Karachi: The City That Was – 2

By Ahmed Kamran

In spite of a sudden influx of immigrants pouring into the city in large numbers in the wake of partition of India, Karachi’s social and cultural life remained progressive and liberal in its outlook. The influx of new population, mostly coming from other urban centres of British India, the city life quickly adjusted to the thriving commercial and business activities of the city, regaining its cultural life. Founding of the new country with its capital at Karachi brought in large number of Muhajir Intelligentsia – well trained civil servants, skillful traders, successful businessmen from Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and Kanpur, teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, clerks and office workers, well known progressive and some radical poets, writers, journalists, and intellectuals from all over India. These people were already steeped in urban culture of British India and were long ago freed from the traditional static bonds of feudal relations, otherwise dominating in most parts of the new country. In both social and economic sense, Karachi reinforced its position as an isolated island in a predominantly rural and feudal surrounding.  The new wave of immigrants in Karachi, after initial adjustment with the life in a new country, further enriched the generally liberal and cosmopolitan character of the city built over the last 100 years. During British colonial administration, Karachi was divided in about 20 towns called Quarters e.g. Lyari Quarters, Old Town Quarters, Market Quarters, Serai Quarters, Artillery Maidan Quarters, Preedy Quarters and Saddar Quarters. After the founding of Pakistan and as Karachi became its capital, Saddar remained its cultural hub. According to the research of Architect & Town Planner Arif Hasan’s Urban Resource Centre, Karachi had a roaring night life. Saddar alone had about 10 cinemas, 17 bars & billiard rooms, 5 night clubs & discotheques (2 of them offering striptease shows), 4 music schools, and 18 book shops.

Inside the main Saddar area, bounded by and along Frere Street, Mansfield Street and Inverarity Road, there were, and still are many, albeit sadly dilapidated, multi-story old buildings with flats having balconies with decorative wrought iron or wooden railings. Here, mostly Christian Goanese, Anglos, Hindus, and Parsees were living. They were essentially fun people. Sometimes, in the evenings, especially on weekends, restricting the vehicular traffic, a part of the street used to be converted into lively fun place where amateur music bands comprising of mostly young Goanese and Anglo-Indian boys used to play pop, jazz, and rock tunes on guitars, drums, and boards placed on make-shift stages. Young boys and girls, and elderly couples, putting on nice western evening dresses used to stroll on the sidewalks, as if these streets were converted into some public social club. Young Christian and Parsee girls and women wearing skirts freely strolling on the streets in Saddar was not an uncommon sight. These carefree festive sights are now a long forgotten dream on today’s overcrowded and dirty streets of Saddar.

The heart and soul of this vibrant street culture of Karachi were Anglo-Indians and Goanese, together with a dash of Parsees and occasionally Hindu youth. Threatened by the rapidly changing demographics and the transformation of the city’s social and political dynamics into an overly aggressive and non-tolerant amalgam, most of the Goanese, Anglo-Indians, Parsees, Baha’is, and the few remaining Hindus and Jewish families have simply vanished from the streets of Karachi; most of them have quietly emigrated and took refuge in India or in countries of more tolerant societies in the West.

As Masood Hasan, a Lahore based journalist, wrote in one of his writings, “The Anglo Indians were particularly fun people. But more than the singular expertise they brought to the jobs that became traditionally their forte, they added a swing, vibrancy and a sheer joy of living spirit to our society that in many ways epitomised the new, fresh spirit that was Pakistan. That was then. Now it’s a fading sepia tone picture. Those of us who grew up with them, watched with considerable sadness as family after family left this country to go and live in alien climes. There was nothing left for them. They were wise in retrospect. Look at our bestiality towards our minorities. But while the Anglo Indians were here, they gave us a unique gift. The joy of living and of being alive.”

