Welcome to Karachi. With a population nearing 20 million, it is the center of business, trade, finance and commerce of Pakistan and arguably one of the biggest metropolitan cities in the world. A leading seaport, Karachi is Pakistan’s equivalent of New York when it comes to opportunity and employment. Like other metropolitan cities it is teeming with life; their rat race to make it to the end of the day a little richer while some just manage to earn enough to make the day go by. But make no mistake, Karachi is a hungry animal. It houses several multi-ethnic and religious sects which, while remain in the grind of normalcy, could erupt at the slightest provocation. Voted one of the ten most dangerous cities in the world, Karachi has a whole list of problems ranging from crime, ethnic strife, gang wars, target killing and political turmoil. Political parties seem to have an organized calendar of when to paralyze the city with strikes and shut downs, lead by the political rivalry of the urban Brotherhood Party against the rural-minded Public Party. Though both are populist & liberal-minded, and could very well lead the city to great progress, they still differ on the simple matter of urban and rural mindsets, which is further compounded by their indirectly supported militant wings that are engaged in the war for attrition and territory.
Still, for all its ills and evils, Karachi invites everyone from all over the country to make their mark. Better still, it dares them to. It is the center of economy, healthcare, technology and industry. It is the destination of choice for business process outsourcing from all over the world, and no one knows that better than GRT Global. With acquired offices all over Europe, Asia and America, the story of GRT is that of the proverbial David finally rising to become the Goliath of the industry. Starting as a simple call center in Lahore, GRT hit the jackpot when it started operations in Karachi, thus tapping into a well-educated and well-versed labor market which was smart, savvy, and above all… cheap. Focusing solely on English-Medium school students, it became the hub for all 18-somethings to enter the corporate world to polish their people skills and mint good money in the process. Sales, marketing, insurance, finance… GRT had a solution and workforce for all international client needs.
The success of GRT came solely from the quality of the people that they employed, and Mahmud Siddiq Jr. has been one of their oldest assets. Ever since his father Mahmud Sr. passed on, he spent a few months getting his father’s affairs in order and then finally trying to get his own academic life on track when, by an extraordinary coincidence, his mother brought to him the classified section of the Torch newspaper with a GRT advert for recruitment. Mistaking it for a profit scheme, she gave her son the paper who informed her that it was for a job opening. He read the job requirements and was amazed that they had no educational degree requirement, a staple for all corporate employment across the country, and all that was required was excellent spoken & written English Language skills. He figured, what the heck, and in a few months his life changed forever. In the eight years that he’s been with the company, he’s become a corporate professional and now is a mentor to a whole new breed of employees. Sure he had to struggle in the beginning as he was bounced off to several departments, but that gave him great insights into how the company functioned till he finally became a jack of all trades.
His latest stint in training & development is to make the new breed of GRT professionals meet the standards of excellence that GRT upholds. This, truthfully, was becoming difficult to do with each batch of recruits that he trained. It wasn’t that GRT’s standards were near impossible to meet, but it did have a lot to do with the quality of the new recruits. Maybe he was being hard on them as he was the last of the crème de la crème of the original lot, but then again, GRT has evolved from a single storey call center to a global powerhouse. So while he can get a batch of talented young men & women to handle their responsibilities professionally and by the book, it’s when they’re met with something out of the box that requires his expertise, such was now when he finds himself donning the headset to handle a sensitive caller.
“So let me see if I have this right, sir. You’re saying that you once visited GRT Global’s website a few days ago and since then, every time you open your web browser, GRT’s website always shows up, and you’d like it to stop?”
“Got it in one, sonny!” the caller replies with that southern accent. From Louisiana no doubt. Plus he does sound like someone in his fifties who’s only been using a computer for a little time. “Not only that, but I want it back the way it was.”
“Excuse me?” Mahmud Jr. asked, a little bemused.
“Before your GRT thing started popping up, I always, ALWAYS got Dell’s Website on my internet. And I liked it, it had all the information I wanted updated every day, so you can understand how this has made me upset.”
“I completely understand sir, and I do regret the inconvenience you’ve faced. If you’re near your computer right now, I’ll be more than happy to talk you through some steps which you should have no problem in doing on your own. Once done, your browser should no longer show the GRT website anymore till you want it.”
“Uh huh, well give me just a second and I’ll get to my computer.”
