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The other Karachi project

A world of radical chic lies hidden in the Pakistani metropolis that has been in the news for hatching terrorist plots. Our regular Hindustani, Mayank Austen Soofi, reports from Karachi’s hottest hotspot.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2010 00:35 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times

Most regulars to The Second Floor, or T2F, are young and speak with an American accent. If this were some other city in some other country, T2F would have gone unnoticed. But this pricey café with a rather unimpressive bookstore and an art gallery is unique. There is no other hangout in Karachi — or in Pakistan — that brings such a diverse crowd of writers, poets, painters, filmmakers, musicians, bloggers, book-lovers and trans-gender people to one place.

“This is an alternative space,” says Karachi-based author and former editor of the Internet magazine SPIDER Bina Shah whose new novel, A Season For Martyrs, has just been translated into Italian. “It’s not a pro-establishment place. It’s a little subversive.”

This isn’t Islamabad or Talibanland. The wall opposite Shah is decked with a painting of two nude men. “It was part of a mural done by the gay artist Asim Butt who committed suicide early this year,” says Sabeen Mahmud, who co-runs T2F. “I have queer people saying to me that this is the only place in Karachi where they feel safe.”

Opened in 2007, T2F, operated by — like most things in Pakistan — a non-profit organisation, quickly became the place for Karachi’s cool set to hang out. Urdu poet Zehra Nigah came here to recite her verses on America’s war against terror. A session on Mirza Ghalib attracted an unexpectedly large crowd after the 19th century poet was marketed as ‘the original hippie’ here.

T2F has also held events in the past that were not calculated to please the Pakistani establishment. It invited author Ayesha Siddiqa to talk about her book Military Inc., an expose on Pakistan’s military institution, screened a film on the country’s missing people while its director was being hounded by the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Call it Pakistan’s radical chic spot.

The silent chattering class

This is also the set of people who make up Pakistan’s liberal, urban, globalised civil society – sandwiched invisibly between the politicians, lawyers, the generals and the Taliban-types. The hijab is non-existent in this layer of Pakistani society, but it’s still tucked away from the usual ‘international’ images of a country buttressed by violence and disorder.

In the past, Pakistan’s liberal ‘café society’ had more influence than it has now. In Karachi’s rival city Lahore, the now-closed Pak Tea House was an artistic hub frequented by poets and writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto. In Karachi’s Irani cafés, politics was dissected over tea and patties. “A modern successor to old-world cafés, T2F caters to a new generation that has grown up in the so-called ‘liberalism’ of the Musharraf era,” says journalist Beena Sarwar. “Here people come in with their guitars or laptops. They care about the state of the world and also like their coffee well-brewed.”

Junaid Zuberi, a financial executive in Karachi’s tony Clifton neighbourhood, finds contemporary Pakistanis more interested in the world than before. “It was more depressing till some time back,” says the self-described lover of arts and literature. “There weren’t many readers. Bookshops were closing down. Libraries could be counted on fingertips. The Internet further dampened the book-reading culture.” However, publishers are now hosting launch parties and book readings.

A high point was last week’s Karachi Literature Festival. One of the participants, Mohammed Hanif, author of the critically acclaimed best-selling novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, isn’t, however, so optimistic about the tastes of Pakistanis these days. “Pakistan had a thriving fiction scene in the 70s, but that is being replaced by political rants and pseudo-religious texts,” he says. “Islamic publishing is going through a boom. You can find books on Islamic medicine, Islamic banking, Islamic parenting… But some young people are very keen readers and I keep hoping there’ll be more of them,” he adds.

Despite the positive response, not much about last week’s Karachi Literature festival — including the fact that it was being held — was known to the general public. In a bookstore in Karachi’s glitzy Dolmen Mall, visitors were unaware of the festival. “Not one of us knows about it,” said Yumna Zia, a student of the city’s Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, a day before the festival. “But the idea is good.”

For Burgers, life’s a beach

But it’s not only Pakistan’s intellectual types who want to stand out and be counted. The country’s shi shi crowd is readying for the second Karachi Fashion Week that’ll kick off on April 5. In

keeping with T2F’s high-brow USP, TV journalist Insiya Syed is reading a Michael Ondaatje. “The impression that Pakistani women come out only in a burqa or a dupatta is bullshit,” says Syed, wearing skin-tight jeans and a t-shirt. “I usually wear jeans to office, which is on the busiest road in Karachi, which I cross ten times a day and no one frowns.”

In Karachi lingo, you are either a ‘Burger’ or a ‘Bun Kebab’. ‘Burger’ kids live in the posh areas of Defence and Clifton, speak accented English, date in Zamzama Boulevard cafés, and party at the secluded ‘French Beach’ on weekends. ‘Bun Kebabs’ live everywhere except in the posh bits of Karachi, speak Urdu-peppered English, hang out at Jinnah’s mausoleum and meet extended relatives for social dos. Burgers feel at home at T2F, Kebabs don’t.

T2F’s posh reading tastes come out strongly. “We don’t accept John Grishams,” says Mohsin Siddiqui, a blogger who selects books for the café. “The point of this place is to encourage discussions. Trash literature such as

the Twilight series won’t be able to do that. We keep Robert Fisk, not Dan Brown.” Literary snobbery in a country where a book is a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies. “I wish Pakistan had a Chetan Bhagat and a Shobhaa De,” says Ameena Saiyid, managing director of Pakistan’s Oxford University Press, which, organised the Karachi Literature Festival with the British Council.

Wearing an embroidered salwar kurta, graphic designer Tehmina Fatima, is waiting with Insiya for a gig to be performed at the T2F by Karachi band, Look Busy, Do Nothing. As she lights up a cigarette, the talk veers towards terrorism. “Yesterday three people died in a blast in Saddar Bazaar but it was not breaking news as the number [of people killed] didn’t reach 30,” says Insiya.

“Sometimes it gets really depressing and then you come to T2F where you meet people who feel the same way as you. ” Fatima butts in, saying, “You can’t imagine it in other hangouts. There, everyone lives in a bubble and talks about beach parties and boyfriends.”

But isn’t that also important? “Yes, sometimes I go to other cafés to talk crappy stuff,” says Insiya with a laugh. “It’s a release valve.”

Meanwhile the three-member band has swung into action. As the evening ends, everyone claps. A few hugs later, they all get into their BMWs. Most probably to the beach.

First Published: Mar 28, 2010 00:30 IST