City of slights

More and more people are living independently in Karachi, by choice or by circumstance. What problems do they face?


WHEN AMNA ABBASdecided to move out, she held a little tea party to introduce her prospective roommate to her parents—a modern twist on the old notion of chai pe bulaana. She’d found her on a women-only Facebook group for roommates and rented properties in Karachi. They all gathered in the drawing room—both sets of parents and the two young women—and, clutching cups of tea, voiced their hopes (for space and privacy) and fears (for security) until everyone was on the same page.

When Almas Saleem moved out, it was under starkly different circumstances. First, she moved into her parents’ house, escaping an abusive marriage in the United Kingdom (UK). As it turned out, her family subscribed to the you are only our daughter until marriage mindset: they repeatedly found fault with her, even bullying her son for being too brown. So, she found a one-bedroom flat in Khudadad Colony and began afresh, with no savings or assets—her ex-husband had sold all the gold her parents gifted her as a bride.

“The average household size in Sindh has declined substantially over a generation: from 6.8 in 1981 to 5.6 in 2017.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Muhammad Ali has lived in Karachi since 2009, but his parents, wife and children are back in Shahdadpur, his hometown. He hates being away from home, visits Shahdadpur often, and invokes his university days with fondness. But his family wants him to move to Karachi permanently. “They keep saying it’s not good you come home every weekend,” he says. “I feel like running away.”

Amna, Almas and Muhammad Ali are part of a small but steadily growing community of people living on their own in Karachi. According to the most recent census, the city is home to 14.9 million people, but there is no way of knowing how many of these live on their own. We do know though that the average household size in Sindh has declined substantially over a generation: from 6.8 in 1981 to 5.6 in 2017. This, of course, does not conclusively prove an uptick in independent living, but there are no other statistics either. This lack of readily available data is in itself telling: it shows that the aspirations of young people, and the problems they face upon trying to realise them are not taken seriously by those who run the city.

So, we let them tell their stories.

IT HAS BEENa year, but Almas still can’t bear to cook in her kitchen. She feels nauseous just looking in its direction. Let the lizards have the run of the place. The quarters are just big enough for her; she has a bed and a dressing table, given to her by an old vice-principal, and a folding table. She has Wifi installed, but does not own a television. She works two jobs and returns home past seven every evening. Her son waits alone, getting more frustrated and upset with each passing day.

Even this decrepit, dreary flat in a primarily bungalow-ridden locale across Jinnah Park was difficult to find. The landlords Almas approached did not want to rent their properties to a divorced woman. Even here, none of her neighbours want to befriend her; everyone looks at her with “a rubbish eye,” she says.    

The landlords Almas approached did not want to rent to a divorced woman.

There appear to be no anti-discrimination laws for tenants in Karachi, or elsewhere in the country. Mohammad Ali also struggled to find a place because of his single status—a complaint echoed by other young men, who say landlords and estate agents decline their queries by saying a building is ‘family only’. According to him, landlords want families because “they think bachelors drink, smoke … shareef ones like me suffer because of those who do such things.”

According to one lawyer, as things stand, the landlord has complete prerogative over whom he rents to and what limitations he sets for them. In Mohammad Ali’s experience, preference is given to those recommended by someone known to both parties. In other words, as is often the case, it helps to have contacts in Karachi. When there is no such person, you end up paying a higher advance or more rent.   

“This is what the city has taken from Libra: an openness towards strangers. ‘You can’t even be polite to people. They take it amiss.'”

Even if you manage to find a house, a room or a flat, other, longer-term headaches quickly crop up—maintenance, for instance. Properties in Karachi are generally poorly maintained and their upkeep requires significant resources, in terms of both time and money. Almas, for instance, fixes the glut of wiring and plumbing problems in her flat herself—even though she pays a monthly maintenance fee to the landlord. She cannot afford to hire an electrician or a plumber; she won’t have “a penny left” if she did. Her father runs a business and travels to Dubai for a week each month, but refuses to help her financially. She shouldn’t have destroyed her marriage, he taunts her instead.

Libra has been living on her own for 15 years. She had her own apartment in Saddar but after constantly scrambling to secure water and electricity, she sold it and began renting. Her expectation was that a landlord would handle these problems—but, in at least one case, the landlord himself turned into a problem. He would run into her in the hallway so often, it quickly stopped seeming like a coincidence. He’d turn up at her apartment door late at night, on the pretext of giving her something. Once, in bed trying to fall asleep, she saw him in the window—just watching her. At her wit’s end, she complained to the estate agent. Don’t call him uncle, the agent advised her, call him bhai. As Libra recounted this story, she threw up her hands in frustration: “How does that make a difference?!”

“All they need to know is that there is a woman living alone nearby.”

Libra is content living on her own, but lives in constant fear of overfriendly men. “All they need to know is that there is a woman living alone nearby,” she says, sighing in frustration. Now, she only rents from landlords whose wives are in the picture. She was lucky enough to have friends and colleagues who were able to recommend properties. She only hires handymen who come recommended or whom she knows from before. The same rule applies to her rickshaw wala: currently a man who has been driving her around for the past year, for which she pays him a daily wage of 500 rupees.

