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