To depict a loveless and macabre world—a world of the scarecrow acting as the Lord of blood-thirsty crows, of the harridan decked out as a beauty queen . . . a world of debased flesh and servile manners. . . . This bitter vision of reality may not be the whole truth.
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the art of Sadequain
IT IS RAINING IN Karachi as I write this, an ugly, punishing rain that returns with increasing fury every year. This year, as every year, the monsoon is supposed to be the “worst ever,” and, like every year, the city’s flimsy slums and crater-riven roads will collapse with the weight of the rain. On these deadly rainy days, the water that falls from above meets the sewage that bubbles up from below, both equally careless about the location of their union. Some people will lose everything this very day and leave, returning to villages with no opportunity but less despair. Others will arrive in their place. This constant count of coming and going is the beat of Karachi, a city that grew suddenly out of the coastal desert when India’s Muslims needed a place to land in 1947.
In this migrant city, the hooded crows have always stayed, multiplying wildly to become the most common bird. A few years ago, a reader wrote a letter to the editor at Dawn, the English newspaper where I am a columnist, saying that if you want to estimate the filth and neglect of a city, count the crows. One study did, and found the letter writer’s words to be entirely true: when humans do not attend to waste and carrion, the crows nourish on it, multiplying with feral glee. Crows are everywhere in Karachi, damaging the windshields of jets parked at Jinnah Airport or lasciviously stealing the one piece of bread a beggar is eating on the side of the road. They also perch atop the giant garbage heap next to our house, wading carelessly in the dirty puddles, picking out bits of wire and plastic to fashion their very own urban nests.
Read more from this issue here.
When I was a toddler, my grandmother sang a song in which a pretend peacock danced in my palm, ate imaginary food, drank imaginary water, and then flew into my armpit for a round of tickles and laughter. I had never seen a peacock or anything close to it, so I imagined it would be much like the crows. When I began to speak, I referred to crows as mor, the Hindi word for “peacock.” I was immediately corrected, but the adults could not understand why I would make such a mistake.
Back then I lived in a house with a driveway that led down to a black iron gate that stood for status and for fear. In Karachi, you had a gate if you had something to protect and if you feared the encroaching lawlessness of the avaricious city that lay beyond. The idea was that a house with a gate could be your sanctuary.
When I was three or four, a baby crow fell from its nest and onto the driveway. Crows could get into any sanctuary with or without a gate. It followed that when the baby fell on the hard cement, the crow mother immediately called for a crow mob. The pinkish frail body of the baby crow was surrounded by one, two, then five, then seven crows. When the errand boy tried to leave that day, the mob descended on his head, and he had to use a piece of cardboard to protect himself. Karachi crows are adept at organizing mobs when faced with dangerous situations, and almost all situations in Karachi are dangerous. The crow mob gathered at our place soon overtook the driveway, making such a din and swooping down so ferociously that everyone just sat confined at home. At dusk the mad cawing finally stopped. When we went outside, the baby crow was gone.
ONE SUMMER, WHEN MY TWIN BROTHER and I were eight or nine years old, he was invited to a birthday party by one of his classmates. Both of us attended Zoroastrian schools, well-regarded institutions that wealthy benefactors had built over a hundred years before. Theirs was an ancient religion, one that understands the world to be in constant tension between good and evil, light and dark, and perhaps even crow and peacock. Charity and service are crucial to their beliefs, giving the good an edge over omniscient evil. The population of Zoroastrians (or Parsis, as they are called in the subcontinent) had dwindled over the years since partition, and now Muslim students like us benefited from the good acts of Zoroastrian forebears.
Zal, the boy who had invited my brother, lived in a different part of the city, closer to the sea than our own. When the day came, all of us—my father, mother, myself, and my brother—piled into the car. The plan was that we would drop him at the party and then explore the area, for even then, Karachi was too large for us and the distance too far to be able to return home. On the way there, my brother was quiet as he sat holding the neatly wrapped present, not at all giddy with anticipation for the party. When we got there and it was time for my brother to go inside, he began to cry. Suddenly, he didn’t want to go. He begged me to go with him, but I was not about to take on the embarrassment of a crying brother and crashing a boy’s party. I refused and eventually my parents convinced him to go, however reluctantly.
