Karachi: The City That Was – 1

By Ahmed Kamran

Yeh laash-e be-kafan Asad-e khasta jaan ki hai
Haq maghfarat kare ajab azad mard tha! (Ghalib)

If Karachi could be likened to a man, with a little liberty taken from Ghalib, this couplet could be a very appropriate epitaph for the tombstone of Karachi, the city that was! This is a series of some musings on the social and cultural aspects of the history of Karachi; how the city’s life was developed and transformed over time. It focuses on the period of 1960s and 1970s when I was young and had many dreams. What was the Karachi that my generation had inherited and what it is today? These writings have a clear ring of nostalgia. Paul Getty said, ‘Nostalgia often leads to idle speculation’. Indeed, nostalgia is distractive, breeds inaction, and, often, depression. But like some sweet-bitter memory of childhood or a sad song or a symphony that touches chords in your heart one must some time indulge in it. Nostalgia isn’t necessarily always depressing. As Seneca says, ‘it is the recognition that a wasted life is short, that is the starting point for enjoying a long and full life’.  It is because beauty fades, that we treasure it.  It is because beauty exists, that we mourn it when it dies. As long as we can later recover from it to find causes of a loss of beauty and move on to some action for its remedy, a little nostalgia will not harm us. 

In today’s world of striding globalization, many cities, especially in the developing world, have rapidly changed themselves, and considerably. But, perhaps, none has changed as much, in as little a time, as Karachi has changed, nay, it has metamorphosed itself into a whole new existence. It is hard to believe that Pakistan was once a gentle, tolerant country. It is even harder to believe that Karachi was once a vibrant and fun loving town where streets were washed by municipal services every morning and where the civic sense was developed to an extent that a well-managed Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty, with a functioning veterinary clinic on Bunder (now M.A. Jinnah) Road was in existence! Karachi of 1950s and 1960s was a different world!

I remember growing up in Karachi of 1960’s and 1970s, seeing the vibrancy and amazing ‘fun culture’ in the Saddar town. It’s a sad story of how my generation lost an entire world that we grew in. Finding myself as an alien in the town of my birth and being unable to reconcile with the new aggressively intolerant world was the main driver for me to take my family to a refuge overseas. It is not easy to uproot oneself from where you belong. It causes a lot of internal pain and anguish. But, at least, I can see my children living in a society that allows freedom, albeit within certain boundaries, to think and express independently.

The Karachi of my adolescence has long gone, swallowed up by the mists of time, many of its children driven out to fend for themselves. But in their extinction lies a bigger tragedy. Saddar of Karachi today is exceedingly overcrowded place, where streets are choked with smoke-fumes belching rusty buses and equally worn out mini-buses jamming into each other, especially in the peak hours. The footpaths are filled with tens of thousands of people milling with each other, especially in the evenings, leaving literally no place to walk.

