University of Karachi: The good, the bad and the ugly

There is much about this city’s culture that reflects in its largest university, the University of Karachi. Approximately three months ago when I formally stepped into its terrain as an undergraduate student, I did so with no shortage of warnings about its unpredictable and potentially volatile nature. Ex-graduates I had spoken to narrated with a mixture of fondness, nostalgia and pessimism adventure tales of point rides, stories of sudden violence and blatantly open shows of political strength between opposing parties. The journey will be interesting, I was told, often even fun, but anything but simple or smooth. How apt, I thought, just like rest of Karachi then.

Much of what I had been told about the university’s casual, unserious atmosphere stands correct to date, but what I’ve also come to realize, in these three months, is that a lot of this perception of the university’s atmosphere is based on one’s own outlook and expectations of this environment, and in turn, what we do to achieve these expectations. After all, as students of the university, it is we our selves that nurture this “environment”.

Rather sadly though, a large section of the university’s students seem oblivious to this reality. They’re ready to disparage campus violence and uncertainty at the first available opportunity, but all too afraid to do anything that tackles this problem, especially if that means not justifying the activities of certain political groups they may have a soft spot for. They’ll also frown and scorn no end when faced with the often tireless search for a clean, hygienic place to sit in, but find no measure of hypocrisy in casually throwing away trash once they’ve found a relatively dirt-free spot to dwell in. If I had not learned to cherish the other KU beyond this quagmire of hypocrisy and indifference, I’d have been very dejected student indeed.

This is the KU whose points are painfully overcrowded, but the one-foot-inside-rest-of-the-body-hanging-to-whatever-you-can-grab position is an adventure ride to remember. The KU where one may hate the desperados who come to university every day after pouring half a litre of hair gel and who’s favorite and only past time is to stare unstoppably at anything which remotely resembles a female body part, but whose Prem Gali fables are still very juicy to hear. The KU who’s chicken rolls at the canteen opposite the main Mehmood Hussain library may not look like they’re cooked in very sanitary conditions, but they’re always yum! Chats, biryanis, burgers, kachoriyans, halwa and paratha, by god, KU’s canteens must have the best value-for-money food anywhere in the entire city (just Rs. 12 for 2 oily, golden, hot parathas and a handsome serving of halwa and bhujya and Rs. 7 for very nearly the best doodh patti you can hope to have!) I’m afraid I could on and on about the food, but you do get the drift, don’t you? If only they could make this place cleaner (can some one clean the washrooms at least once a week if not more?) and do a general white wash and some basic repairs, it would give it such a big over all face lift.

Moving away from mere appearance, joy rides and food though, this is also a place which offers you a tremendous opportunity to constructively engage with other people. It is such melting pot of diversity that students from all parts of the country and some from even as far away as Somalia in the African continent may all be sitting in the same classroom. On any given day, any casual wait in the all-famous Arts Lobby, may result in one hearing everything from fluent Sindhi, Pashto and Persian, to mixed up English and Urdu. Given the Italian language and cultural centre is near by, you may even come across the odd freshman or two putting together sentences in broken Italian!

As a student who’s just moved here from a largely secluded, somewhat elitist private university, such diversity is not merely fascinating, but an opportunity to broaden the horizons. Never before have have I experienced such erudition about sensitivity to local cultures and ideologies as I have in the last three months! Its one thing arguing away with commentators on an internet message board, quite another studying something like International Relations, or Political Science, in a group where everyone has different political affiliations. Tolerance, as I have learned, is certainly a very big virtue to have in such situations. This, coupled with reason, and you have a very potent brew for meaningful discourse, something that is a pleasant regularity in at least the Arts Faculty classes.

But the nature of such discourse can sometimes become too in-your-face, especially when conducted in an informal, out-of-class setting, where you miss the moderating skills of an experienced teacher. People tend to argue without logic but nevertheless with supreme passion. Politics, though, is not merely confined as a theme of such discussions. Its ubiquitous presence in almost all of the university’s affairs can become quite overbearing for the apolitical, but not politically indifferent, student after a while.

Picture this for instance. At its main entrance, the Golden Jubilee Gate, the monument bearing the University’s name and motto was covered in political graffiti until this Monday, when it was finally wiped off as part of the cleanliness drive pursued because of the arrival of the Governor of Sindh. The main street light in front of this monument is still made invisible by flags of various political parties and a larger than life size election poster bearing a picture of the Pir of London, as Cowasjee calls him. However, in a university where at the time of admissions, a required affidavit proclaiming students non-involvement in any ‘political activities’ is sold by workers of the two predominant student parties themselves, this look of the University façade can hardly be considered something unexpected.

A more attention grabbing image is that of the hoard of juvenile and elderly beggars that have seemingly permanently camped at the Golden Jubilee Gate. One of the older ones has his wheelchair parked on the far left of the gate, from where he frantically calls out at every passer by. The children, in contrast, tend to beg in closely knitted groups, even counting their daily ‘earnings’ together. One of them, namely Savera, happens to be particularly chatty character. One day as I happen to be waiting for my car to pick me up, after some 15 minutes of persistent tries, she ended up narrating most of her life story to me in response to a modest attempt to dissuade her from begging.

