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Two girls sitting by a rainy window, one has her head in her hands in fear, the other takes a selfie happily

Rehmat or Zehmat? Learning to Cope with Trauma From Rain in a Pakistani Metropolis

In Karachi, where monsoon season often means days without electricity, flooded roads and property damage, is rain truly a rehmat (blessing) from nature or ongoing zehmat (misery) for city dwellers?

I was six years old and there was no electricity at our house.

 

We had heard in the news that a cyclone will be visiting Karachi as rains lashed through our balcony, colliding with its edge from where we would often look onto the main road. The 2A Cyclone of 1999 in May, I later learned, affected more than six thousand people in Pakistan’s Sindh province. But despite the endless rain, I wasn’t terrified because of the privilege of having loved ones around, and of course the city’s patron saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi. It is generally believed by the residents of Karachi that his shrine, situated at the sea, saves Karachi from all sea storms and diverts cyclones.

 

Karachi’s neighboring coasts however aren’t that lucky, and neither are their lands.

Rain has been a part of literature for eons and finds its place in different languages in South Asia as well. 

 

Growing up, we listened to many songs both from Pakistan and India about rain and the joy as well as the loneliness it brings. One poem that lives in my head was by a poet named Ismail Meerathi, called ‘Barish Ka Pehla Qatra’ (The First Drop of Rain), describing the importance of a first step. 

For someone whose worst fear is to get stranded in rain, I still do consume a lot of music and literary pieces which talk about its beauty and melancholy. 

From Pakistani singer Ali Azmat’s electrifying Garaj Baras’, to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dancing in Barso Re Megha’ I would take pretty photos from my bedroom window and use the song feature on Instagram, an erratic feature in my city, and add them to my stories as “Aao Gay Jab Tum O Sajna, Angna Phool Khilen ge, Barsay ga Savan, Barsay ga Savan jhoom jhoom kay” (When you shall visit my love, the flowers will bloom and rain showers shall dance). Saavan, Baarish, Megha, Barsaat, are just some of the words from a vast vocabulary of Urdu/Hindi dedicated to the description of rain.

It is during the outpour that a very painful linguistic migration occurs: the Urdu word رحمت (Rehmat: blessing) gets a nuqta (dot) on the first letter changing it from ray to zay (ر to ز ). Thus transforming it to the word زحمت (Zehmat: trouble/misery) reflecting the misery caused by the state's callousness and neglect.

Monsoons, which are often led by my least favorite, thunderstorms, are a sign of a good crop and are celebrated in villages in different ways across Pakistan. The urban dwellers especially in Karachi, who didn’t receive any rain for long periods in yesteryears, also feel a certain joy when dark clouds occupy the skies and pour down upon them. I used to be such a dweller till an incident changed me permanently.

 

My deceased uncle would often not eat mangoes till it rained because he believed that the true mangoes do not ripen until it rains. This is an absolute hyperbole but were he alive today he would deprive himself of mangoes, for I would constantly pray for rains to not arrive in Karachi. 

I can't stand the rain

Over the last few decades in Karachi, rains have caused havoc because of the city’s infrastructure, terrible drainage, and bad governance, to count a few. Urban planner and architect, Arif Hasan has been addressing the problems with Karachi’s drainage system for a very long time but it seems that his pleas fall on deaf ears.

Karachi is perfectly defined by the word sprawling and is home to 18 million people as of 2018, ranking as the third most populous city in the world only next to Beijing and Shanghai. 

Getting stranded in rain here is one of the worst experiences, with roads inundated with water, and gutters overflowing, sometimes without their covers, all geared to swallow whoever steps onto them, and electrical wire poles awaiting the passers-by to be taken away.

Getting stranded in rain here is one of the worst experiences, with roads inundated with water, overflowing gutters, sometimes without their covers, geared to swallow whoever steps onto them, and electrical wire poles awaiting the passers-by to be taken away.

Till 2012, I knew very well that if I ever got stuck in rain, I would be able to get out because my father would eventually come and pick me up or there would be some alternatives available. He would be raging with his own anxiety in case I was out without a ‘purpose’ like going to school, but I knew eventually I would reach the safety of my home. 

His unexpected death in 2012 changed that forever because then I was absolutely on my own to deal with this ordeal. 

Stranded and Drenched

Unlike in Western countries where issuing storm warnings is a usual practice, Karachi only receives one if there is a chance of a cyclone developing in the Arabian Sea, so relying solely on weather apps may not be the best way to go about life here. 

It was just another hot and humid Karachi morning in September, and I was just getting done with my classes at the university. Around 1 pm, it started to rain heavily, and the remaining classes got cancelled.

 

Within minutes, there was a lot of water in the campus and getting to the main gate to leave was a daunting task. Waiting was also not an option because the rain just wouldn’t stop. My friend accompanied me to the gate and from there I was supposed to take a Chinqi (a six-seater motorbike vehicle) to a major stop and take another one to the stop near my home. Due to rain, Chinqis weren’t operational, so I had to rely on a bus, except they too weren’t showing up.

 

After waiting for 15 minutes in the pouring rain, one bus finally arrived and I just got inside. The journey from point A to B which usually took ten minutes took thirty minutes and upon reaching it, I realized there was absolute chaos.

I was drenched from head to toe and being on the first day of my period was only adding more discomfort as I got more conscious of my clothes now sticking to my skin. Trying to squint my eyes to see through my spectacles, I attempted to make out the names of buses from afar as their bright colors merged to form an old painting.

 

Amidst the confusion, a woman slipped and fell into the water on the road with people rushing to help her stand.