It is now almost unimaginable to visualize Karachi of 1960s with its quiet, peaceful and lively neighborhoods, children playing without fear, and, at least, in some localities, young girls enjoying taking bicycle rides. I had two Goanese brothers as friends, Jerry and Jacob, living in our neighborhood in Nazimabad. I used to sometime accompany them to Saddar to meet their friends. Saddar, the downtown of Karachi, mostly inhabited by the Goanese, Anglo-Indians, Parsees, Baha’is, Chinese, Hindus, and a few Jewish families, was the most happening place in Karachi. It was a highly cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant district in Karachi, a last remnant of the old British colonial times. In front of the Empress Market, across Preedy Street, there was a dense, but still peaceful, neighborhood. From both sides of the Empress Market, two main arteries of Frere Street and Mansfield Street, together with Napier Street running parallel in between the two, ran upto Inverarity Road, which cut across these two main streets. Clarke Street, Church Street, and some smaller streets like Belfast Street, Cunningham Street, and Wellington Street were connecting horizontally these main streets in between. Now, with almost a complete change of the body and soul of this area, the names of the streets are also changed. Preedy Street in front of the Empress Market is Sharah-e-Liaqat. Frere Street is Allama Daudpota Road, and Mansfield Street is Syedna Burhanuddin Road. Napier Street is now Mir Karam Ali Talpur Road and Clarke Street is Sharah-e-Iraq. Inverarity Road has taken the name of Sarwar Shaheed Road whereas Church Street is taking refuge in the name of Mubarak Shaheed Road. Queen Elizabeth of U.K. may thank her Lord that the name of the Empress Market in Karachi, built in memory of her ancestor, Queen Victoria, during 1884-1889 is not yet changed. I suspect that smaller internal streets of Saddar like Belfast Street, Cunningham Street, and Wellington Street have so far escaped attention of the exalted faithful and patriots of the land. By one count, the names of not less than 51 streets in old Karachi have been renamed on record. Detailed field survey of Karachi’s landscape may produce a much higher number. Besides those mentioned above, a few of the old names such like Atmaram Street, Bonus Street, Connaught Road, Commissariat Road, Harchandrai Road, Havelock Road, Ingle Road, Queens Road, Kingsway, Queensway, Princess Street, Ramchandar Temple Road, Somerset Street, Victoria Road, Wood Street, Vishwanath Patel Road, McLeod Road, Lawrence Road, Grant Road, and Hiralal Ganatra Road are no more.

After British occupation of Sindh in 1842-1843, Karachi became its capital city. The British had conquered Sindh to clear the way for their undisturbed approach for military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iran via Baluchistan for countering the threat of Russian Czar’s southward thrust in the Central Asia. First, the British military vessel Wellseley took control of Manora and the small harbor at Karachi on 1 February 1839, without a gunshot being fired. Manora had a small mud fort fitted with a few rusty canons, brought from Muscat. But the fort capitulated without offering any resistance. For the Talpur rulers of Sindh at Hyderabad (160 Km away), Karachi was an insignificant fishermen’s settlement, too far from their seat of decaying power. The Talpurs were sunk in deep torpor, perhaps, unable to even fully comprehend the implication of the British occupation of Manora and Karach harbor. Since the end of Sindhi ruling dynasty of Kalhoras (1701-1783), Sindh had been essentially a lose confederacy of powerful Talpur Baloch tribes with three seats of power at Hyderabad, Mirpur, and Khairpur. For centuries, the Sindhi society was stagnating under decadent but highly oppressive class of big landlords, tribal leaders, Syeds and Pirs (revered religious leaders who had acquired large tracts of land in grants from corrupt rulers). Most of the Sindh’s big landlords were the descendents of Baloch or Pathan tribal chiefs who had, over a period of time, entering into Sindh from North-West, occupied lands and were permanently settled here. Unlike Punjab, there were not multiple rivers in Sindh except for the mighty Indus and its few rain collecting tributaries. Sindh is almost at the outer edge of the Monsoon rains system. Most of its population lived along the Indus, cultivating in the silt brought in by yearly summer floods when the river regularly overflows during Monsoon season. Indus River empties itself into the Arabian Sea, forming a large delta near Karachi in the south-east.

Sindhi rulers didn’t have a trained army worth its name. They only had some ill-equipped Lashkars (armed bands) of unruly tribesmen, primarily for settling scores among themselves in their unending tribal feuds or to suppress their Haris. No wonder, in the final battle with the British at Miani, near Hyderabad, in February 1843, the British General Charles Napier was able to rout Talpur’s Lashkar in one day with over 5,000 Baloch killed against only 257 casualties on the British side. Karachi was made an army town and military cantonmet was established and lines were laid to bring water supply from Damloti wells in Malir to Karachi town. Basic modern police and judicial system was built for the first time. After four years, in 1847, the strategic administration of Sindh was appended to the British Residency at Bombay. The extremely conservative tribal-feudal Sindhi society outside Karachi was, however, initially left practically undisturbed in its harsh traditional bonds.