This is what the city has taken from her: an openness towards strangers. “You can’t even be polite to people. They take it amiss. They think—I don’t know—that maybe you’re flirting.” Once, on her second visit to his store, an elderly shopkeeper told Libra she had beautiful eyes. To curb this sort of harassment, she assumes a tough exterior. “It is better to be badtameez.

NO MEN AREallowed inside the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) hostel, located on a busy street in Saddar. The boundary walls are high; an inconspicuous black gate opens up to a big courtyard but the hostel itself is hidden behind a yellow-brick building, home to an office and school. A chowkidar at the gate notes down names in a register. The hostel has a curfew: 8pm. To stay out past it, you need to submit a letter from your workplace or university. Even then, the latest you can enter this 100-year-old institution is 10pm.   

From these policies, it may be reasonable to assume the YWCA hostel caters to minor girls—but the average age here is between 30 and 40. The hostel only accepts women from outside Karachi. This is because they have no “know-how” of the city, says Bernadette Pinto, a short steely-eyed woman with jet-black hair, the general- secretary of YWCA. “They are far away from home and this is their home.” 

Farzana Ari, from Hyderabad and an employee at the government’s social advocate department, is a frequent resident at the hostel. She previously stayed for 10 months and is back again for a short stint. Her single room costs 8,000 rupees a month; there are options for small and large dormitories too, as well as shared rooms, but her schedule is uncertain and she is messy, so this works better. She came to the hostel after an unsettling experience in the city: a rickshaw driver took her through an unknown route and, fearing for her life, she stepped out as soon as it trundled through a crowded area. She started looking for hostels soon after. She applied to the Federal Working Women Hostel, one of the other few women’s hostels in the city, but they took a year to respond to her. By then, she was well settled.

The YWCA hostel is self-sustaining, but Ms Pinto says things have been rocky recently. Currently, the hostel has 16 residents. Last year, there were 40. The YWCA has had to conduct renovations because of rain damage to the roof, so they can currently house only a limited number of women. The paint on the building’s white walls is peeling; a light layer of dust coats the steps leading up to the rooms. The water board is also overcharging them, says Ms Pinto, and the school is running at a loss. 

“It is easier to live alone as a man in Karachi but Mohammad Ali too misses the camaraderie of communal living. Or maybe he just misses being young.”

Still, the YWCA offers the sort of amenities that are rarely available in the city. There is a hall room for seminars, workshops and various celebratory events, as well as a TV room where the residents can socialise. Ms Pinto meets with them almost daily, in case they’d like to report any problems. The hostel has a ghar jaisa mahaul, Farzana says. “It is secure and peaceful,” she adds, fixing the maroon dupatta resting on her head. “And nothing gets misplaced here.” 

A student at Habib University says living with other women has enabled her to create a safety net. It has also helped her foster good relations with other women—something patriarchal and societal norms don’t generally facilitate. She currently lives with two other women in a four-bedroom apartment near Mashriq Centre in Saddar, before that in Habib University’s hostel with about a dozen other women. She longed for her own space and privacy, and to escape the hostel’s curfew, so she moved out. But she remembers her time in the hostel fondly, describing it as a sisterhood. Even now, the environment she has created at home with her flatmates, both Habib alums, is very supportive. She stresses on the need to be “present, aware and participate” in this circle of women.     

It is undeniably easier to live alone as a man in Karachi but Mohammad Ali too misses the camaraderie of communal living. Or maybe he just misses being young. After his initial flat-hunting troubles in Karachi, he found a place near Aladdin Park with five other young men on the same floor. They had the best time, he recalls: partying in the day, studying at night. They ate at the local dhaba every evening, guzzling whatever was on the menu: salan, roti, sabzi, daal. Anda gutaala was a frequent favourite. A few bouts of food poisoning, however, and they started figuring out how to cook for themselves.  

Living with friends made even the most difficult of situations seem easy. During a particularly pronounced water shortage in the neighbourhood, the exasperated boys left the valve open and impetuously left the flat. They came home later to a submerged flat. “Only my computer was left dry,” Mohammad Ali recalls chuckling. Now, in his company-provided accommodation, he can’t even host guests without an arduous permission process. “It’s better to meet outside than to go through the procedure,” he says, despondently. “University time was fun—now it is an empty life.”   

ABOUT 34 KILOMETRES from where Mohammad Ali lives, a dense but quiet slum is tucked away behind a bustling market. The paths are narrow and the drains have no lids on them; otherwise, it is clean.Everything is a characteristic Karachi grey, except for a ray of sunshine lighting up Abida’s dark, wrinkled skin. Perched on steps across from her house, she soaks up the winter sun as children play around her.

“Musarrat sits at the door, looking at passersby with open curiosity. She is what Jane Jacobs called the eyes on the street.”

