Chapter 9: Mela
The blur of nighttime Karachi was broken by the light caught on the little plastic heart shaped gems on the poles of the rickshaw I was riding to Lyari. The purple hearts tied amidst plastic multi-colored ribbons reminded me again how this city survived all the horrors it faced. There was love in the midst of all this dreariness. The old city area did not seem so drab anymore. The man ahead of the rickshaw with a backpack and a namaz ki topi seemed happy riding his motorcycle home. He must have some good home cooked food awaiting him I wondered. The surrounding architecture was grays and here and there the faded yellow stone was visible under fluorescent lights. The liveliness brought by the cart sellers and the motorcycles. The rest was as if in a different time, all faded sorrow. A city that lay awash in lost dreams and the weight of the dreams of those who came and mourned their own memories. Intizar Hussain’s city. A city floating on water that takes its refugees and its migrants with open arms and sets them dreaming to the sound of the ocean. I am riding along the oceon, from the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi to the western end of Karachi, to where lies its heart, Lyari.
I was on my way to a mela. My mother and her younger sisters used to crack jokes whenever they gathered on weekends at my nana’s house, about children getting lost in the Mela of Kumbh. That was how I knew about the mela before I read about it, and even then I had never been and I do not know what it is like there firsthand. I only know what I have read in texts and seen in photographs taken by traveling writers or ethnographers. I had never really been to a mela before. In Karachi, we grew up in strange times. I remember the time we stopped going to the movie theaters. Ammi was discussing something about a gang going around injecting people with needles infected with the AIDS virus inside dark movies theaters. I am not sure that is what instigated us not going anymore, but apart from a few early memories I remember we stopped going. Melas and other places to gather became like the Kumbh Mela, a place that was someplace else, in place or memory. So I was curious about this Mela. Ahsan Shah, my fixer, had asked me to meet him near Ath Chowk. The mela was at Maulvi Usman Park behind the football house. The rickshaw turned off Lea Market, past the chai stalls and dhabas and the rush of heavy traffic and entered a second road that led to the once famous aath chowk where the BBC recorded its live segments at the end of a tram junction. It was dark now. The tram and the news coverage long gone. Lyari was not a place where outsiders dared venture after dark. Unless you were invited. Shah was waiting for me at the corner of the lane. We walked up to the park. A giant ferris wheel, adorned with fluorescent lights, green and yellow and white, loomed in view like a giant rainbow. The street below was dark. In the light of a lantern on a cart, the seller, a cigarette propped in his mouth, sold dried fruits and nuts, channa garam. Behind him, on the crumbled pavement, young men dressed fashionably, in rapper caps and plaid shirts, dark jeans and sneakers, as was the fashion in Lyari, stood eating chaat. At the gate, there were mostly children accompanied by men. Perhaps, they were being held outside because they had no women with them. Inside the gate a shamiyana had been set up, obscuring the view inside, providing privacy to the women, creating a narrow sideways entrance. The mela was small. A matchstick carnival built inside a matchbox. A young woman in a Balochi dress, the pindol, peeking from under her flowery chaadar, was talking to a group of small boys. Their cheeks painted with the Pakistan flag. Two such flags were hoisted on the boat ride. There were small swings but the main attractions were the big rides. There was an elevated circular track atop which a small train ran. There were more children running under the track than inside the train. They ran in a row keeping ahead of the train, sometimes knocking a little into the support beams which looked too unsteady but the train completed its turns. The children would pause and wait for the next ride. There was a rush at the ferris wheel. Women and children sat in a tight group along the narrow ramp that led to the wheel. We purchased a ticket but then went to the boat ride. The ticket was made of parchment paper so thin like the wings of a butterfly painted in green ink. It read:
I stood at the end with my arms stretched out. Then quickly sat down as the ride picked up. After the ride was over, we got in line for the ferris wheel. We had bought the ticket from a small ticket booth:
And on both sides, notes on the ride:
Khareeda hua ticket waapas nahin hoga
Kamzor dil wallay jhoolay pe ne bethein
In line, I asked the women ahead of me if they were afraid. They said no. It was a family ride and fairly comfortable. I asked the two girl who seemed to be squealing on the ride. They laughed. Not it was a breeze they said. I began to feel nervous. I was afraid of heights. On the ride I became terrified. But then I could not stop laughing. It was dark around the far periphery of the park and not much visibility beyond. Giddy from the ride, I was still laughing as we walked up to the lemonade vendor. For ten rupees, it was sugary and made my teeth ache. There was a zoo section where behind a curtain some animals, goats and monkeys, were on display inside barred cages. I did not want to see. We left.
The mela was not a shrine festival. It was not dedicated to a saint or a deity. It was built around the rides and the food. Built for a neighborhood and in its vicinity, keeping in accordance with the local tastes and budgets.
Amongst the crowds, I met a girl dressed like a boy, in jeans with a cap. She was a former gangster I heard from the locals. During the peak of gangwars, there were supposedly a number of young women who were recruited to picket the boundaries of the turfs alongside the men.
I bid goodbye and hailed a rickshaw home. The night was slow and drowsy. No one could possibly get lost in this small mela. But it was on my mind for weeks after. This strange little mela, like the life of the people who thronged there—I could not stop thinking about the children running under the track. Their amusement, free of cost, derived from a vicarious pleasure, made into something of its own.