As school life comes to an end, I realize that there are loads of things that I am going to miss. One of them is the places I pass by each day in my school van. One of these places is a slum area, with squatter settlements, thatched houses, clumsily made with bricks, wood and hay. Such a settlement is not a rare sight in this huge urbanized city, Karachi. However, passing by such a place everyday, observing it, absorbing the message that it seems to send through the disorganized clutter of houses can send you into a reverie.
It’s a small network of roads that has been built among all the houses to make way for vehicles to reach the planned bungalows and the apartments that seem to be nestled among all the huts which form a boundary around this residential area. Traverse this network each morning as the sun rises above this sprawling metropolis and you’ll surely be compelled to realize that the life you lead is one full to the brim with luxuries and comforts.
The inhabitants are people leading a village life, the entrance to their tiny, dark lanes barred only by a fluttering, muddy curtain made out of a torn piece of cloth. I still remember trying to gain a peek into what was there behind the thin curtains as a six-year-old, and it only used to reveal a labyrinth of passages. Travel a bit further along the road and there is a shop or two, selling ‘paan’, the other an assortment of sweets and ‘supari’. What appalls me most is the life the children lead. Every morning, as my van passes by, the women and men are setting off to work, and the children step out of their homes, the tiny toddlers and infants heading off to the empty plots to answer nature’s call. Yes, it is a sight which invokes giggling out of the younger lot in my van but it is enough to stir emotions of pity and sympathy in any new comer to the area.
These children are leading lives starkly in contrast with the lives we lead, where we are blessed with necessities, trained about hygiene and educated to make our place in this huge, huge world. They don’t play Ludo or Monopoly or Pictionary to while away the time, they run after rolling rubber tyres, they stare at the passengers of the vehicles passing by, some of them presenting a Pakistani dance to get attention from the startled passengers.
There is a patch where a herd of cows and sometimes goats are reared and sold off at Bakra Eid time to gain income. In the summers, there are people lying down on ‘charpaais’ outside their huts, swatting mosquitoes away, while we crave to reach home and lie in a room cooled by the chilled air from an air-conditioner. In the winters, we wrap shawls and wear sweaters and cardigans to get ourselves cosy, while they still manage to live in their huts with thatched roofs and walls made of hay and wooden planks. I always wonder how they are oblivious to the world outside. They are steadfast in following a constant routine. Do they consider the ‘outside world’ a totally different place? Or think that they are better off in a place where there is no interference from the rapidly urbanizing, developing technological world and the complexities associated with it? Whatever the reason is, but it’s commendable how they’ve undergone so little change over the past few years… or maybe they have and it’s hidden from an outsider’s probing eye?
It’s not uncommon for the huts to catch fire, yes, they catch fire and get reduced to ashes, a small portion sometimes and as of recently, larger areas. When this mishap occurred recently, it was a despondent sight, with black smoke billowing into the sky, only a few belongings left intact. There were fire engines but they couldn’t revive the homes constructed with much effort. The inhabitants searched the blackened surface for their belongings among the ashes. A few days later, tents with China’s flag had been put up and the people still live in them, continuing on with their lives like before….