In mid 1850s, from a purely military perspective plans were made to lay a railway line from Kotri to Karachi, connecting its small sea port with the nearest inland waterway on the Indus River, flowing down from Punjab and north-west. The Sindh River upwards from Kotri was then still navigable. The Karachi-Kotri rail link was completed in 1861, after a brief interruption due to 1857 mutiny in the northern India. On a short inaugural drive of a locomotive engine carrying departing Sindh Commissioner Bartle Frere to Keemari port for his voyage to Calcutta, John Brunton, the Scottish Chief Engineer of the ‘Scinde Railway’ wrote in his diary, “The native of Scinde had never seen a Locomotive Engine, they had heard of them as dragging great loads on the lines by some hidden power they could not understand, therefore they feared them supposing that they moved by some diabolical agency, they called Shaitan (or Satan). During the Mutiny, the Mutineers got possession of one of the East Indian Line Stations where stood several Engines. They did not dare to approach them but stood a good way off and threw stones at them!”

At this time, due to an event, otherwise entirely disconnected with Sindh or India, taking place in faraway America, the Karachi-Kotri rail link turned out to be an extremely useful and timely investment for the British Raj. The far reaching impact of the American Civil War played a crucial role for a paradigm shift in the life of Karachi and consequently of Sindh, which remains largely unnoticed or is ignored. The American Civil War (1861-1865), in which seven major cotton producing southern states of USA rose in rebellion and declared independence from the northern federation, caused a major disruption in the supply of American cotton to the thriving textile industry of the Great Britain. Over 80% of cotton for the British textile industry was imported from the USA. The British textile industry (the world’s largest at the time) faced a historic ‘cotton famine’ and faced closure of over 2,000 mills, threatening employment of over 360,000 textile workers in Lancashire alone. Alternate sources for immediate supply of cotton were identified in Egypt and India. While Lancashire industry focused more on the Egyptian supplies, the Scottish textile industry in Glasgow relied heavily on Indian cotton. The Glasgow and Lancashire Chambers of Commerce jointly demanded from the Secretary of State for India that “India make good the [cotton] shortfall to protect the livelihood of the 4 millions of our people who are directly or indirectly dependent for their daily bread on our cotton manufacturers”. In addition to supplies from Surat, the cotton produce of recently conquered Sindh and Punjab regions was critical. For supply of Punjab and Sindh cotton via shortest route from Karachi to quickly reach England, logistics arrangements were to be made immediately. Cotton from Sindh and Punjab was brought on barges via Indus River up to Kotri and thereafter transported by train to Karachi for swift shipment to the ports of England. The opening of transport route via Karachi substantially reduced the transit time for other agricultural produce from Punjab compared to the long and arduous transportation across whole of vast India to Calcutta in the north-east or Bombay in the south-west. The critical, time sensitive commercial export needs necessitated rapid development of logistics and trade services infrastructure in Karachi. The Government of India directed “those provincial governments with substantial cotton-producing regions to report immediately on what needed to be done to improve the lines of traffic between the cotton producing districts and the ports of shipment.” This development suddenly catapulted Karachi’s sleepy town and essentially a military station to become a key port in the modern commercial sea lanes.