Recently, I had an amazing opportunity to meet a group of few hearty Anglo-Indian families of Indian and Pakistani origin in Australia and spending few wonderful nights with them on a hunting trip during an Easter holiday. After a day’s full of hunting and roaming, gathering every night around a bonfire and barbeque in pretty cold nights, deep in Australian Outback, those fun loving Anglos displayed their indomitable characteristic jovial disposition of enjoying life. They all loved playing jazz music, dance, and drinking to the bottoms up, after midnight, till they almost drop dead, with a nonstop chatter, turning into mere mumbling towards the end. After over 30 years of living in Australia, almost all of them spent much of their time, after a few drinks in the evening, talking and reminiscing about their childhood or adolescence in Kanpur, Agra, Lahore, and Karachi. Jane, Bruce Blanchet’s wife was born and lived in her young age in Lahore and had fond memories of her childhood. Their children were equally fascinated with the stories of back home that their parents had to tell them. I was particularly moved when one morning, a duo of Anglo friends, Ken and Sheridan, staying together in one of the many camps we had erected along the side of a dried up lake, specially invited me to their tent to feast on delicious and spicy Qeema and Paratha, freshly made by them on the portable stove. To top it all, after the breakfast, they even offered me Qalaqand (a typical Indian sweet), which they had brought with them from a shop in Melbourne. Surely, they enjoyed and relished the taste of the Indian food that morning far more than I did.

In the wake of partition of India, most of the Hindus had taken refuge and migrated to India in the same way as hundreds of thousands of Muslims were driven out from India towards Pakistan. But a handful of Hindu families remained in Karachi. I still relish the food that, on innumerable occasions, I had had at a small eatery attached to the Swami Narain Mandir on M.A. Jinnah Road, one of the main Hindu temples in Karachi, opposite Karachi Municipal Corporation building. In fact, whenever passing by that area in the afternoons, I preferred going to the Mandir because firstly, the food there was available at a very nominal cost, and secondly, it was clean and had good homely taste. This small eating place beside the Mandir was operated by a Sindhi Hindu family. Having a plate of Tamata or Patata or some other vegetables, with home cooked chapattis (plain thin leavened bread) was always a treat. Never ever the staff asked me or my colleagues about our religion, although, I always suspected that they knew that we did not belong to the Hindu religion. There was a Hindu-owned Shahbaz hotel in a back-street, behind Tariq Road that was a favourite joint for our meals in the evenings. The Shahbaz hotel is also no more. The Swami Narain Mandir is one of the few Hindu temples that have, so far, survived in Karachi, as, perhaps, to its good fortune, it is almost hidden behind a busy market for decorative lights and lamps on the main road. From outside, perhaps, only a few people walking by the busy M.A. Jinnah Road would know that there is a major Hindu temple of Karachi behind these high walls.

Many Hindu temples have slowly disappeared from Karachi in my memory, not to speak of the ones that were occupied and converted during the heat of the charged atmosphere of the partition in 1947. One of the most ancient Hindu temples in Karachi, the Ram Bagh Temple was occupied and converted conveniently into ‘Aram Bagh’ Mosque in the heart of the old city on Frere Road near Burns Road by the faithful, probably in 1948. The Ram Bagh temple was specially revered by the Hindus because of their belief that the God-incarnate Ram and Sita stayed there on their way for pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Temple, another even more ancient but lesser known Hindu temple, located near the coast of Makran in Baluchistan.

Till as late as mid-1970’s, there was a Hindu temple in a grove of trees behind the well-known Guru Mandir bus stop on M.A. Jinnah Road. The area was, in fact, named after this Mandir in New Town. The Mandir was at a stone’s throw from the New Town (now Binnori Town) Mosque, a well-known centre of Taliban-supporting seminary of religious education, one of the largest in the country. One day, the Guru Mandir temple simply disappeared, and now few people, especially of younger generation, wonder why the area was known as Guru Mandir whereas no Mandir exists there!

A pleasant memory of the Saddar of those days that is still lurking in my mind are the colourful chalk patterns skillfully made at the entrance of many houses that I occasionally noticed while walking on some streets of Saddar in the morning. These intriguing brightly coloured beautiful geometrical patterns on the door slabs, I learnt later, were Rangolis or Kolams or Alapnas that have ancient religious and cultural origins. These are usually made by the women and young girls of Hindu families on their entrance door slabs as auspicious and lucky signs and as marks of welcome for the deities and the equally revered guests. Parsees also make the colourful chalk powder Rangolis, especially on wedding occasions for welcoming the bridegroom’s family. For some Hindu families it is a daily routine, while for others Rangolis are drawn on certain festive occasions like Diwali. Admittedly, the Rangolis I had seen were not as large, intricate and elaborate as are now often shown in soaps on Indian Satellite TV channels. These soap TV Rangolis are commercially made for a much wider TV audience. But the Rangolis that I remember seeing on the door steps of lower middle class ordinary Hindu or Parsee families in Saddar area were simple but still very elegant.

