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Orion Journal – The Crows of Karachi

Orion Journal – The Crows of Karachi

2023-01-16 14:40:13

To depict a loveless and macabre world—a world of the scarecrow performing because the Lord of blood-thirsty crows, of the harridan decked out as a magnificence queen . . . a world of debased flesh and servile manners. . . . This bitter imaginative and prescient of actuality is probably not the entire fact.

—Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the artwork of Sadequain

IT IS RAINING IN Karachi as I write this, an unsightly, punishing rain that returns with rising fury yearly. This yr, as yearly, the monsoon is meant to be the “worst ever,” and, like yearly, the town’s flimsy slums and crater-riven roads will collapse with the load of the rain. On these lethal wet days, the water that falls from above meets the sewage that bubbles up from beneath, each equally careless concerning the location of their union. Some folks will lose all the pieces this very day and depart, returning to villages with no alternative however much less despair. Others will arrive of their place. This fixed rely of coming and going is the beat of Karachi, a metropolis that grew all of a sudden out of the coastal desert when India’s Muslims wanted a spot to land in 1947.

On this migrant metropolis, the hooded crows have all the time stayed, multiplying wildly to grow to be the commonest chook. A number of years in the past, a reader wrote a letter to the editor at Daybreak, the English newspaper the place I’m a columnist, saying that if you wish to estimate the filth and neglect of a metropolis, rely the crows. One examine did, and located the letter author’s phrases to be totally true: when people don’t attend to waste and carrion, the crows nourish on it, multiplying with feral glee. Crows are in all places in Karachi, damaging the windshields of jets parked at Jinnah Airport or lasciviously stealing the one piece of bread a beggar is consuming on the aspect of the highway. Additionally they perch atop the large rubbish heap subsequent to our home, wading carelessly within the soiled puddles, selecting out bits of wire and plastic to style their very personal city nests.

Learn extra from this situation here.

After I was a toddler, my grandmother sang a music by which a faux peacock danced in my palm, ate imaginary meals, drank imaginary water, after which flew into my armpit for a spherical of tickles and laughter. I had by no means seen a peacock or something near it, so I imagined it will be very like the crows. After I started to talk, I referred to crows as mor, the Hindi phrase for “peacock.” I used to be instantly corrected, however the adults couldn’t perceive why I might make such a mistake.

Again then I lived in a home with a driveway that led all the way down to a black iron gate that stood for standing and for concern. In Karachi, you had a gate should you had one thing to guard and should you feared the encroaching lawlessness of the avaricious metropolis that lay past. The thought was {that a} home with a gate might be your sanctuary.

After I was three or 4, a child crow fell from its nest and onto the driveway. Crows may get into any sanctuary with or with no gate. It adopted that when the infant fell on the arduous cement, the crow mom instantly referred to as for a crow mob. The pinkish frail physique of the infant crow was surrounded by one, two, then 5, then seven crows. When the errand boy tried to depart that day, the mob descended on his head, and he had to make use of a chunk of cardboard to guard himself. Karachi crows are adept at organizing mobs when confronted with harmful conditions, and virtually all conditions in Karachi are harmful. The crow mob gathered at our place quickly overtook the driveway, making such a din and swooping down so ferociously that everybody simply sat confined at residence. At nightfall the mad cawing lastly stopped. Once we went outdoors, the infant crow was gone.


ONE SUMMER, WHEN MY TWIN BROTHER and I have been eight or 9 years outdated, he was invited to a birthday celebration by certainly one of his classmates. Each of us attended Zoroastrian colleges, well-regarded establishments that rich benefactors had constructed over 100 years earlier than. Theirs was an historic faith, one which understands the world to be in fixed stress between good and evil, gentle and darkish, and even perhaps crow and peacock. Charity and repair are essential to their beliefs, giving the great an edge over omniscient evil. The inhabitants of Zoroastrians (or Parsis, as they’re referred to as within the subcontinent) had dwindled through the years since partition, and now Muslim college students like us benefited from the great acts of Zoroastrian forebears.

Zal, the boy who had invited my brother, lived in a special a part of the town, nearer to the ocean than our personal. When the day got here, all of us—my father, mom, myself, and my brother—piled into the automotive. The plan was that we’d drop him on the occasion after which discover the world, for even then, Karachi was too massive for us and the space too far to have the ability to return residence. On the best way there, my brother was quiet as he sat holding the neatly wrapped current, under no circumstances giddy with anticipation for the occasion. Once we acquired there and it was time for my brother to go inside, he started to cry. All of a sudden, he didn’t wish to go. He begged me to go along with him, however I used to be not about to tackle the embarrassment of a crying brother and crashing a boy’s occasion. I refused and ultimately my mother and father satisfied him to go, nonetheless reluctantly.

