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18 March 2021

Personal Story: My grandmother, Karachi and me

Desperate to pull her out of her low mood, I started talking to my 90-something grandmother about Karachi, the city where she spent her youth – and she came alive.

By Samira Shackle

I was ten when my grandfather died. In Pakistani culture, mourning is a collective endeavour – people pay their respects in person, and bring food for the bereaved. I remember a few disorienting days off school, sitting in my grandparents’ flat in west London as it steadily filled with people, some I recognised and some I didn’t. People spilled out of the living room and into the corridors. They crowded around the kitchen table – heaving with casserole dishes and Tupperware – and leaned against the counters. There were prayers, tears, even laughter as people shared stories about my grandfather. At one point, a cousin dragged me into one of the bedrooms, declaring that we needed some peace. We sat together and relished the almost-silence. But it was cathartic too. And at the centre of it all was my grandmother, tears running down her face for days, but still taking strength from the people around her. She was always in her element surrounded by people.  

A decade later, in my early twenties, I started spending time in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan and my grandfather’s home town. My grandmother moved there from Indore after getting married in 1948; it was a year after Partition, and she passionately took to her new home and new identity as a Pakistani. I’d grown up hearing her stories about Karachi, the cosmopolitan, seaside heart of the new nation. But the city I saw in 2011 – during my first visit since childhood – had radically changed since my grandparents left for London in the 1970s. It was in the middle of an extraordinary outbreak of violence, with ethnic conflict, gang war and terrorism spinning out of control. I was there primarily as a journalist, but also because I wanted to understand more about this place that had featured so heavily in the tapestry of my childhood. 

In 2012, I moved to Pakistan for a year. Karachi is so big that even as one area is consumed by urban warfare, another can operate more or less as normal. I adjusted to the double life Karachiites are used to: pleasant dinners and gatherings on the one hand, a steady thrum of violence on the other. One unexpected pleasure during this time was talking to relatives and family friends who had known my grandparents when they were young, before they left for the UK. In these stories they were glamourous, beautiful socialites – some distance from the gentle, ageing man who had made me shriek with laughter as a child by drawing poodles on my stomach in biro; or the silver-haired woman who had pulled up a stool to the stove to ease her aching legs as she taught me to cook. 

Since then, I’ve returned to Pakistan every year, sometimes more frequently. Although I travelled throughout the country, Karachi always drew me back. I profiled crime reporters and ambulance drivers in the city, fascinated with the ways in which people adjusted and found normality in the cracks of extreme situations.  

But over the past decade, as my world expanded, my grandmother’s shrank. As she edged into her nineties, her vision deteriorated, eventually leaving her almost blind. She was deprived of her two great joys: reading and cooking. Arthritis, meanwhile, twisted her feet and joints. Throughout her eighties I’d joked that her social life was more active than mine in my twenties – but as her vision and mobility faltered, she stopped going out. I’d always visited my grandmother regularly, sometimes taking ingredients for something we could cook together; she would direct and I would chop. But her energy dwindled, and heavy pain relief made her drowsy and withdrawn. My sharp, vivacious, mischievous grandmother was harder to access.  

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In 2018, I began work in earnest on a book – a narrative non-fiction account of Karachi, telling the story of its urban conflicts through a close focus on five ordinary people. That meant a series of long reporting trips to the city. Whenever I was in London, I visited my grandmother. Desperate to pull her out of her low mood, I described the work I was doing. Something happened. She livened up, her voice infused with an energy I hadn’t heard in years. She was particularly interested when I told her about my reporting in a village bordering Karachi, where the population was being displaced by property developers illegally grabbing land. I told her about Jannat, the woman I was interviewing there – not just about her situation, but the fact that she was constantly berating me for being unmarried in my thirties. My grandmother laughed, and told me about her own work at the peripheries of Karachi, back in the 1940s when, as a young woman, she had volunteered in the refugee camps for those displaced by Partition, in defiance of her new in-laws’ wishes. Telling her about my trips became one of the best parts of my research. 

Last year, 2020, was terrible for many people; I am probably not alone in thinking that it was especially terrible for me. In January, my beloved aunt – my grandmother’s youngest child – died, a few short months after doctors confirmed her cancer had returned. We were told she’d have two to five years; she was gone within three months. My grandmother was bed-bound by this point, and unable to attend the funeral. In early March, still reeling with grief, I went to Pakistan for a fortnight-long work trip to Karachi and Islamabad. Before I left, I visited my grandmother and told her about my plans for the trip. But we were both too grief-stricken to muster much enthusiasm. I said I’d visit as soon as I came back. That turned out not to be true. Within days of my return, the UK was in full national lockdown. I never saw my grandmother again. 

On 23 April, she died at the age of 96. She did not die from Covid, but Covid undoubtedly made the aftermath harder. Just ten people were allowed to attend the burial – nine family members and the imam, who gave burial rites at the graveside. I thought of the crowds of people that had filled the house for 40 days after my grandfather’s death, and how much comfort my grandmother had taken from it. I wish it could have been the same for her. We talk about holding a memorial, a celebration of her life, when this is all over. But for now, there is some peace in thinking that, while she was alive, I got to know the place she loved most, and we experienced it again through each others’ eyes.  

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Samira Shackle’s “Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City” is published by Granta