Mixtape for the City
I SIT HERE WRITING in this in a city where it is always raining.
I moved to London in the summer of 2017, and the past year and a half in this strange and wonderful place has settled, like dust on a tabletop, into layers of stories, songs, and sensations that clutter the back of my mind. I write down the exact shade of London’s sunsets in the pages of my journal, scribble on my palms the earnest ache of my ribcage after a breathless night of dancing, so I don’t forget any of it. I have grown to love this city, her electric-blue-eyeliner nights and caffeine mornings. And yet, whenever I feel alone in this urban mess, when I can feel the hollow of homesickness pulling at my stomach, I find myself writing about my home home. Karachi, Pakistan. Southern baby, baking in desert heat, slick with Arabian Sea salt.
Even though it is not a place I inhabit physically, I revisit Karachi constantly through music. In the first few months after moving to London, I made countless playlists of all the songs I would listen to back home, just so I could feel like I wasn’t too far away. The Tamaashbeens, Sikandar Ka Mandar, Shajie, Poor Rich Boy, and more made up the soundtrack of my last two years in Karachi and, even now, as I’m on the train or running to catch a bus, shivering in London’s four o’clock darkness, listening to their songs makes me feel Karachi’s warmth and humidity once again.
By incorporating the sounds of the city directly into the fabric of their songs—inflections of Karachi’s early morning birds, the incessant horn-honking of the city’s frenzied commuters, or a neighborhood dog barking in the distance—these artists manage to capture the messy glimmer of Karachi within the three-minute walls of their songs, like catching ocean water in a jar. Their music reminds me of how it used to feel to wake up in a patch of midday sun, or when my dog would nuzzle her face into my leg to greet me in the morning. Their music has fashioned new mythologies around my old home, and has produced an endless stream of messy love letters to Karachi’s traffic lights, power lines, and petrol fumes.
In junior year of high school my friends and I discovered the growing independent music scene within our country—a scene specifically based in two of the largest cities, Lahore, and my hometown, Karachi. Suddenly, I was able to listen to songs that weaved stories through the same streets I had grown up in. It was such a new feeling, to hear these indie artists sing about ordinary things that I could relate to in such an intense way, like the awkwardness of young relationships, and the uncomfortable, albeit kind of beautiful, process of growing up.
Unlike the indie music I had consumed before, all of which was Western and securely populated with either American or British bands, these Pakistani artists were creating music about my own reality. They sang of issues pertinent to my life. The Tamaashbeens sang of South Asian familial expectations, navigating religion as an adolescent, and an unwillingness to grow up that so many of us have. Shajie wrote about mental health in a society that deems it taboo. Sikandar Ka Mandar created music about Pakistan’s history of corrupt governments, extremism, and its silencing of minority communities. Poor Rich Boy made songs about the special, painful experience of falling in love, with a shrewd awareness of their socio-economic privilege in comparison to the majority of their country’s population, which all rang uncomfortably true for my friends and me.
This music was so different from anything I had ever heard before. I felt as though these songs belonged to me. But only now can I look back and see how crucial this music was in cultivating my sense of home: the memories I have of Karachi are inextricably linked to this soundtrack. These songs, quite literally, taught me how to find beauty in a city that I had neglected, a place that I had pushed away and refused to understand. Karachi, on the surface, may not strike one as objectively pretty, swimming in the perpetual haze of petrol fumes from cars and motorbikes and minibuses, it is an urban desert burning slowly. Its skin is tattooed with buildings and bridges and semi-broken roads. It can be loud and chaotic and messy, overflowing with people.
But the music I listened to possessed a special kind of magic. It taught me to love my complex, broken, fearless city, and to treat it with the kind of reverence it deserves. The songs showed me how to find the perfect hour of the morning, around 7 AM, before Karachi has properly woken up, when the only things that have opened their eyes are the swarms of the early morning koel birds and my father, who I can hear making chai (his first cup of many) downstairs. I hear his teaspoon clink against the saucer again and again. In my mind, the kettle never seems to go off. This music showed me how to find perfection in 11 PM, sitting with my friends underneath the proud wingspan of two coconut trees, swapping songs and secrets and cigarette lighters like loose change.
Listening to these songs taught me to see the beauty in my idiosyncratic family, in sitting with my nearly 90-year-old grandfather, watching movies on mute and reading the subtitles because his hearing is nearly gone, frantically looking for the DVD remote in a state of panic when a sex scene comes on. I hear those songs and I am seventeen again, leaning outside my bathroom window on a school night, listening to Bollywood songs from the neighbor’s wedding seep into the heavy air, the streetlamp outside burning yellow-orange the whole night.
I am eighteen again, waking up before the sun does to go for halwa puri with people I love in a deep, uncomplicated way. The willingness of the flaky, fried dough to break between my fingers, the simplicity of the potato and spices. How uncomplicated is the morning’s first cup of chai, brown and strong and sweet? I can still feel the layer of sand that coats my cheeks as we sit on the rocks by the water, on the southern tip of this trembling city, watching the Arabian Sea like some kind of silent movie. The only thing separating us and Antarctica is salt water, you know?
The music takes me back to the backseat of adolescence, where I am squashed between teenage bodies in somebody’s car. An elbow is pressing into someone else’s thigh, and my mother keeps calling me, she is angry because it’s too late to be out in the city, and she won’t speak to me for three days if she sees me wearing that top. I am dragged back to school days, when the Monday morning toughness cuts against my teeth. My eyes burn from lack of sleep on my way to school, and everything smells of soap and teen sweat as I tie and re-tie my laces, draw on my hands with black ink, apply and re-apply strawberry chapstick. (Skipping classes and drinking tea in the canteen was my favourite thing to do with you, yaar). It may be strange to say, but these songs are responsible for so much of what I love back home. They celebrate these hushed, hidden moments of life that are so easy to miss, the soft, fleshy seconds of fleeting beauty, of love, that linger in these odd spaces. ❖