There were photograph albums belonging to other people. He liked to steal pictures. When he visited friends or relatives he wouldn’t rest until he’d stolen some irreplaceable pictures. “People are careless,” he’d explained. “Small albums are easy to stuff inside clothing, but I’ve also made off with big albums.” Ashiq himself had become so disgusted with the way he looked—strands of gray hair, lines around his mouth—that he tore up photographs from his own albums, so now his father had his arm around a vanished Ashiq or his mother stuffed laddoos into an invisible mouth.

Seema thought he still looked handsome, with thick hair brushing his forehead, deep eyes, full lips, strong chin. He said he was ugly but was tickled whenever Seema corrected him.

“I want to throw out some things,” Seema said. “That stack of drawings your sisters did when they were in elementary school. Why do you need those? You don’t even like your sisters.”

“That’s the problem with women. Always trying to clean instead of thinking abstract, pure thoughts.”

“You’d breathe pure air without clutter.”

Mynahs had died here because Ashiq didn’t remember to feed them. An empty cage stood on top of the yellow almirah, ready to accept the next doomed bird. He’d tried keeping a rabbit. The odor of its ancient pee penetrated the furniture. His mother, and later Mrs. Ikram, the nosy neighbor, both refused to cook the rabbit when he got tired of it. In the end, he gave it to the building’s chowkidar.

“Next thing I know, there would be children, and I don’t want children.”

“Children? Where would you get children?” Seema asked from behind the sofa, where she had spotted a clump of dust.

“My future wife’s womb, of course. Women want to get married only to have children. And to clean house.”

She sighed, but bantering with Ashiq didn’t really make her upset.

While Ashiq stretched his long legs on the teapoy, meditating as he liked to do after every snack or meal, and she washed the pomegranate bowl in the sink, she considered her good fortune.

At one time she knew no one like Ashiq. She still had no friends at the university. Rich students gossiped about expensive purchases and weddings in Dubai and Singapore, while middle-class students expressed fantasies about dream jobs. Cliques of assertive women floated on parallel waves of anger: burqa-wearing and Qur’an-quoting, or torn t-shirt- wearing and Constitution-quoting. But she had nothing to be angry about. She was gratified to be at the university and had no interest in staking allegiance to some cause. Political cabals—MQM, PPP, Jama’at-e-Islami—soon gave up pursuing her. She was treated as if she were invisible. She’d believed that if people left her alone, she’d be able to concentrate. But this wasn’t true. She yearned for the easygoing way students connected, exchanging phone numbers and addresses, making dates for coffee and ice cream, films and plays, not worrying about money. What she imagined were her great insights generally turned out to be throwaway bits of information.

It was this hell of anonymity Ashiq had rescued her from. Here she was, in his flat, with a real kitchen and bathroom, a man she trusted not to molest her, a man who’d read so many books he didn’t need to read anymore, a man with well-formed theories who was never at a loss for words and who never made her cringe. Wasn’t this the definition of a friend?

When she saw him the first time, he was lecturing on world history without notes, unlike professors afraid to rely on memory. Sunlight struck his profile, lighting his hair and cheek. He loathed shalwar-kameez, the national dress. His shirts were ironed, his leather shoes always polished, and his stomach was flat, lacking the professorial paunch.

In that first lecture he related an anecdote about his great-grandfather struggling to be admitted into the British civil service. He related another story about a tea party at which Pakistan’s foremost poet—Faiz Ahmad Faiz—had shown up unrepentant after having served time in jail. “What makes Faiz tick? Where does he get his backbone? Some men bend to pressure, while others shape it to their will. That’s what history is all about.”

She’d deliberated for a while before seeking him out during his office hours. He was eager to talk. He told her stories about powerful figures and historic events. He started giving her books she didn’t know about. He said she was his best student in twenty-five years of teaching. He always doubted the official story and wanted her to think the same way. It had been terrifying at first. She wasn’t in his league. Yet she’d gotten used to it. Soon she was forming opinions of which he approved. When she explained how the president’s latest speech was full of distortions, he was pleased.

She was an important part of his life, but she had to be careful not to jeopardize it. They had to watch that neighbors like Mrs. Ikram didn’t notice her going in and out. Lonely spinsters maintained permanent vigil with their elbows sticking out on balcony rails, monitoring the comings and goings in Ashiq’s building. So she had taken to wearing a ragged chadar to look like a servant.

She drew the curtains apart, afraid she would disturb his meditation yet unable to bear the darkness. Sunlight torched the odds and ends of Ashiq’s existence. He stretched, cracked his knuckles, yawned.

“I was having a dream.”

“Were you asleep?”

“A daydream about my mother. She was recovering from a stroke, and we were in the hospital. She wanted me to marry the nurse. A kind, big- bosomed nurse. She had a broad forehead and a hooked nose, like a Pathan.”

“Did you say yes?”

“Maybe my mother knows best.”

“You said your mother doesn’t know anything about you.”

As he rose, his knee caught the edge of the table. “Ouch! That hurt. I think I broke my kneecap! I’m the only one who can criticize my mother. Don’t do it.”

He walked to the window and sulked the rest of the day. When she was leaving—having put on the chadar—he apologized but also said he’d call his mother a lot more often.

There was still time to catch the late bus. She’d lie to her parents that she’d stayed late at school. Was it worth it? Jumbled images, fragments of conversation came to her, as though she were someone without will, in the grip of a dream. One of these days Mrs. Ikram would catch her, humiliate her with a lecture in front of the whole building. “What kind of girl sneaks into the house of her college teacher day after day? What are you up to? We are all shareef people, and you’re ruining our honor by being in our midst! What a horrible example you’re setting for our daughters! No one will ever marry you! Go back where you came from, your katchi abadi. That’s where you belong!”

She shook herself. Mrs. Ikram was only a phantom. There would be no such speech. People were looking out for her, people she barely credited or understood. Mrs. Ikram was doomed to silence.