I remember often walking past by the last Jewish synagogue – Magain Shalome Synagogue – in Karachi at the intersection of the Lawrence Road (now Nishtar Road) and Barness Street (now Jamila Street) at Ranchore Lines bus stop near Ramswami. The synagogue was commonly known in the area as ‘Israeli Masjid’. The Magain Shalome synagogue in Karachi was built by a philanthropist Jew, Solomon David Umerdekar in late 1890’s. It was a two story stone building of attractive colonial architecture with intricate facade, arched windows and sloping roof of red tiles. Till recently, there was also a Solomon David Street named after him in Ramswami area. Now it has been renamed as Suleman Dawood Street to probably give it a more acceptable Muslim accent. There is also a long forgotten Jewish cemetery with about 400 graves in the Mewa Shah graveyard at Rexer in Trans Lyari and there were about 40-50 graves in a section of the Kutchi Memon graveyard in the old Lyari Quarters. Earlier, there is said to be another Mt. Sinai synagogue in Karachi, behind Spencer’s Eye Hospital, near Lea Market on Harchand Rai Road (now Siddique Wahab Road). Reportedly, the last Rabbi of the synagogue placed the ark and the Teba in the personal custody of a local Muslim friend before fleeing from Karachi. These articles, together with holy Torah scrolls and synagogue archives covering the period from 1961-1976, were subsequently rescued by a Jewish wife of an Australian counselor posted in Pakistan in 1970’s and these items were eventually donated to the Ben-Zvi Institute Library in Jerusalem, Israel.

The Jews living in Karachi were of Beni Israel denomination observing Sephardic rites who were originally settled in the Kokan district of Maharashtra and Bombay in India for the last many centuries. A few also lived in Afghanistan, Peshawar, and Lahore. Old Bollywood Indian actresses Salochna (Ruby Meyers), Firoza Begum (Susan Solomon), and Nadra were Beni Israel Jewesses. There were about 2,500 Jews living in Karachi in early 20th century, mainly in the Ramswami and Ranchore Lines area. Abraham Reuben, a local Jew in Karachi was also elected a counselor, in 1936, in the town’s municipal committee. Most of the Jews, however, migrated to India, Israel or USA after independence of Pakistan in 1947. The last Jewish Synagogue had come under attack quite a few times after Pakistan was formed. First, it was ransacked and partly burnt in 1948 when the state of Israel was created and was immediately recognised by the U.S.A. Later, during each successive Israel-Arab wars in the Middle East in October 1956, June 1967, and October 1973, its existence was threatened. For many years, since sometime in 1960’s, the synagogue was in disuse and remained locked when I saw it. Most of the Jewish families – they were Marathi and Gujrati speaking Beni Israel Jews – in Karachi had migrated to safe havens. The last caretaker of the synagogue, Mrs. Rachel Joseph, an old primary school teacher, was still holding the fort till as late as July 1988 when the synagogue was finally demolished to give way to an ugly looking, badly constructed, multi-story shopping centre called ‘Madiha Square’. According to the journalist Akhtar Baloch – the ‘Karachi Wala, quoting Rachel’s lawyer, she finally migrated to London (DAWN, October 3, 2013). This must be sometime after May 2007 as another journalist, Reema Abbasi seems to have met Rachel, 89, in 2007, while she was still in litigation against the property developer of the shopping mall. Reema Abbasi describes Rachel as “frail and almost destitute” and refers to her conversation with the Baloch keeper of the Jewish cemetery in Mewashah when the keeper informs her that “Rachel is still a regular [visitor to the cemetry]” (DAWN, 6 May, 2007). Rachel was, perhaps, the last of the Beni Israel Jews in embarking on her Aliyah from Karachi.