“I’ll hold.” Mahmud responds as he lies back on the seat a little, surrounded by all the other agents who should have gone off on their tea-break, but instead stuck around to watch how their trainer handled calls. It’s not that he had to take the call; he only popped in on the floor to have a quick word with the supervisor who was apparently answering a call of nature. It was then that one of his old trainees asks him what to do about this caller he had on the line with an “unknown problem”. Mahmud took the call while most of the agents went off on break. Even when the supervisor returned, Mahmud still figured he should see this through. It has been a while since he took a live call, which frankly could work in his favor. Every time he tries to coach the agents on how to improve call performance, he gets looks from some problematic agents that instantly says “let’s see you do any better.” So here he was, not that he had to prove anything to anyone, but smug satisfaction still feels goods every now and then.
“Okay, I’m here, I’ve got explorer open and surprise surprise, GRT is staring me right in the face.” The caller returns, still upset.
“Right, I take it you’re using Internet Explorer.” Of course he is. He sounds fifty-ish. He likes his computer just like it was the day he bought it. So no, he’s not going to install a faster and efficient browser, not while the safety software on his computer would ask him if he wants any kind of software installed. Users such as this have a better running computer simply because they do things just as it says in the instruction manual.
“Darn right! Now what?”
Mahmud then carefully guides the user to the browser settings, on how to get to the home page section. He figures the best thing to suggest is to set it to default and save the settings, restart the browser and see what the caller has to say.
“Ohhhh, kay.” The caller still sounds apprehensive. Mahmud is now tensed, and it’s not simplified with some of the other agents trying to get in a listen at the call. “So, it’s not GRT anymore, which is a relief, but it’s going to this other site about Microsoft. I kinda liked it when it was Dell, y’know. It had all my stuff set just the way I wanted.”
Great, just great! The member had a Dell homepage set before, and it was probably configured to show him his custom stuff. Mahmud quickly starts typing at his terminal’s web browser and opens the Dell website. It is just like he said, a web portal with news, weather and all other information, with a line on the top saying “Hello Visitor! Click here to login.” Mahmud now plays a gamble which should pacify this caller. He asks him to go through the settings again and this time, type in dell.com instead of Microsoft. He figures the caller uses the browser every day and it shows custom information, so his Dell Account must be configured and saved to the browser. It’s only a matter of setting the homepage back. The caller complies as Mahmud waits for the reaction on the other end.
“OH! YOU THE MAN, MAN! YOU THE MAN!” Mahmud is quietly relieved. Crisis averted, no negative feedback for the company, and a satisfied caller. “Thanks so much, this is perfect. Oh and I’m sorry about all the things I said to that other guy. It was a bit out of line.”
“Not a problem sir, once again we regret the inconvenience.”
“Oh no, you’ve been brilliant, y’hear!”
“Well is there anything else I may help with?”
“Nope, I’m as happy as sunshine. Take care!”
“You too sir, have a nice day!”
Mahmud waits for the call to cut as he checks the counter. He took the call at about the four minute mark and its now at fourteen. He turns around and looks at the pleasantly surprised faces of the agents and the devilishly smiling face of the supervisor who’s been listening in on the call with his wireless surveillance system.
“Now children, let this be a lesson to you.” Mahmud addresses the eager crowd of agents that gathered around him as he takes off his headset. “Sure, be by the book all the time, but there are going to be times when you’re going to have to use common sense and your own ingenuity to get you out of scrapes, while also being sure that the company doesn’t get any bad word-of-mouth. Listen to the recording and you’ll know where you can improve.”
The agents applaud as Mahmud walks off, returning a high-five from the supervisor. Mahmud almost forgets what he wanted to talk to him about, but once done, he goes off on the terrace to get a bit of fresh air. Only another twenty minutes before he gets off from work. It has been a tiring day not just because of that call. The nights aren’t any easier now ever since they had their child. A daughter, just like he hoped. Little Alaya is only two months old and she’s already proving to be a handful. The sleepless nights are having an effect on both him and Riva, but he’s doing his best to remain charged up for work. He does wonder how hard it must be for Riva to take care of the baby, although his sister and mother are usually home after noon. Even so, Riva has the brunt of the work taking care of the baby, usually with Alaya waking up after every hour, so Riva has a very erratic sleep cycle. Mahmud figures he’ll get some sleep on the ride home in the office van, especially with the full air-conditioning it has. Although as he turns, he finds the bench looking very relaxing and just sort of drawing him towards it.
