‘Karachi‘ by Toufiq Rafat is a 24 line poem that does not contain a consistent rhyme scheme. There are a few occasions in this short piece in which Rafat has crafted half-rhymes, or even full rhymes, but no pattern is maintained.
It is important to note before one begins reading this piece that the title refers to the Pakistani city of Karachi. It is the capital of the province of Sindh and one of the most populous, and cosmopolitan cities in the region.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a number of natural forces that continually act upon the city. Those who live within its limits are barraged by the force of the wind that is able to turn up dust storms, the “roar of the sun” that can reach one even when the star has set low in the sky, and the “biting” of the sea that has been pounding the coast for centuries. These elements all come together to create a dangerously hostile living environment. They are there to remind the residents that they are only temporarily in charge.
The poem continues on to speak of the constant fight for survival in the city. Many are often regularly desperate for food and water, and even the city itself struggles to maintain its way of life.
The poem concludes with the speaker noting that even though they have made a life there, the people of Karachi are always at the mercy of nature. It will always be there to remind them of their temporary rule.
Analysis of Karachi
This piece begins with the poet thrusting the reader into the middle of a turbulent landscape. While it does not appear so in this first section of lines, the landscape being depicted is that which surrounds the Pakistani city of Karachi.
In the first lines, the speaker describes how the wind in this area of the world “scream[s] like it,
…transplants the soil
Particle by particle.
The wind is a brutally powerful force, but it also has the dexterity and patience to move the sand and soil piece by piece. The contrast the poet has presented here only increases one’s respect for this element of daily life.
The poem continues with the speaker describing another force that acts upon the earth, the “sun.” It is sometimes distant, far off on the horizon, but that does not stop its “muscular rays” from reaching across the land and cracking,
…the most stubborn rock like a nut.
One must not ever think that the sun is lacking in power. It has the ability, no matter how far away it is, to control the lesser forces, and objects, of the world. It is clear that this area of the earth is subject to the harshest of elemental forces. The poet goes on to add one more element to those that barrage the city and its surroundings.
The narrator speaks of the sea, and how it crashes into the “head.” It collides with an “ancient rasping sound.” This noise has been heard before, over the millions of years that the sea has been wearing away at the headland of this city.
These “forces of nature” that the speaker is describing are all present and will continue to be so, long after man is gone. They are there, consistently wearing away at man’s grasp on the earth, and attempting to knock him off his “perch.” This is all with the goal in mind of returning the earth to its previous state before humankind consumed it.
In the second set of lines, the speaker reveals that this landscape which was described at the beginning of the poem is part of a city. It is not a barren, human-less, wasteland as one might assume, people have made their home there.
Life is not easy in Karachi. There is “scarce sweet,” or clean, “water” to drink and there is “little rain” to refill their coffers. The speaker continues on to state that,
Each man protects his rood of greenery
With panicked care.
The essentials of life, food, and water, are the most important daily considerations of those who live in this city. These basic human needs are worried over, and most likely fought over, throughout this region.
Not only are the individuals that reside in the city constantly searching for more food or water, the “municipality,” or the city itself, is continually seeking out more resources. The city also feels the desperation of people and spends its time plowing,
The heart of the road for a strip of grass
And jealously count[ing] its trees on week-days.
It is as if the city is on the brink of collapse, they are barely able to find even a patch of grass to sow and must count their trees. Natural resources have become the currency of Karachi, wealth and survival both depend on their plenty.
The poet continues in this path, describing how even the animals, such as the “bald sparrow” are forced to “scrounge” for food amongst the waste of the city. In contrast to all the desperation that has so far been spoken of is the “gull-mohur.” This is the name that is often given to the Delonix regia, or Royal poinciana, tree that is common in the region. This brightly colored plant is the only “spend thirft” amongst those residing in the city. It “spills its gold,” a reference to its leaves, in the spring without consideration.
In the final set of lines, the speaker continues on to refer to himself and all those who live around him. They, “wear out features to suit the landscape.” The people of this region have done their best to change the earth to suit their lives. It has fought back by inflicting them with the harshest of natural forces.
He speaks of the “malice” that comes like a “rainless cloud” over the teeth-like cliffs. The people hope for rain, but instead, all they get are dark clouds that bring nothing.
In the final four lines of the piece the speaker, for the first time, refers to himself in the first person. From where he is sitting and watching the city around him, he can see the “commuters storming the gates.” There innumerable residents of the city are moving through their daily lives, all against the backdrop of dunes of sand. The speaker contrasts the “lamp-post” that stands in the city, with the “arms of the cactus” that appear to be lifted in prayer.
No matter the changes they make, the natural world will intrude upon, and increase the difficulty of their lives. Nature is always there to remind them that they are only temporarily in charge.
About Toufiq Rafat
Toufiq Rafat was born in 1927 in the city of Sialkot, India. He was educated at and graduated from, the Hailey College of Commerce in Lahore. Today he is known as one of the greatest English language, Pakistani writers and his works have inspired generations of Indian and Pakistani poets.
Rafat died in 1998 at the age of 71.