When novelist MOHAMMED HANIF told friends he was returning to Pakistan after 12 years in Britain, they were aghast. Why would he and his young family swap London for a city with daily power cuts and rampant gun crime? The answer proved surprisingly simple.
Twelve years ago, I arrived in London from Karachi with eight suitcases, a new wife and a three-year job contract. Before leaving for London, we had put our books, furniture and even some of our kitchen utensils at our relatives' houses. When I told my friends and family that we would be back after exactly three years, they gave us a knowing smile and encouraged us to sell that sofa instead of putting it in their store room.
Two months from now, we are planning to return to Karachi with a container full of furniture, more pots and pans than we left behind and a 10-year-old son. Friends and family in Pakistan are aghast. From London to Karachi? Why are you coming to Karachi? Do you know what happened to Sana's friend the other day? Do you have any idea how you'll live without electricity for 10 hours every day? And, by the way, have you discussed this with Channan? How does he feel about it?
I will return to Sana's friend's plight and my own plans for living without electricity later, but let's deal with the Channan question first. It's a heart-wrenching one. He was born in Chelsea and Westminster hospital. He goes to a Church of England school in south London where he is the self-styled star of the school cricket club. His school people are divine, and not because of the church connection. His trumpet teacher has finally managed to get him into a school concert. His closest friends live in the neighbourhood. Obviously, he doesn't want any of that to change.
It doesn't help that we have had a Pakistani news channel turned on round the clock during the past year because of one crisis after another in Pakistan. When he sees a news report about another bomb blast and the news presenters giving graphic details about how the police found the severed head of the suicide bomber, he gives us that "are-we-still-going?" look. His questions are genuine, tinged by a 10-year-old's emotional pull. My responses come partly from parental responsibility, partly from yearning for the Karachi sea breeze. Lately I have added a new, rather self-serving, argument to my discourse: If London is so much safer than Karachi, how come kids your age are being knifed every day?
He has been to Pakistan every year and that is where he has learned cricket and his cool dance moves. We only have to be in my village in Pakistan for half an hour and there are a dozen boys his age shouting at him to bowl faster and keep his bat down. It doesn't take him long to find playmates and make friends. Recently he has also visited some of his best friends from south London who have moved to Pakistan during the last couple of years, made new best friends and settled into schools that are more challenging and even more fun. Even his uber-nerd friend, who will be called S for reasons of privacy, has a girlfriend. And during our house hunt he saw a house that had a little swimming pool, which seems to have brought about a considerable change in his attitude. Our conversations have shifted from, "Why are we going?" to "I'll only move if we get that house". But how can we justify filling a swimming pool when most of our neighbourhood doesn't have running water? He strikes another bargain. "Can I have a TV in my room?" Failing which, "I'll only go if we get the latest Mario Kart game for Nintendo Wii because everyone in Karachi has it."
Everyone in Karachi has a personal crime story to share. Advertising executive Arif had his iPhone snatched at gunpoint - at a traffic light as a police squad looked on. Jimmy's sister was driven around the city by robbers and made to take money out of cash points across Karachi. Raja's colleague went on a blind date a month ago and hasn't come back; his family has not even received a ransom note. And these are all middle-class professionals with two cars and five servants per household. But what people don't need to remind me is that Karachi is a city of 16 million people, where even the poor are robbed in broad daylight at gunpoint, where robbers, when caught, are burned alive. And those who cannot be robbed are made to stand in day-long queues to buy flour. Everyday crime in Karachi is only slightly higher than in Bombay and slightly less than Rio. Twelve years ago, when I left Karachi, people were being kidnapped for a few thousand rupees. Everybody's cousin had been robbed at gunpoint. Carjacking was rampant. Even an obscure journalist like me had a gangster or two stalking him. So no change there then - a phrase I have learned in London and come to like.
But the city couldn't have stayed frozen in time for my return. So, of course, there is a new texture. There is the urban legend of the suicide bomber who gets a lift from a family in a car, asks them to drive around looking for a target, all the while trying to convince them that they will go to heaven with him. He fails to find a target and the car runs out of fuel. As the bomber leaves them, the head of the family tells him that if he wants to carry out God's mission he should at least learn to drive. Another discernible difference between then and now is that they didn't use to snatch mobile phones at gunpoint. One reason for that could be that hardly anyone had a mobile phone back then.
More learned friends constantly remind me of something called the myth of return. I have been told many times that the place I want to return to doesn't exist any more. But during the 12 years that I have lived and worked in London, I have also seen eroded the conventional myth that people come to London for better lives. Increasingly people, especially people with young children, are heading back home, in search of better schools, cheaper domestic help and sometimes, because of a vague feeling of duty, to partake of the suffering of the people of the country they left behind, sometimes out of an acute sense of nostalgia.
Neither does the London that I came to exist any more. When I came to London, Labour had just swept into power. Tony Blair's grin symbolised a nation's sunny mood. A pint cost a pound. Broadsheets were broadsheets and tabloids were tabloids. And men with beards were just hairy freaks, not a threat to the existence of western civilisation. As I prepare to leave, we have a mayor whose first priority is to ban drinking on public transport. Some would say that should be reason enough to leave London. But as a citizen of the world, I feel that one can't find happiness in the same city after a decade. I have already overstayed my welcome.
London and Karachi: both are cities of my imagination, made real only through mortgages, the price of a meal and quality of domestic help. After a decade in London, Karachi appears to have some very obvious advantages: no one ever talks about the weather. Working actors are rarely out of work. There are more television channels than trained journalists.
And wouldn't you agree that there is something quite primal about life without electricity? It's not as apocalyptic as it sounds. If I go without air conditioning for a few hours, what will happen? If the fridge doesn't work, you can always go out and eat. You can always read in candlelight. And when all else fails, you can do what every one else does: buy your own generator. If you want to do your bit to reduce pollution levels, you can buy a generator that runs on natural gas.
For most of our 12 years in London, the only violence we have seen has been restricted to aggressive bouts of tennis on Wii. But, increasingly, I find myself reading stories about kids being stabbed. Channan insists that they are teenagers, not 10-year-olds and he has no patience for detail. I saw an advert recently, which said that if you carry a knife you are more likely to be stabbed. Every day I count my kitchen knives after dropping him to school.
I asked Channan the identity question once, a term that seems to have been invented basically to make life more difficult for people with a different colour or accent, and easier for privileged PhD students short on dissertation ideas. This was a time when he was creative enough to invent words if he didn't know one. He said that he was a Londoni. Although I wasn't born in Karachi, I always call myself a Karachiite because that's where I found love and work and the sea. So if a Karachiite can live in London for more than a decade, surely a Londoni can be a Karachiite.
And did I tell you what happened to Sana's friend? She got stuck in a beauty parlour for six hours with no electricity and a generator failure and almost missed her own engagement ceremony. I guess I am not going to have that problem at least.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009