A young boy chases some crows

Pictures by Insiya Syed


A long time later, he informed me why. Although we weren’t permitted to speak about faith at our college, he had heard from one other schoolmate that when there’s a dying within the Zoroastrian neighborhood, they laid the lifeless individual inside a nicely for crows to eat. A day or two earlier than the occasion, this schoolmate had mentioned that Zal lived near such a nicely, and that Zal’s mom had as soon as discovered a crow carrying a human finger round their entrance porch. My brother didn’t imagine the schoolmate, who notably was not invited to the occasion. However once we acquired to Zal’s home and it got here time to stroll by this identical entrance porch, he choked, scared of seeing an errant thumb, finger, or toe.

The crows of Karachi do feed on the Zoroastrian lifeless. The burial rites of Zoroastrians—a faith that dates again to at the least the fifth century bce—have been alleged to be saved secret. The Greek historian Herodotus uncovered the key when he wrote concerning the crows in his Histories. Zoroastrians imagine {that a} corpse is unclean and have to be disposed of instantly from the world of residing people. For this activity of disposal, historic Zoroastrians constructed ossuaries, massive towerlike constructions the place the lifeless could be positioned in order that the solar, carrion birds like crows and vultures, and different components would get rid of the flesh.

One of many few final operational ossuaries—known as the Tower of Silence—is in Karachi. It’s certainly near the place my brother’s pal as soon as lived, an intentional plan as a result of the neighborhood wished to personal the houses round their burial web site to keep up its secrecy. Pictures of it present a round construction manufactured from cement, about two or three tales tall with a gap on one aspect. A cement ramp leads up into the round construction. Crows, together with vultures and kites, hover across the high of the construction when one thing is in it for them. It’s a unusual combine, the follow of an historic ritual in a wild and younger metropolis, the ever-present carrion crows performing the duty of transformation from the darkness of dying into the continued vitality of life.


THE CROWS CAN KILL TOO, or at the least attempt. In the summertime of 2010, I used to be in Karachi for a household wedding ceremony. It was a stiflingly sizzling summer time, the viselike grip of warmth so intense that you just felt suffocated because the temperature rose to a record-breaking forty-eight levels Celsius. The most popular temperature on the planet that yr—a fiery fifty-five levels Celsius—was recorded only some hundred miles inland from Karachi, able to singe all the pieces alive. For those who took shade beneath a uncommon tree or the shadow of a constructing, you confronted a deluge of crow excrement—plenty of crows means plenty of crow shit. On YouTube, a video circulated of a crow that had discovered tips on how to function a faucet for a drink of water. Such was the water shortage within the metropolis that the actual miracle of the video was not the crow’s adeptness, however that it had discovered a faucet with flowing water.

The marriage was held outdoors, the meals ready out within the open air because it all the time is. The crows sat on their electrical poles overlooking the venue as preparations have been made. If a possibility introduced itself, they didn’t hesitate: a chunk of meat for a skewer, a half-chopped onion, outdated bits of lettuce and tomato, all went one after the other to the crows who commanded the territory. So it went till after nightfall, when the crows melted into the darkness and the visitors—aunties stuffed in silks and uncles in fits, children in ruffled clothes—all poured into the venue, fanning themselves. The groom got here, then the bride, and at last the meals.

If anybody had fearful about its security, the issues have been invisible as the group of visitors dove into the pots and platters to fill their plates. I did too, and I paid for it the subsequent day, sick with one of many worst abdomen viruses I’ve ever had. It may have been something after all—the water, the meat, the milky dessert—however I blamed the crows for leaving traces of their saliva as they wrested bits of meals to hold away.

Crows walk on a ledge near a beach

Pictures by Insiya Syed


DESPITE THEIR ENCUMBRANCE ON HUMAN life, the crows cawing away are the soundtrack to Karachi, and so to my childhood. The loopy cawing was the backdrop to after I first discovered to experience a motorbike, after I sat for exams, after I performed with my dolls. One crow visited my bed room window each single afternoon; I as soon as opened my window and tried to the touch him, however he disappeared quick, fading into the group of different crows hanging out on the electrical poles that lined the primary highway. I keep in mind taking a look at that seemingly perpetual gathering when my grandfather died. I used to be sixteen and till then he had been a continuing in my life. The crows have been there as all the time, nonetheless assembly and parting, equally within the residing and the lifeless.

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Karachi in 2022 is ecologically barren and careworn. Each single nook of the town appears to have been claimed by city sprawl, haphazard stocky buildings with houses above and retailers beneath, huge cavernous malls with air con that blows sizzling air into the already sizzling metropolis. Crows ply their busy and obnoxious existence amid these constructions, their nests now made principally of plastic baggage whose ceaselessly remnants clog the town’s sidewalks and drains. Nobody is attempting to make use of much less plastic right here, not even the crows. Some even appear to eat the stuff and proceed residing however, absorbing it into their hardy and chronic techniques. That’s their highest quality, my father all the time insists: they’re adaptable to something.


