Everywhere I went during the five days I spent in Pakistan last week, friends, acquaintances and colleagues complained of the hardship in getting Indian visas. Fehmida Riaz, the country's leading feminist poet who spent several years of exile in India during Zia-ul-Haq's regime, spoke of the tedious paperwork involved including translated and attested copies of ID cards.
Karachi is not reputed as a sub-continental beauty spot. Jihadist battles, gang wars and gunfire are familiar street sights and sounds, drug trafficking in its vast slums, kidnappings and political violence between Sindhi nationalists and MQM, the muhajir party of immigrants from UP and Bihar, are the stuff of everyday life. The horrific kidnap, torture and beheading of Daniel Pearl by Al Qaeda operatives in 2002 certified Karachi as the bad news capital of South Asia. Kolkata, with its slow-moving strikers and fading hammer-and-sickle graffiti or Mumbai with its "maximum city" appellation of overall wretchedness, seem vaguely hopeful in comparison. What a surprise, then, to find Karachi looking in better shape than before. New flyovers, better traffic management, improved electricity supply in slums and buzzing cafes with women dressed in casual western clothes (an increasingly uncommon sight elsewhere in the country) not to speak of an ornamental fountain that shoots hundred feet from the sea in Clifton seafront (Karachi's Marine Drive)
as a symbol of its revival. Bomb blasts and murky politics, like a transient Arabian Sea tide, seem temporarily at ebb.
By all accounts, much of the credit for the city's reform goes to its outgoing nazim, or mayor, the pro-active youthful Mustafa Kamal. Although a dyed-in-the-wool, risen-from-the-ranks MQM man, the 50-year-old Kamal, educated in Malaysia and Wales, is hard-working (in office at 7 am everyday), approachable (his widespread popularity) and clean (no scandal in a corrupt metropolis). He has been voted as one of the best city mayors in Asia in recent polls. I met him him at the opening of the first Karachi Literature Festival, a co-venture between the Oxford University Press, headed by OUP's dynamic Ameena Saiyid and British Council Pakistan, and perfectly on cue, he said: "I have heard about the success of the Jaipur lit fest. This event is inspired by Jaipur because it's important for Karachi to turn the page." Mustafa Kamal has recently had to demit office because, as with so many appointments in Pakistan, he owed his office to the dispensation of Musharraf. Given his MQM political base though, it is widely believed that he will make a resounding comeback. This is good news for a metropolis of 16 million that is Pakistan's financial centre, largest seaport and most cosmopolitan yet beleaguered face.
Karachi is also the country's richest city with a great deal of Gulf money rolling about. In the spreading acres of the suburb known as Defence (Parts I to VIII) are villas of a scale and ostentation--and still coming up at great pace--that would be unimaginable in much of metropolitan India. In fact, in most big cities they are coming down to be replaced by apartments. Not surprising, therefore, that the most incredulous question a young journalist asked was: "Is it true that movie stars like Salman Khan and Aamir Khan live in flats?"