You can live in Karachi your entire life without ever glimpsing the sea. This fact would surely have astounded Alexander the Great’s general, Nearchus, who sailed from what was then a harbor known to the Greeks as Krokola; it would have doubtless come as an even greater surprise to the fisherwoman Mai Kolachi, from whom the port city likely derives its modern name. Until the mid-19th century, the city that has been called Krokola, Kolachi, Kurrachee, and Karachi was little more than a harbor or a fishing village, its existence based around the Arabian Sea. The British occupied it in 1839, at which time its population was between 8,000 and 14,000.
Population figures are hardly the most imaginative way to talk about the city, and yet with Karachi it is precisely the population figures that convey why it is impossible to hold the city within your imagination rather than grasping at fragments of it. Try to wrap your head around this: in 1947, at the time of Partition, more than half the city’s 400,000 inhabitants were Hindu, most of whom migrated (by choice or otherwise) to India, and yet, despite losing half its population, by 1951 the number of Karachiwallas had grown to more than a million. You lose 50 percent and still end up more than doubling the original population; this is mathematics Karachi style. Today the figure stands at somewhere between 15 million and 18 million.
While some cities rise up toward the sky in towers of concrete and steel to accommodate their growing populations, Karachi sprawls in ungainly fashion, covering 1,360 square miles. The old British cantonment area with its Gothic spires and Anglo-Mughal cupolas and art deco façades remained the center of the city until the 1960s; now it’s south of the center of south Karachi. You can live in Karachi and watch gulls swooping toward the blue-gray waves, or you can live miles inland in the shadow of barren hills, at danger from landslides. The city has a broad avenue called Sunset Boulevard, and it also has a slum named Mosquito Colony.
Karachi is home to great ethnic variations, and with each decade the city gets increasingly fragmented and divided—a bullet or seven to settle each argument. Turf wars, drug wars, ethnic and sectarian wars, competing ideologies, competing business plans, land mafias, water mafias; whatever your poison, Karachi’s your apothecary.
If there’s one word used more often than others to characterize the city by those who love it, it’s “resilience”—the ability to endure suffering without breaking—but Karachi is full of broken people who have long since ceased to be astonished at discovering new ways to break. And the unbroken develop carapaces that allow them to endure the suffering of others. This isn’t resilience, it’s survival.
And yet I, too, find myself wanting to make claims about its resilience. It isn’t that “the city of lights” is unchanged or undamaged by its suffering, but it is undimmed. Arrive there from any other city in Pakistan and the energy of the place will strike you with an almost physical force (sometimes it’s a literal physical force, depending on where you are and what you’re doing). The energy isn’t just about a quickness of pace, but a ferocity of intent. “What are you doing with your life?” Karachi asks, and millions rise up to provide an answer, aware that every month thousands more are migrating to the city—dreaming their dreams, claiming their claims to its lifeblood. It’s as wondrous as it is terrifying.
You’ll often hear Karachiwallas say there’s nowhere else in Pakistan they can happily live. I’ve heard it said more frequently by its women than its men. Karachi is hardly free of patriarchy, but its women are more visible, and more often to be seen in positions of authority, than elsewhere in the country. In February, when the city’s most powerful, and controversial, political party, the MQM, called for a women’s rally, the numbers that gathered were so vast (estimates vary from several hundred thousand to 1 million) that the BBC declared it the largest congregation of women ever organized in the world. In a city where votes are divided primarily along ethnic lines, it was heartening to imagine we were witnessing a new kind of campaigning—one that placed gender in the political arena and gave teeth to the phrase “women’s vote.” It sounds fanciful to me, until I remember that for the right price, Karachi buys and sells everything, even dreams.