“Their mothers have gone to work,” she explains. “They work in bungalows.”

Here, then, is an impromptu experiment in female communal living. In Ghazi Goth, the women live mostly without men. The area is mostly populated by Urdu-speaking Biharis, but as you burrow deeper, ethnicities change: Sindhi, Pakhtun, Baloch. The women have lived here for years; as the patriarchs of their families passed away, often prematurely, due to poor health and shoddy working conditions, they acquired control of their households and, in a sense, of the locality. 

“The one thing guaranteed here is safety.”

Abida, for instance, owns her house. Her daughter and disabled son live with her. They support themselves with whatever her son is able to make, but the rest of the women go out into the city to earn. For years, Abidha has watched younger women huddle together at the bus stop on the main road in the early hours of the morning, then scatter across the city to work in the houses of the wealthy: some near Hill Park, others in North Nazimabad, Gulshan and Defence Housing Authority (DHA). The return journeys are usually more solitary, dependent on the time each woman’s duty ends: some at 5pm, others at 8pm. 

Musarrat lives with her husband, one of the few men left in Ghazi Goth. Her house is small, situated on a high alleyway, and she sits at the door, chatting with another woman, looking at passersby with open curiosity. She is what Jane Jacobs called the eyes on the street. Musarrat used to go work bungalows too, until her health failed her. Now she stays behind to watch the children who are too young for school and to look after a woman she calls Dadi. Dadi is old and has no one, so all the women take care of her. They also protect and support each other, picking up the slack when need be. Everyone knows everyone in the neighbourhood, and the women go about their lives unbothered. Urban loneliness and physical insecurity—the two blights of big-city living are mostly absent in Ghazi Goth. 

“The one thing guaranteed here is safety,” Musarrat agrees. 

Other things are more tenuous. Ghazi Goth is not an easy place to live. The roads leading in are rugged and rocky, making it difficult for a rickshaw or car to enter. The hospital is far, and you can only take the bus from the main road. There is sporadic gas and electricity, and barely any water. In most parts of Karachi, to varying degrees, you need money to have assured access to basic amenities, and in Ghazi Goth, this remains a constant source of stress for the women. “Even if someone earns 10,000 rupees,” says Musarrat, it is not enough. She has not had water in her house for days. They are making do by asking for one or two drums every few days. A tanker costs Rs2,000 a month—an exorbitant amount for her. In any case, she doesn’t even have a tank in her house.   

AMNA, THE YOUNG WOMANwho hosted the tea party to allay her parents’ moving-out concerns, now lives in a small two-bedroom apartment in DHAPhase II, minimalistically decorated, studded with plants and fairy lights. She finally has the place she desired and learns new things every day: how to manage her finances, how to deal with the plumber, how to operate the geyser. She has assumed all the responsibilities she took for granted at her parents’ house. 

“In global city indexes, Karachi often bears the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s least liveable cities—but also one of the cheapest. “

It is far too expensive to live independently in Karachi, she concedes: most of her salary from her job at an animation studio is subsumed by bills and rent, approximately 27,000 rupees every month. Still, she is happy with her decision. An introvert by nature, moving out has been oddly energising: she socialises more often, attends poetry readings and comedy shows, and takes part in group bike rides. Her honest conversations with her parents have improved their relationship. She now loves catching up with them when she visits over the weekend.       

For a generation that has come of age at a time when so much in the world seems amorphous and uncontrollable, responsibility—and an accompanying sense of being in charge—can be fortifying. For Hasnain*, 36, the sense of control that comes with living alone has helped him manage his depression. Being able to fix a broken pipe is oddly gratifying. Being able to cook his own meals has helped him eat better. Having friends over in a space exclusively his own has helped chip away at the mental funk. “The more systems you can keep running, the more responsibility it gives you,” he says.

Still, this sense of control comes at much too high a price—financially, emotionally—in a city bursting at the seams yet still dizzyingly lonely. How can an independent lifestyle, which so many young people yearn for, be made easier here? Hasnain does think the situation is better in Karachi than in Lahore or Islamabad. “This city has the greatest diversity in landlords,” he says, adding this helps cater to a variety of needs. Nonetheless, in Pakistan as a whole, the society structure is so ‘enmeshed’ it undermines any attempt at independence. There are, for instance, scarcely any living spaces designed for just one or two people, he points out—this, he says, is the case across all social classes.   

Libra has a few ideas on how things can be made better. Some involve a change in attitude, a setting aside of biases: “Landlords need to give tenants a chance, let them live for a probationary period of two or three months before formalising the rental agreement, if they like the tenant.” Others involve some measure of state intervention, given the market’s failure to address a growing need: “Apartment complexes for single people need to be constructed, or at least for women.” In global city indexes, Karachi often bears the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s least liveable cities—but also one of the cheapest. Surely that should make things a bit easier? What is currently evident, however, is that for the independent-minded, Karachi becomes more liveable the more money you have. ■

SARAH DARAmanages social media for Soch Writing.
Visuals by MARIA HUMA.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

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