Sunday Traditions and a Moment’s Peace
Karachi is a city of juxtaposition; dusty winds and the Arabian Sea, towering office condominiums and colonial buildings, fancy yachts and rickety fishing boats, gated communities and overpopulated slums. Contrasts are not just structural and physical, but also cultural.
I moved here from a sleepy corner of Islamabad, and I found Karachi rushed. The people were busy, competitive and dissatisfied; almost unable to appreciate life. It all seemed like one large glorified rat-race until I looked a bit closer.
I would often spot people swanning around various empty plots or crossing roads to various roundabouts and sprinkling bird feed to the flocks of pigeons who seemed to be lounging around waiting for them. I was intrigued. Pigeon racers? Bird owners? Was there an underground movement involving pigeon feeding? Was this a Boy Scouts thing? What was going on?
As a child, in the late 1980s, my fathers posting to London had familiarized me with pigeons, much to my disdain. My dad and my younger sister, Sara with an “h”, loved going to Trafalgar Square and feeding the pigeons. I was never a fan.
Those pigeons, with their red eyes and frantic wings, looked downright frightening. I would begrudgingly fling bird-seed from afar, hoping that no nefarious avian would land on my head.
Time has a strange way of romanticizing even the worst of days, and my physical distance from home meant that I clung to every memory of time spent with my father.
That being said, seeing the sheer number of people feeding pigeons at various junctions felt like an anomaly. It didn’t seem to fit in with my admittedly biased view of this city. It was a surprise to see that people had the time, let alone the inclination, to go and feed birds. Pigeons are known as the rats of the sky and are an acquired taste, literally. So was there a secret I wasn’t in on?
I needed answers, and Manzur Hussain was happy to oblige. Hussain is a bird-feed seller and in a bizarre way, he reminded me of the Bird Lady in Mary Poppins. A quiet beatific soul, he sits from morning to dusk at the pigeon ground opposite Sheikhs Palace, DHA Phase 5, with sacks of grain and lentils. On any given day he can be found there, cross-legged with a weighing scale in front of him.
While filling a bowl of baajra for my son, who was trying desperately to make the lazy pigeons fly, Hussain told me that he’s been in this line of work for the last three years. It isn’t a very profitable enterprise, from what I gathered, but he makes an honest living.
Being a novice in the world of feeding pigeons, I asked him his thoughts on the pigeon feeding habits of average Karachiites. He was of the opinion that most of the people feed pigeons in order to give sadka, in order to avert the evil eye, while others do it for sawab, to please god. Apparently, it is mentioned in the Quran that to do so is to do good in the eyes of the Almighty.
Now I’m not here for a religious debate. My personal opinion is if you believe that you are doing good or averting evil by feeding pigeons then, by all means, do so. There are worse ways to achieve said goals.
I thanked Hussain for the baajra and my son and I walked onto the pigeon ground. It was a peaceful, mellow Saturday morning in Karachi. A slight sea breeze stirred the dry air. Despite the busy road adjacent to us, all we could hear was the cooing of the hundreds of pigeons there.
I carefully tossed a handful of birdseed to show my son how it’s done. He decided to up-end the bowl on the ground and spread the seeds around with his tiny hands. That was the end of that.
As we turned to walked back to our car, the first brave pigeon softly swooped overhead and landed near the bird seed. After a minute or so, a few more joined in and then, almost suddenly, the entire flock of birds took to the skies.
My son was mesmerized. Looking at him, I understood why maybe some people, regardless of sadka or sawab, would come and feed the birds every so often. In this busy, fast-paced city, it is all too easy to miss such simple yet spiritually satisfying moments. I didn’t know that something so inconsequential to me would mean so much to my child. Yet maybe that shows us what the important things in life really are.
30 years ago, my father, Sarah, and I fed pigeons half a world away. Now, I do the same with my son every Sunday. It has nothing to do with Karachi or city dwelling. It’s a moment for us to forget about deadlines, family issues, work, stress, school, and a myriad other issues. We get to be present; truly living in a moment. These small, simple minutes may sometimes be more meaningful than anything else. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it makes all the difference.