Of Lights

by | Jul 21, 2023

Hours before the New Year, a blackout fell upon the neighborhood. Electricity outages, of course, are expected in Karachi. With the ongoing gas shortage, electricity was even more coveted. If “the light” went, so would the electric stovetop, the fan, the air conditioner, the water heater, the television, the internet, the iron, the phone charger. Or what we, as a society, implicitly agree are the necessities of urban life. Since arriving in the city, I had resigned myself to adapt to the eccentricities of my new environment: feral cats bickering outside my bedroom window, cold showers, and late dinners. Leaving things as they were in a space that was familiar, yet not my own.

Even as a child, brief visits to Karachi were dotted with evenings when sudden darkness enveloped Nani’s creamsicle-colored living room. Without the whirring of the overhead fan, a blanket of humidity settled into the pitch black. In the weighty silence, we stumbled around for candles as sweat gathered on our upper lips. The bright blue of Mama’s Nokia phone (what would be called a brick in later years) competed with flickering candlelight, spilling an eerie glow over the orange walls and up the narrow stone stairs to the roof. At the top, we would be welcomed with the stubborn sea breeze, extending into our landlocked patch of the city. The pale moonlight stretched out across the concrete rooftop as we squeezed into two charpais. It occurs to me now that my recollections revolve around these moments waiting, lying, sitting, not quite sleeping, not really awake.

It occurs to me now that my recollections revolve around these moments waiting, lying, sitting, not quite sleeping, not really awake.

Mixed media drawing combining graphite, pen, brownish-red ink, and brush in pink on dark tan wove paper of a young woman sitting in a chair looking away from a window.

Against the Light (1907), Childe Hassam. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago

And so, some twenty years later, it felt fitting to find myself alone and in the dark on the most celebrated night of the year. It was late afternoon when the shaky overhead fan hummed to a stop. Generators in adjacent houses were startled awake by impatient homeowners as news came that the electric company was conducting maintenance down the street. I thought of the elaborate mehndi decorations spied through the gates of a house down the road. Plastic chandeliers hanging idly from a professional lighting truss, spotlights centered on nothing in particular. All awaiting further instructions. At least the fireworks would be put to good use. Our house, too, was appropriately and tastefully  decorated for a wedding: thin garlands of flowers hung from the doorways and ceilings, chili née Christmas lights brushed the house’s facade. Over the past few days, the usually quiet household now buzzed with panicked shouts of incomplete tasks and grunts of annoyed acknowledgment.

Sitting in a dark room, hours before guests were to arrive, I recalled seeing candles in the dining room once. Out the room and down the hall, I used my cellphone flashlight as a distant guide. The top shelf of the dining room hutch was filled with tall and short white candles, bought and subsequently tucked away for their pretentious simplicity. Buoyed by the candlelight, I felt a fleeting sense of purpose. I smiled and returned to my room. The generators sputtered more violently as if willing electricity through their convulsions alone, nobly rescuing bored families from the prospect of dim dinners and unchoreographed dances.

I dressed in the dark and waited, growing anxious as the first guests arrived at the gate. No sooner had I heard their laughter than the lights flashed on, bursting the home open to our tired eyes. The timing made me laugh. I laughed at the absurdity of the city: never letting one have something. It demands, instead, that we conspire to overcome it in order to enjoy an evening. To take a breath. To sit still. And then, when all hope seems lost, it stares you right in the eye and winks.

Salwa Tareen

Salwa Tareen

Publab Fellow 2023

Salwa Tareen is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Boston University. Her research broadly explores the interplay between religion, ethics, gender, and the politics of care in Muslim South Asia. In addition to her academic work, Salwa is an arts organizer, poet, and essayist.

Childe Hassam


Childe Hassam (b. 1859–1935)—in full, Frederick Childe Hassam—was a painter and printmaker, and one of the foremost exponents of French Impressionism in American art.