The Karachi-Kotri railway link was to be extended up to Quetta in Baluchistan. The Karachi harbor at Keemari was improved; it was connected with the mainland by building a Mole (causeway) across Chinna Creek. Later, Manora Breakwater, Native Jetty, and the Napier Mole Bridge were built in 1864. By 1868, Karachi had become the largest grain exporting port in the British Indian Empire. Accelerated foreign trade operations from Karachi brought in their wake significant growth in port assets and a network of leading British (mostly Scottish) trading companies, banks, clearing & forwarding agencies, stevedores, civil contractors, food and commodities supply contractors, whole-sellers and retailers in the market. Karachi and Bombay were connected with a direct telegraph link via a new sub-marine cable laid to link with an Aden-Malta cable to London. The first telegraph message from India to London was sent from Karachi in 1864. With the opening of Suez Canal in 1869, the sailing time from Karachi to European ports was significantly reduced from a long three-month journey around Africa via Cape of Good Hope. Within a short period of about a decade, an obscure and sleepy fishing Goth (hamlet) of Karachi grew into an important commercial town where hundreds of Europeans, Marwari, Hindu, Parsee, Jewish, Memon, Khoja, Bohra, and Chinioti investors and traders from London, Calcutta, Kanpur, and Bombay and thousands of Anglo-Indians, Jews, Goanese, Punjabis, North Indians, and Gujaratis had flocked in to service the unprecedented rapid growth of a small town into a thriving modern city. From a base of less than 20,000 by late 1850s, the population of Karachi surged to over 60,000 by 1870, tripling the number roughly in a decade. But this sudden rushing in of people from outside of Sindh caused a significant transformation in its demographic composition. Old inhabitants of Karachi—the Kutchis, Baloch, Makrani, and partly Sindhis were simply overwhelmed and marginalized by the new wave of energetic and skilled ‘foreign’ settlers. This unprecedented phenomena of massive migration from other urban centres of India, which took place in Karachi on the outskirts of Sindh’s traditional rural life was to be repeated again, on even larger scale, in next about 90 years.

In 1878, the Karachi-Kotri railway line was extended to connect with Delhi-Punjab rail link at Multan in a north-western railway system. Karachi Port Trust was established in 1886 and an East Wharf was built at Keemari port and a public tram service was started from St. Andrews Church, Saddar to Keemari harbor in 1885. Initially, steam powered and horse driven carriages were used and then gasoline powered engines were introduced in 1905. The Karachi tramway was extended to serve Frere Street on one hand and on the other to Chakiwara in Lyari Quarters, Lawrence Road in Garden Quarters and Soldier Bazar. The first aerodrome in India was built in 1924 near Malir making Karachi, for a long time, till 1970s, the first airport of call for entry into the Indian subcontinent. Karachi was the final destination of the famed journey of Zeppelin like British airship R101 in October 1930, which took off from Cardington, England to reach Karachi via Ismailia in Egypt. A special high-rise hanger was built at Karachi airport to receive the huge airship. The flight, however, proved fateful as it crashed on its way in France due to bad weather, effectively putting an end to the then ambitious British trans-continental airship service from Britain to India and Australia. The special structure built at Karachi painted black was visible from a distance on the Drigh Road and remained there till probably early 1960s and was commonly known in the town as Kala Chappra.

The first modern but informal schooling was initiated for the children of few English families in Karachi in 1847 and the first formal English school was opened in 1854. St. Joseph’s Convent School for girls was established in 1862. With the spreading influence of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Muslim educational movement at Aligarh, Syed Amir Ali, the president of Mohammaden National Association of Calcutta arrived in Karachi in 1882 and a Mohammaden National Association of Sindh was established with a Sindhi Muslim lawyer of Turkish origin, Hasan Ali Effendi, as its first president. This Association established the first school for natives— Sindh Madarsatul Islam in Karachi in 1885. The Sindh Arts College was established in Karachi in 1882 (later converted into Dayram Jethmal (D.J.) College in 1887). The Prince of Wales Engineering College was founded in 1922, initially to train engineers working for construction of Sukkur Barrage. The college was, later, renamed as N.E.D. Engineering College in 1924 in honour of its biggest benefactor, Nausherwan Eduljee Dinshaw. Dow Medical College was founded in Karachi in 1945.

A Karachi Conservancy Board created in 1846 to look after some municipal services was upgraded to Karachi Municipal Committee in 1853. A City Municipal Act was passed in 1933 and the Municipality of Karachi was given the status of a Municipal Corporation with Jamshed Nausserwanji Mehta as it first Mayor. Mehta had earlier served as elected President of the Karachi Municipal Committee for about 20 years.

This was the Karachi with a strong heritage of modern infrastructure, thriving commercial life, and educational institutions of long standing that was chosen to be the capital of new Pakistan coming into being in August 1947.

… to be continued


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