Works in Progress - Winter 2022

A Death in Karachi

By Saba Imtiaz and Tooba Masood | January 11, 2022
Askari Khan/Pinterest
Askari Khan/Pinterest

Saba Imtiaz and Tooba Masood are journalists based in Pakistan. Imtiaz is the author of the novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and has published articles in The New York Times, Literary Hub, Marie Claire, and Saveur. Masood has written for NPR, Dawn, HuffPost India, and Samaa and was a finalist for the 2020 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize. They are collaborating on a nonfiction book, Society Girl, that examines the role of women in 1970s Pakistan. In this excerpt, we revisit the mysterious, unsolved death of the renowned Urdu poet and civil servant Mustafa Zaidi, whose body was found alongside an unconscious Shahnaz Gul—a socialite who was the subject of several of Zaidi’s verses.

Ensconced in Mustafa’s rooms, Shahnaz and Mustafa drank coffee, an upper-class affectation that neither of them had grown up with in Allahabad and Gujranwala. The power went out, Shahnaz would later recall, and the rooms turned hot and oppressive. Karachi in October can be just as unpleasant as in the dead of summer, particularly in small, stuffy spaces. Shahnaz developed a headache, and Mustafa gave her a glass of juice.

After a day spent visiting relatives, Iqbal, the doorman, returned home later that evening. The door to the annex was still closed from the inside, and the lights were turned off. He walked around for a bit. By night, the seemingly unceasing pace of life in Karachi finally calmed down. The neighborhood was home to wealthy families who often gave parties, but that Monday night was quiet. Iqbal placed a charpoy next to the gate so that he could lie down and sleep under the open sky.

No one left the house for the rest of the evening.

The next day, Shahnaz woke up in a hospital bed. She had been barely conscious when she was brought in that morning. A police officer who knew Shahnaz approached her bed. He leaned over to adjust the pillow under her head and asked how she was feeling. A photographer hovered nearby, capturing the disheveled Shahnaz, puffy faced and bleary eyed, her hair strewn around the pillow, a far cry from the poised young woman who’d charmed men and women on Karachi’s party circuit. This would be the first of many, many photos of Shahnaz that would appear in the newspapers, to the point where she would drape herself with a large shawl to avoid the cameras. By the next year, her photo would appear on every front page of every newspaper in the country.
Across town, Mustafa was lying in bed. One of Shahnaz’s earrings was tangled up in the sheets. The dirty cups from the previous night were still on a table in the apartment. The phone was off the handset, and the cord stretched across the bed and over Mustafa’s body. There was a large bloodstain on the bedsheets. Mustafa Zaidi was dead.

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