Photographs by Insiya Syed
Decades later, he told me why. Even though we were not permitted to talk about religion at our school, he had heard from another schoolmate that when there is a death in the Zoroastrian community, they laid the dead person inside a well for crows to eat. A day or two before the party, this schoolmate had said that Zal lived close to such a well, and that Zal’s mother had once found a crow carrying a human finger around their front porch. My brother didn’t believe the schoolmate, who notably was not invited to the party. But when we got to Zal’s house and it came time to walk through this same front porch, he choked, terrified of seeing an errant thumb, finger, or toe.
The crows of Karachi do feed on the Zoroastrian dead. The burial rites of Zoroastrians—a religion that dates back to at least the fifth century bce—were supposed to be kept secret. The Greek historian Herodotus exposed the secret when he wrote about the crows in his Histories. Zoroastrians believe that a corpse is unclean and must be disposed of immediately from the world of living humans. For this task of disposal, ancient Zoroastrians built ossuaries, large towerlike structures where the dead would be placed so that the sun, carrion birds like crows and vultures, and other elements would dispose of the flesh.
One of the few last operational ossuaries—referred to as the Tower of Silence—is in Karachi. It is indeed close to where my brother’s friend once lived, an intentional plan because the community wanted to own the homes around their burial site to maintain its secrecy. Photographs of it show a circular structure made of cement, about two or three stories tall with an opening on one side. A cement ramp leads up into the circular structure. Crows, along with vultures and kites, hover around the top of the structure when something is in it for them. It is a strange mix, the practice of an ancient ritual in a wild and young city, the ubiquitous carrion crows performing the task of transformation from the darkness of death into the continued vitality of life.
THE CROWS CAN KILL TOO, or at least try. In the summer of 2010, I was in Karachi for a family wedding. It was a stiflingly hot summer, the viselike grip of heat so intense that you felt suffocated as the temperature rose to a record-breaking forty-eight degrees Celsius. The hottest temperature in the world that year—a fiery fifty-five degrees Celsius—was recorded only a few hundred miles inland from Karachi, ready to singe everything alive. If you took shade under a rare tree or the shadow of a building, you faced a deluge of crow excrement—lots of crows means lots of crow shit. On YouTube, a video circulated of a crow that had figured out how to operate a tap for a drink of water. Such was the water scarcity in the city that the real miracle of the video was not the crow’s adeptness, but that it had found a tap with flowing water.
The wedding was held outside, the food prepared out in the open air as it always is. The crows sat on their electric poles overlooking the venue as preparations were made. If an opportunity presented itself, they did not hesitate: a piece of meat for a skewer, a half-chopped onion, old bits of lettuce and tomato, all went one by one to the crows who commanded the territory. So it went until after dusk, when the crows melted into the darkness and the guests—aunties stuffed in silks and uncles in suits, kids in ruffled dresses—all poured into the venue, fanning themselves. The groom came, then the bride, and finally the food.
If anyone had worried about its safety, the concerns were invisible as the crowd of guests dove into the pots and platters to fill their plates. I did too, and I paid for it the next day, sick with one of the worst stomach viruses I’ve ever had. It could have been anything of course—the water, the meat, the milky dessert—but I blamed the crows for leaving traces of their saliva as they wrested bits of food to carry away.
Photographs by Insiya Syed
DESPITE THEIR ENCUMBRANCE ON HUMAN life, the crows cawing away are the soundtrack to Karachi, and so to my childhood. The crazy cawing was the backdrop to when I first learned to ride a bike, when I sat for exams, when I played with my dolls. One crow visited my bedroom window every single afternoon; I once opened my window and tried to touch him, but he disappeared fast, fading into the crowd of other crows hanging out at the electric poles that lined the main road. I remember looking at that seemingly perpetual gathering when my grandfather died. I was sixteen and until then he had been a constant in my life. The crows were there as always, still meeting and parting, equally interested in the living and the dead.
Karachi in 2022 is ecologically barren and careworn. Every single corner of the city seems to have been claimed by urban sprawl, haphazard stocky buildings with homes above and shops below, vast cavernous malls with air conditioning that blows hot air into the already hot city. Crows ply their busy and obnoxious existence amid these structures, their nests now made mostly of plastic bags whose forever remnants clog the city’s sidewalks and drains. No one is trying to use less plastic here, not even the crows. Some even seem to eat the stuff and continue living nevertheless, absorbing it into their hardy and persistent systems. That is their best quality, my father always insists: they are adaptable to anything.