Another permanent presence is that of child laborers. Not wanting to beg, this bunch will try to sell you small packets of tissues, or roses, when it’s February, or paper files, anything in short, that they can run a call for “10 rupee ka aik”. One of these lads probably aged 10 or thereabouts, carries around his stock of tissue papers packets in a school bag pack. Beggars and child laborers at gate of city’s largest, country’s 2nd largest public university, a seat of higher learning for one, a symbol of gross inequality for the other: is this an irony, a misrepresentation or just a candor reflection of the wider disparity that’s engulfed this country, I’m not sure I’d like to decide yet.

Because, as I keep discovering, while this visage is certainly unsettling to a great extent, it actually belies the otherwise rich history and tradition the university annals boast of. Its large student strength, distinguished faculty, successful HEC rankings, research credentials and graduates employed in a host of professional spheres, all this points to a system which is functional, and successful to considerable degree. It may appear anachronistic in many respects, but that’s not reason enough to dismiss it entirely. There’s much about this institute that’s wrong, and a lot of this wrong is beyond my capacity as a student to change. But there’s always reason to hope and to cherish the good that is at hand.

Image Credit: Wikipedia, released in the public domain by copyright holder

21 Comments so far

  1. obiwankenobe on March 6th, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    Thank you Zainub for posting entry this though it was too long. I attended KU for 4 years in late 90’s and it was the best time of my life. There were same problems in those days but still it was all worth it. May be you should cover its main library in future and post some of the pics. For years, I was the first one to enter into library at 830 am and was among last to leave it at 4:30 pm. And some depts at KU really had good standards at least 10 years ago, out of 80-90 students of my batch, 9-10 are now PhD from Europe/US, 30-40 are MS and 10+ are MBA and half of the class is working abroad in high tech. Not bad for such a place that had so many problems.

  2. balma on March 6th, 2008 @ 8:19 am

    Dear Zainub Radvi,
    Thank you for such a nice post. Good to see you back.
    I have been to KU campus may be a few times. Not a bad palce at all, but what I hate about it is that there is almost no concept of research there…may be except IBA and HEJ and may be marine biology depts.
    I was there once in 1980 and whole campus seemed to shut down at 2 PM. Next time I was there was in 1993 to check out HEJ. Some of us had donated the first modem at KU to HEJ (I guess). Ata ur Rahman was an able administrator.
    Thanks for writing about the university again.

    P.S. I wouldn’t be Balma if I didn’t say this: you said private elitest university…. did you go to Greenwich…it is a pretty trashy kachraa place. I wouldn’t write home about it… Whole campus is just one house!

  3. balma on March 6th, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    Also, Zainub, don’t complain about dirty toilets at KU. Wait till you visit toilet at any Masjid in Karachi… i swear our Masjids have the dirtiest toilets….and this after ‘safaai nisf iman hae’…agar rubaa iman hotee, to maa’loom nahi’n aur kitnay ganday toilets hotay!

  4. HITMAN (hitman) on March 6th, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    wow, ur article just reminded me my 4 years(1999-2002/2003) in KU. It was really a golden & unforgettable period.

  5. shoaib on March 6th, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    Good and informative post Zainub. I always say jis nay university mai nahee parha us nay taleem mukumal hee nahee kee. Its always give you lot of exposure and thoughts. Despite all the odds that our universities have, they are worth to study. Higher education is more of every ones personal business and they more the use the reference material they can excel in their career.
    Regarding the toilets which some of the friends just mentioned, they are not limited to universities or masjids, even if you go to airports, you will see the same smelly restrooms. Its our national apathy that they are not cleaned properly and we dont want to do as as we do at our homes.

  6. mqpasta on March 6th, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

    Well written! an excellent post.

  7. بستنی (wasiq) on March 8th, 2008 @ 9:44 am

    happy womens day….the guys missed you a lot….iam not sure if i should say welcome back and sionara….anyways i always hope for the best….but let me tell you that in this new wordpress format all following comments will drop into my inbox as well just as they drop in yours so in a way you have lost……cheers!

  8. Adnan Siddiqi (adnansiddiqi) on March 8th, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    just Rs. 12 for 2 oily, golden, hot parathas and a handsome serving of halwa and bhujya and Rs. 7 for very nearly the best doodh patti you can hope to have!

    Rs.7 for a cup of tea ? Things were not so expensive in campus back in 90s but then that was 90s and it’s 2008. For a student,this is still very expensive and here student means gals and guys who come from area of nazimabad,paposh,FB area and Liaquatabad and other middle class and lower middle class areas who covers 70% population of KU.

    Anyways, good post little girl!