 

My anxiety of reaching home increased manifold and I started to race up the stairs of the tall, yellow pedestrian bridge, in an attempt to figure out one bus which I could take. As I reached its top, hoping to figure out the bus, the grey clouds burst again with a loud thunder which made me forget how to breathe. The missed calls on my small bar phone also made me worry incessantly as it became difficult to operate it in the rain, and even more difficult on the bus. 

Running from one end of the bridge to another, I felt defeated and worried that I wouldn’t reach home that day. Some 20 minutes later I, fortunately, spotted one bus which I normally skipped but at such a time of crisis, was my best bet. 

Finally, after getting off at the stop and taking a Rickshaw charging way more than usual, I headed home, unable to walk the way because roads were absolutely submerged under water. I was just glad to have made it home as I put my various books in different places around the apartment so they may dry up – a kind university senior had donated their books to me and I was not in a position to buy new ones. 

Astraphobia Across Borders

If this university incident introduced the astraphobia in my life, water entering our apartment through windows led me to wake up in a fright in the middle of the night to this day if it rains. I found myself trying to tightly shut the windows on a rainy night in my dorm room in Münster, Germany when I moved there in 2019 for my Masters, despite knowing that no rain water would flood my room. 

While the global North may have their electrical wiring underneath, in Karachi we still have tall electrical poles whose loose live wires are often on the lookout to shock someone especially in the rains, and transformer-feeders (a device which provides electricity to the buildings it is connected to) tripping as soon as it rains leading to power outages. After all these decades, Karachi dwellers seem to have adapted to this, but the difficulties are hard to get used to.

Electrical wires criss-cross the streets of Karachi
Electrical wires in Karachi. Photo by Zahra Salah Uddin

When I was in New York City for a fellowship in 2017, my first ever trip outside Pakistan, I learned that umbrellas were not a mere accessory, rather people would actually carry them wherever they went. I noticed the same in Kathmandu in 2018 as well as in Vancouver in 2019, all cities which receive a lot of rain and caused immense panic within me.

 

When it rained in NYC while I was outside, I rushed inside a famous lingerie store I spotted just to not get drenched for a presser I had to cover later, and truth be told, now that I see the thunderstorms in videos, I am glad that nature remained kind to me all the times I got lost there. In Vancouver, where rains again aren’t a novelty, I panicked on the day I was to leave for home post-conference because it was raining a lot and I felt I would not get the taxi to reach in time, and would encounter a long traffic jam as I did in Karachi, but none of this happened. 

Instagram Post or Mayhem? It's a Question of Class

There is often a joke about Karachi that if it rains, the entire social media feed of its residents is filled with pictures and videos of the rain and thunder illuminating the sky. However, not all areas in the city have the luxury to have an Instagrammable rain, with a steaming cup of chai in front of the rain with a string of hashtags like #Blessed #FinallyItRained #Petrichor.

 

Most parts of the city end up in mayhem, and perhaps it is only the select few whose privilege allows them to enjoy rain without worrying about water flooding their houses, their loved ones being stranded on the roads or falling prey to live electrical wiring. 

When people here watched the Oscar-winning film Parasite, a certain scene which captured the socioeconomic class privilege was about the aftermath of heavy rain, which robs away the accommodation from the worker while for his employer it becomes a tidbit of a conversation with someone of their own group. Since then, that scene is often quoted whenever the privileged lot is seen dumping loads of pictures of themselves on social media enjoying the rain.

 

That doesn’t mean that the less priviledged do not look forward to rain or don’t enjoy it- they do. Their kids also jump in the rain, they also celebrate it in whatever ways they can, but more often than not their enjoyment is tainted by the misery the rain brings as well. 

Although socioeconomic class is at the center of my politics, I do ponder the ease with which rich cishet men are able to enjoy the rain as opposed to others in urban settings. Last year, there was a viral video on social media of two men who were gliding through the rain waters in a posh locality in Karachi, splashing it onto others as their 4×4 vehicle to which their tube was tied, roared past. As insensitive as the video was, it did also raise another dividing line following class, which is gender. 

Anyone who doesn’t look like a cisgender male or appears queer may feel unsafe in a public space here after rain, because clothes clinging to skin only make one more vulnerable on the streets of Karachi and only considered acceptable in the likes of hit Bollywood songs like ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’. South Asian double-standards.

Before I watched Parasite, I often wondered if I was the only one who panicked so badly at the sound of rain and would ask my friends if they also yearned for rain. It wasn’t that I prayed for scorching sun and heat waves; rather I would always hope that everyone is safely at home when and if it had to rain, an impossibility owing to how capitalism works. I asked people around me if they too felt a certain kind of trauma associated with rain in Karachi and while many people around me also planned their routine according to a possible rain situation, some didn’t, and it was perhaps because of the respective social classes they belonged to. 

Change of Heart

Will I get to enjoy rain in this lifetime again? Maybe yes and perhaps no. 

I do smile when I hear people shout out from joy when it starts to rain, although it is often short lived because soon enough they are doing whatever they must to save their homes, shops, vehicles, or just themselves from the pitter-patter. I also made many videos of the thunderstorms from my dorm-room window in Münster, because I knew I was safe.

 

Growing up, I saw the violent side of my city as well, but I was quickly able to heal the trauma it brought because I wasn’t up against Mother Nature. Now, as we see the reality of climate change before our eyes, and global warming no longer only limited to a term taught in school textbooks, I can see cities like Karachi drowning each year, because they were never built nor prepared for heavy rains and urban flooding is perhaps just the tip of the iceberg.  

 

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