“Just a couple of minutes won’t hurt”, he thinks to himself as he sits himself down, lets out a deep sigh and closes his eyes.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t see where I was…”
His eyes open and he is instantly taken aback. He remembers sitting down somewhere but now he’s outside, among a sea of people walking their way on the footpath. He can’t seem to remember how he got here, as if he was plucked from his cozy bench and dropped right on to this road. Where was this road? He looks around and notices a sign saying “McLeod Road.” He’s shocked, as only an instant ago he was somewhere else entirely. McLeod Road is Karachi’s financial hub with all major banks having their head offices located here, not to mention the stock exchange. He looks at his watch and sees the time is 5:15 PM, only it’s a watch he doesn’t recognize. It turns on just as he flicks his wrist up to show him the time and, to his surprise, a small message icon with the digit ‘2’ next to it. Before he can look any further, he notices his sleeve and the rest of him is wearing a black coat. In July? Why would he need to wear a coat in the summer? He then turns around to look at everyone else wearing warm clothing too. It’s only then that he feels the slight chill reminiscent of winter, and the sweet scent of pine.
“I… I’m in the future?”
He could only mutter those words to himself when a large shadow falls over and the entire street. He looks up and if he wasn’t taken aback before, the sight before him now has undoubtedly given him the shock of his life. About four hundred feet above him, a massive object has just clouded the sky, moving forward majestically across the city skyline without skipping a beat. He can scarcely believe what he’s seeing.
“Excuse me sir,” he stops a gentleman walking along, “could you please tell me you’re also seeing that object in the sky?”
The gentleman looks at him bemused. “New to Karachi, are ya? It’s a Zepp, innit!”
“Yeah! Zepp, Zeppelin; whatever floats your boat. Looks like the weekend flight to Hyderabad to me. Pretty nifty, those Zepps. Been on a few myself but they are ruddy expensive. You should try ‘em once, especially the buffet lounge.”
The gentleman waves him goodbye and is on his merry way, leaving him to process this new bit of information. What the heck is a Zeppelin and when did it start flying from Karachi to Hyderabad? It’s a blimp; that much he knows, but the only thing he can think of with the word Zeppelin is a heavy metal band. More to the point, did that gentleman speak with a cockney accent? In Karachi? He isn’t familiar with the crowd working around McLeod Road to know what kind of language they speak. Or at least he thinks he isn’t.
As he walks in the general direction along with everyone else, he begins to recall where exactly he is now. He’s nearing the roundabout that leads from McLeod Road to Shahrah-e-Faisal on the left and Saddar to the right, with the Rex Shopping Zone right at the start. The roads themselves seem to be piling up with vehicular traffic, understandable since it is quitting time for most offices, and yet the traffic seems to be moving smoothly. What’s amazing is that there are literally no motorcycles, one of the most notorious kinds of transport there is. He climbs up a tram heading for main Saddar via Victoria Road and pays ten rupees to the conductor. It’s when he gets his change that he sees something he hasn’t seen in ages.
“What the …?” he gawks at the small bluish & white two-rupee note, a bill that’s been out of circulation over a decade ago. More to the point, a tram?! He can scarcely believe that he’s in a tram. He remembers his mother telling him that they used to have trams in Karachi but they were phased out in the 1970s. And now he’s in one. It travelled along Victoria Road at a brisk pace as he took in the sights. All of the Rex Shopping Zone, followed by the Electronics Market, and not one car or motorcycle parked. Any and all vehicles were moving along, stopping only to drop someone off or pick someone up.
He finally gets off at Bunder Road and crosses over in the direction to where he wants to go, when he’s greeted by a Double Decker bus. “Just like London,” he mutters to himself as he gets on and finds himself a seat. As he heads for home, he starts processing all this information. Trams, Zeppelins, clear roads, and now a Double Decker. “So, not in the future then. The past?” He looks out of the window and his theory is instantly squashed. There’s nothing around him that shows that he is in the past. Apart from the old heritage sites, everything else looks modern, spic & span and with a glint of being right out of the assembly line. The signboards appear to be digitally printed and the cars around him are modern alright. But where are all the motorcycles?