  9. بستنی (wasiq) on March 9th, 2008 @ 1:53 am

    i believe what siddiqi sab is trying to say is that he is also a foreign qualified from uk….
    explanation:Baita foreign otho,foreign nashta karo aur foreign niklo….warna point miss hogi.


    buss hanger chordh kay herr jaga perdhey hoein gay….lol!

    woh beetay din yaad hain
    betaay teray sung jo……

  10. IUnknown (iunknown) on March 9th, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    KU, a place to be , if u want to enjoy ur life :D
    U meet different types of ppl there.

    I am not from KU but i have been to picnic , arranged by KU , wid my KU friends and then i knew WAT PICNIC IS?

    Excellent place after all. A few more posts like that will remove all political fights at KMB.

    There is no research in pakistan apart from LUMS and GIK . Thats the main reason of we being far behind the rest of the world.

    @adnan: itni costly chai? when did it happen?

  11. Adnan Siddiqi (adnansiddiqi) on March 9th, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

    Wasiq of Jamshed Town: bhaye Isi mitti(milawat wali aur toti photi road se bahar nikli huwi) me paida huway aur Inshallah isi mey Miley gey. Hamara UK to KU hee hay. Bus sirf haroof-e-Tahajji ka Ulat Pher hey.

  12. extiinct on March 10th, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    Love your post zainub! Just graduated in december from KU and even with the love/hate relationship with the place, I miss it already!

    The long walk to class, eating at different places, friends from different departments, the uncertainty and turmoil etc all made up for a very colorful and memorable time there.

  13. بستنی (wasiq) on March 11th, 2008 @ 4:20 am

    Thankyou siddiqi sab…sounds so great…still i’d say" ask not what jamshed town can do for you ask what you can do for jamshed town.."
    All my unnecesary yet mandatory visits to the uk over the years seemed a complete waste of time and energy and iam so sure that they must hate me as well since my small steps unintentionally took away their freedom to clash freely….

    ps;i thought we had to climb the tree first…was too exhusted..:-p

    should have known better than to cheat a friend
    wasted chance that i’ve been given…..
    never gonna dance again the way i danced with uuuuuuuu!

  14. balma on March 12th, 2008 @ 6:45 am

    Wasiq: You sound like White Homesexuals Attempting Music!
    Shape up.

  15. بستنی (wasiq) on March 12th, 2008 @ 7:09 am

    balma jee that ought to be so un Ukrainian or whatever….anyways just for you…

    G7 kay herr stop(sataap) per mil jaein gay hamsafarrr
    jo bike pey ghar choord dey dhonday ussi ko ……..!

  16. balma on March 12th, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    Never mind Wasiq boy… I guess you didn’t get the joke on WHAM.

    And, what is G7?
    I am Lee Market to Landhi Special Bus kind-a-guy.

  17. بستنی (wasiq) on March 13th, 2008 @ 7:31 am

    iam not very sure what’s going on these days but historically speaking….G7 used roam around freely inside the campus and take the convicts right from the arts and *****craft department straight to tower…and its speed suggests that it was developed by NASA before pathfinder probe.
    Btw,Balma jee if you do not like my original song let me sing for you the almost anthem that used to echo around the campus especially during the exams it helped me defeat the great nepoleon and gave a very tough time to the black rod himself…..

    Perdha nahein mein ney pura sal
    abb kya ho ga mera hal..?
    D aaay ga E aaay gaa
    baatch naa paoun gaa iss bar……:-p

  18. balma on March 13th, 2008 @ 8:05 am

    Thanks for G7 story. Since I didn’t go to any college/univ in Pakistan, I am not aware of these sub cultures or sub anthems!

  19. jumanji on March 14th, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    Was a student during 1985-88 only want to remember the good times of KU. When there was no restriction one can vsist at any time. Public transport was allowed inside the University and there was a New IBA point bus donated by NDFC. They were so particular about it that never accomodated any other student. Then there were Hino Buses usually allocated to Nazimabad, North Nazimabad & FB Area students. The Cafe De Point and its adjecent Hut Hotel. The hut was managed by a elderly person who was alone and lived there. He migrated and never married. He was such a die hard fan of Pakistani Cricket that if someone utter a single word agaisnt Pakistani team he ran after him. I remember during 1987 cricket series when Pakistan was winning we have a practical exam but was allowed relaxation till the match is over. We all gather in the hut listening radio commentary after the win Chacha provided free cup of tea to all who were present there. There was flying Saucer in cafe de point a favorite of so many. Chacha died cuz the city was under the grip of violence and no one reaches there to take him to hospital. Playing tape ball cricket on the corridor which linked Statistics & Physialogy.

    Now I did not visit so many restrictions,no offense to the students.

  20. بستنی (wasiq) on March 15th, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

    Balma jee…we were never able to develop or establish the sub culture anywhere in karachi due to the paratha wala’s and you know who…

  21. بستنی (wasiq) on March 24th, 2008 @ 7:45 am

    believe it or not…according to GeoNews the UK is closed today for yesterday’s pakistan day…..all exams and interviews are cancelled.

    Hum bhi kya saada thay hum ney bhi samajh rakha tha
    gham ay douran sey judaa hai gham ay jaana jaana…..

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