Shahid kept his pigeons in a coop on the roof of his home, nested somewhere in the anthill labyrinth of Karachi’s oldest neighbourhood, Lyari. The building was crumbling in places, but the coop was of the modern variety, replete with receding ledges and fluorescent lighting, and the birds’ white feathers and painted bodies were plump from a luxurious diet of wheat, black chickpeas and almonds. ‘Salman,’ ‘Govinda,’ ‘Katrina,’ thirty or forty Bollywood-named birds resided here, cajoled and trained for competition, groomed to be ‘flyers’ or ‘leaders’. A young, speckled Afghan pigeon can cost tens of thousands of rupees, sometimes payable in instalments. Upon arrival it is completely plucked. Helpless and flightless, the newly born bird is carefully fed and cared for. Forty days later its loyalty is measured in its consistent return from heights and distances difficult to discern with the naked eye.
Shahid often spent his evenings lying on his back, watching these birds, listening to their barely audible evening coo. Twenty-five nearby pigeon racers had organised a tournament for later that month. Shahid and the others had paid 4,000 rupees to enter; the owner of the bird that stayed in the air the longest would be declared the winner. First prize was a motorcycle, but Shahid hoped to win the third prize, a television. His friends and neighbours were all lovingly grooming their birds on nearby rooftops, tenderly feeding them ‘motor-on’ pills, his name for the amphetamine that would ensure the birds’ high flights. The pigeons were his most prized possession; every evening he initiated his eight-year-old son into the craft, as Mir Nihal did for Asghar in Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. But the pigeon racers of today aren’t the crumbling oligarchy of old. In fact they are new subjects, with unprecedented desires and novel political affiliations. On the cusp of an amorphous and ill-defined middle class, these are the new actors in the story of modern Karachi.