He looks back at his watch which lights up the clock face as soon as he flicks his wrist. He notices a button on the side, on pressing which the clock face disappears and a whole menu of options appears. “It’s a smartwatch!” he exclaims and checks his pockets to see if he should have a smartphone. Instead, all he finds is his earpiece which he takes off every now and then. He checks the messages icon to show his pending messages. One’s a special offer yet again, and the other one is from Riva, reminding him to bring milk and bread on the way back. “Okay, so she’s texting me now. Interesting.” He has been on her case to text him instead of calling only if she needs essentials or stuff while he returns from home. He notices the date on the watch which confirms that he is indeed neither in the past nor the future. He is in 2011, just like he should be. December 21st to be precise. And yet, he remembers it was July for some reason.
He disembarks at the University Road, right outside the Army Park from where he crosses over to his apartment blocks. He’s lived here in the neighborhood of Silverson ever since he was a child, ever since there were ethnic disturbances in old Nazimabad which forced his family to find other places to live. As he approaches his home, he hears a child calling towards him.
He turns and notices Zaviar running gleefully towards him from the Silver Park gate. He lifts up his boy in his arms and notices Riva holding little Alaya in her arms as they return from their evening stroll. Little Alaya is just a little over a month old whereas Zaviar is a year and a half. Zaviar hugs his father tightly as Riva smiles at him.
“Milk and bread? I texted you just like you asked.” she says sarcastically.
“Nice to see you too, Riva.” he responds with a sigh. “Give me a couple of minutes to freshen up and I’ll get them.”
“Sure, I’m heading up. It’s her feeding time.”
He checks on his darling little girl sleeping in her small blanket as Riva takes her upstairs. “So how are you doing champ?” he asks Zaviar.
“Zavi waiting for you. Go outside.” Little Zaviar replies in his sweet way. He’s beginning to pick up language pretty fast and should be talking properly in a few months.
“Dada!” Zaviar points towards a maroon 2000 model Toyota Corolla as it approaches them towards the driveway. He looks intently at the car, wondering why Zaviar would call out to a grandfather. Unless…
The door opens and Mahmud Siddiq I steps out, briefcase in hand. He locks the car and heads towards them.
Trams, Zeppelins, Two Rupee Bills, Double Deckers… none of these compare to seeing his father again. He looks exactly like the last time he saw him, neatly dressed in a black coat & tie, with a crisp white shirt, grey trousers and shiny black shoes. His hair is now gray, with a receding hairline along the temple. His spectacles are on his face, still tied around his neck with the aid of a thread.
“Sorry I couldn’t bring you along. Had a late meeting about a case.” Mahmud I says as he approaches his son and grandson.
“It’s okay, I just got here myself.”
“And how are you doing my little knight?” Mahmud I coddles Zaviar on the hair. “Has your father taken you the store yet?”
On Zaviar shaking his head, Mahmud I brings out a hundred rupee bill and hands it to his son. “Get him those Pepsis, he likes those very much.”
“Seriously dad, you never let us have a drop of Pepsi in our lives, always reminding us how bad it was for us.”
“Oh pish, he’s only a boy. Let him have his fun.”
“Fruit juice it is dad.” He replies as Mahmud I scoffs. They all head up the stairs while he starts thinking.
“I’m back again, back to that other place. Back to being Mahmud II.”
He looks at the mirror in the foyer to see himself dressed in the similar black coat & tie with white shirt, grey trousers and black shoes as his father. “Back to being a … paralegal, was it?” He looks at his mother, sitting at the swing sofa in the hall, watching TV just like she always does. Riva is obviously in their bedroom feeding Alaya, and the rest of the house feels empty. He closes his eyes and thinks hard. It’s the second time he can remember that he’s been in this exact dream state, in this exact city with all its subtle changes; nay, improvements. He remembers all this while he was back here a few months ago.
But are dreams really this accurate? Aren’t they all supposed to be random depending on the state of mind?
What if this is more than just a dream? Because if he didn’t know any better, he’d say this is reality.
This, this is home.
END OF CHAPTER 2: KARACHI BETA
EARTH BETA by MUHAMMAD ALI SAMEJO
The events depicted in the above are a work of fiction loosely based on events in the life of the author. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental; unless you’re related to the author, in which case you were most likely the inspiration behind it.