MY MOTHER WAS A BIRD LOVER. In the odd chance a bird other than a crow or mynah or sparrow appeared before us, she would always point it out. As children we pestered her for a bird to keep at home. She never said yes. Karachi streets are filled with vendors of all sorts who will accost you at traffic lights, begging for you to roll down your windows to the fumes of exhaust. At one point these vendors had begun to trap wild birds, each cage with ten or twenty or thirty sparrows or mynahs, the former sometimes dyed gaudy shades of yellow or pink. The vendors took money to “free” these birds and secure their own livelihood, but we thought of them as potential pets. It was a scam, of course, because buying the “freedom” of birds only made them into a commodity and thus future trapped birds. The only commonly seen birds exempt from this capitalist invention were crows.
Only my mother stood up to the crows, a solitary fighter for the rights of smaller birds. She realized that an exclusive spot had to be chosen if the small birds could be fed. She chose the upstairs balcony—a busy bird thoroughfare where there had never been a bird feeder. She set up an old wooden table with two terra-cotta clay dishes. One she filled with water early in the morning. Between three and four p.m., just before the call for late afternoon Asr prayers, she would come out with a bag of birdseed and a black cane. She’d fill the second dish with birdseed but, unlike in the morning, she stayed, watching like a sentry as the sun began its descent into the horizon. At first, not many birds came, and those who did danced around the dish, suspiciously eyeing the birdseed but not eating any. The mistrust that is required to survive in Karachi had long been bred into the avian gene pool as it had into the human. When the entitled crows came by, and very many did, my mother lifted the cane and forced them away.
It took nearly a week for the small birds to show up, but once they did, they kept coming. The variety was shocking: the usual sparrows were there but also canaries, woodpeckers, koels, and, amazingly, parrots—neon green, brightly colored parrots. Several times she even saw the magical hoopoe bird with its beautiful black-and-white crest. The hoopoe, or hudhud as we know it in Pakistan, is referred to in the Koran as the envoy of the Prophet Solomon (Suleyman). It was the hoopoe who passed messages between Suleyman and the Queen of Sheba, a story also recounted in the Persian poem The Conference of the Birds.
Photographs by Insiya Syed
All the while, my mother watched with delight, paying no heed to the endless beeping of horns and the noxious fumes of garbage fires lit at the end of the day. If an interloping crow appeared, she made sure to frighten it away, thwarting the invasions that crows are known for that push smaller birds away from food and water sources and even destroy their nests. Mayhem was averted, but the crows continued to watch, pairs of them (they tend to operate in pairs) perched in the bougainvillea bushes, waiting for opportunity and unaccustomed to subordination. When it was dusk or when the birdseed was gone, she got up and left. The crows could forage the birdseed that had spilled on the ground.
Down the lane, a different practice began. On the rooftop of a home five or six houses away from ours, a woman began to appear at around the same time as was customary for my mother to feed the birds on our balcony. The woman, likely a kitchen maid in the house, brought with her a plastic bucket. From this bucket she began to fling slices and slivers of meat. The hooded crows and kites that surrounded her lunged and lurched as she tossed the meat bits, her cotton dupatta tied around her face. As soon as the bucket was empty, she left. When I asked my mother why she did this, she told me that some people believed that doing so kept dark forces, misfortunes, bad luck at bay. It represented a strange duality on our little Karachi side street, one woman contesting the dominion of the crows while another chose appeasement.
In 2015, my mother passed away. She was there and then suddenly she was gone—and with her, the songbirds and parrots, all the little visitors she entertained. My father still puts out the birdseed in the afternoons, but he does not have the patience or temperament to sit and wait on the birds, and sometimes he forgets. Natural selection, he supposes, should be permitted to have its way. Down the street, the ritual at the neighbor’s house continues, carried out according to the instructions of the owners, suspicious newcomers to Karachi from some faraway village.
In Sufi poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘At ̧t ̧ār’s The Conference of the Birds, the enlightened Hoopoe says to the birds of the world, “I’d rather die deceived by dreams than give my heart to home and trade and never live.”