One of my fondest memories of living in Karachi, Pakistan when I was little was going to the bazaar, or market, with my grandmother. She’d go almost every morning and on weekends I’d tag along. I loved everything about it. The sights, the sounds, the smells… well, most of them. The streets would be lined on either sides with stalls made of just a big slab of wood on wheels, with a pole at each corner and sheets of brightly colored cloth attached on top for shade. Fruit and vegetables were piled as high as possible and I always stared at them, trying to make the tower of produce topple over via telekinesis. I was a weird kid. My grandmother and I were regulars so the sellers would greet us and give me a handful of cherries, some lychee or a piece of sugarcane. Back in the early 90s, the city was a much safer, friendlier place. The air was filled with the sounds of sellers and shoppers yelling at each other, haggling over prices, chickens clucking from their cages, and Indian music blasting from the lone music store in the market, right next to the dairy shop. If you’ve ever smelled raw, unpasteurized milk and yogurt that’s been sitting in a large container in the heat, you know it isn’t pleasant.
As we got closer to the center, where the butchers were, the smells would get a little stronger, the sights a little more… gruesome. A couple of stalls sold goat meat, which I never cared for much. Too gamey. Goat heads lined the tables, the eyes glazed and staring at you blankly, the tongues lolling out of mouths gaping wide open. The headless carcasses hung by hooks from ceilings, flies buzzing about. There would be plenty of hawks, or vultures, or buzzards, I could never tell what they were. They’d often circle these particular stalls or be perched on telephone poles nearby, hoping at least one of the men would get careless for a second and turn their backs.
A fisherman sat on the ground with large straw baskets full of fish that displayed iridescent colors when the sunlight touched their silvery skin. The same fisherman had one of his hands chopped off 10 years later on that very spot by a rioter, when it became too dangerous to step outside even when the sun was shining.
I remember this butcher, a big, burly man with shoulder-length unruly hair and a handlebar mustache, in his blood soaked apron. He would greet my grandmother respectfully and give me a kind smile, while turning the meat grinder. Every now and then he’d cut off and toss pieces of fat, skin or, if he was feeling generous, meat to the three-legged, black-and-white stray cat that wandered the street, searching for scraps. My grandmother didn’t approve of me touching stray animals but even she would smile when the cat would rub against my legs to get my attention.
I would stand very close to the cages containing the chickens, staring at them while they stared back at me, and I’d pretend I was in a staring contest with them. Then came the part I didn’t like very much: one of the butchers would deftly grab a chicken, expertly slide the knife through the jugular and toss the chicken into the barrel to allow it to bleed out and calm down. And you could hear the chicken cluck and thrash around wildly in the barrel before losing consciousness.
Sometimes I wonder to myself if watching all this butchering from an early age has desensitized me a little where seeing flesh cut open and blood doesn’t bother me anymore.
Eventually I entered adolescence and my grandmother discouraged me from going to the market with her. But when I close my eyes, I can still hear the shouts of the shopkeepers. I can feel the warm air, thick with humidity. I can still smell the sweet fragrance of the sugar canes being juiced. I can still hear the chickens clucking madly. I can almost taste the amazing halwa puri sold by one of the stalls, a taste that no one has been able to recreate here in the US. I can still hear small glasses used for drinking chai clinking together or against tables, as men, young and old, sat together for brief moments of relaxation before returning back to their stalls. I can still feel the soft fur of the cat on my ankles. I can still hear the Indian music blasting from the music store with the dairy shop on one side and the arcade on the other, where Pacman, Super Mario Bros, and Donkey Kong were the only games available but that didn’t stop the arcade from being packed with boys. I can still see the colorful rickshaws swerving expertly between other vehicles, people and even between a few cows.
When I close my eyes, I can still picture the Karachi that once was. The Karachi of my childhood.