MY MOTHER WAS A BIRD LOVER. Within the odd likelihood a chook aside from a crow or mynah or sparrow appeared earlier than us, she would all the time level it out. As kids we pestered her for a chook to maintain at residence. She by no means mentioned sure. Karachi streets are stuffed with distributors of all types who will accost you at site visitors lights, begging so that you can roll down your home windows to the fumes of exhaust. At one level these distributors had begun to entice wild birds, every cage with ten or twenty or thirty sparrows or mynahs, the previous typically dyed gaudy shades of yellow or pink. The distributors took cash to “free” these birds and safe their very own livelihood, however we considered them as potential pets. It was a rip-off, after all, as a result of shopping for the “freedom” of birds solely made them right into a commodity and thus future trapped birds. The one generally seen birds exempt from this capitalist invention have been crows.

Solely my mom stood as much as the crows, a solitary fighter for the rights of smaller birds. She realized that an unique spot needed to be chosen if the small birds might be fed. She selected the upstairs balcony—a busy chook thoroughfare the place there had by no means been a chook feeder. She arrange an outdated wood desk with two terra-cotta clay dishes. One she stuffed with water early within the morning. Between three and 4 p.m., simply earlier than the decision for late afternoon Asr prayers, she would come out with a bag of birdseed and a black cane. She’d fill the second dish with birdseed however, not like within the morning, she stayed, watching like a sentry because the solar started its descent into the horizon. At first, not many birds got here, and people who did danced across the dish, suspiciously eyeing the birdseed however not consuming any. The distrust that’s required to outlive in Karachi had lengthy been bred into the avian gene pool because it had into the human. When the entitled crows got here by, and really many did, my mom lifted the cane and compelled them away.

It took practically per week for the small birds to indicate up, however as soon as they did, they saved coming. The range was surprising: the same old sparrows have been there but additionally canaries, woodpeckers, koels, and, amazingly, parrots—neon inexperienced, brightly coloured parrots. A number of occasions she even noticed the magical hoopoe chook with its stunning black-and-white crest. The hoopoe, or hudhud as we all know it in Pakistan, is referred to within the Koran because the envoy of the Prophet Solomon (Suleyman). It was the hoopoe who handed messages between Suleyman and the Queen of Sheba, a narrative additionally recounted within the Persian poem The Conference of the Birds.

Crows fly in the sky around the city

Pictures by Insiya Syed

All of the whereas, my mom watched with delight, paying no heed to the limitless beeping of horns and the noxious fumes of rubbish fires lit on the finish of the day. If an interloping crow appeared, she made positive to frighten it away, thwarting the invasions that crows are identified for that push smaller birds away from meals and water sources and even destroy their nests. Mayhem was averted, however the crows continued to look at, pairs of them (they have a tendency to function in pairs) perched within the bougainvillea bushes, ready for alternative and unaccustomed to subordination. When it was nightfall or when the birdseed was gone, she acquired up and left. The crows may forage the birdseed that had spilled on the bottom.

Down the lane, a special follow started. On the rooftop of a house 5 or 6 homes away from ours, a girl began appearing at across the identical time as was customary for my mom to feed the birds on our balcony. The girl, doubtless a kitchen maid in the home, introduced along with her a plastic bucket. From this bucket she started to fling slices and slivers of meat. The hooded crows and kites that surrounded her lunged and lurched as she tossed the meat bits, her cotton dupatta tied round her face. As quickly because the bucket was empty, she left. After I requested my mom why she did this, she informed me that some folks believed that doing so saved darkish forces, misfortunes, unhealthy luck at bay. It represented an odd duality on our little Karachi aspect road, one girl contesting the dominion of the crows whereas one other selected appeasement.

In 2015, my mom handed away. She was there after which all of a sudden she was gone—and along with her, the songbirds and parrots, all of the little guests she entertained. My father nonetheless places out the birdseed within the afternoons, however he doesn’t have the endurance or temperament to sit down and wait on the birds, and typically he forgets. Pure choice, he supposes, must be permitted to have its means. Down the road, the ritual on the neighbor’s home continues, carried out in keeping with the directions of the homeowners, suspicious newcomers to Karachi from some faraway village.

In Sufi poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘At ̧t ̧ār’s The Convention of the Birds, the enlightened Hoopoe says to the birds of the world, “I’d somewhat die deceived by desires than give my coronary heart to residence and commerce and by no means dwell.”


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