The wrath of the faithful has not been limited to the Jewish synagogues or the Hindu temples. I have witnessed a Shia Imam Bara being ransacked at the intersection of the Court Road and the Frere Road (now Sharah-e-Liaqat) near Burns Road (now officially Mohamad Bin Qasim Road, but hardly anybody knows and, thankfully, cares about the change). One evening in mid-1977, before my eyes, while visiting a friend, living in a flat in the adjacent building, a functional Shia Imam Bara was forcibly occupied by a jubilant crowd, and, overnight, was converted into today’s Ahle Hadis Mosque standing in its place. Surely, there would be many other similar incidents with Shia or Qadiani mosques, Hindu temples or Christian churches elsewhere in the country.

Now, in a culturally denuded city of Karachi, all signs of peaceful and joyous traditions and cultural refinements have been wiped out over the last about 30 years. Today, there are no more ravishing Anglo-Indian and Goanese dusky maidens strolling in the evening, no more jazz and rock music being played on the streets to the groups of merry-making, carefree young boys and girls, elegantly dressed men and women, no more any Rangolis or Alapnas on the door slabs of houses in Karachi, welcoming equally the benevolent Gods and the wedding guests in the peaceful houses, and no more smartly turned, efficient, and attractive young and old Anglo-Indian and Goanese secretaries greeting the guests in corporate executive offices. Days gone past were, indeed, another country!

The markers of rapidly transforming cultural and social life of Karachi are not limited to the gradual eviction of the religious minorities from their traditional abodes but these are also visible in other aspects of city’s cultural life.

An interesting facet of Karachi’s social life was the Irani tea houses, with their typical dark polish chairs of curved backs and flat wooden seats with some designs engraved on it. These were made of special wood and a wood bending and making process. These tea houses were mostly owned by Iranis of Baha’i faith who had, years ago, taken refuge in the cosmopolitan cities of India to escape persecution of their faith in Iran. The Irani hotels in Karachi used to have a long list of tea options on their menu, usually placed on a large board prominently hanging on one of the walls. I remember seeing at least 8 or 10 types of tea on that menu e.g. qahva, karak, double, aadhia, lamba paani and order size measurements like full cup, set, half-set etc. An aadhia was a tea with half milk and half black tea, and lamba paani was diluted with extra water for those having taste of lighter tea. There were also many Malabari hotels in Karachi. These hotels of a different genre were owned by immigrants from western coastal region of Malabar in south India, today known as Kerala. These hotels were especially known for good, spicy, low cost food. I remember my favourite anda ghutala, made of whipped egg prepared with fine broken potato slices. The cheapest food I ever had in early 1970s was a plate of Nihari with two fresh Roti for 6 aanas only ((one aana was equal to 6 paisa and 4 aana was equal to 25 paisa) that is, the total cost of meal was about Pak Rs. 0.38, less than half a US Cent). In those days, the usual cost of my daily lunch meal was about 8 aana i.e. 50 paisa, but off course, it was in low cost eateries. The Irani and Malabari hotels had given a characteristic feature to the cultural landscape of Karachi. A cup of tea was available in these hotels at a nominal cost of two aanas. The Irani and Malabari restaurants in Karachi were convenient rendezvous, and acted as sort of social clubs for both young and old, middle class students, journalists, political activists, intellectuals, poets, and writers. Cafe George, Coffee House, Café High School, Qaisar hotel, Kwality, Zelins, Puff, Pehlawi, Durukhshan, Kali Muslim, Cafe Jahan and later Shezan Ampis, Alpha, and Jabees in Saddar, and Cafe Al-Hasan in Nazimabad, among others, were well known small restaurants serving as common eating places or meeting points in Karachi and had a long association with many groups of people.

Most of these hotels have now disappeared, leaving no trace behind them. Today, few people realise that for students or a person of modest means finding a decent place for having tea in Karachi is almost impossible. There is practically no choice except for either an expensive coffee shop in one of the expensive 4-5 star hotels or a few cheap tea khokas (kiosks without seats or at best a few benches in the open) in some back alleys. Probably, together with the Irani and Malabari tea houses, the culture of sitting over a cup of tea and discussing everything under the sun has also evaporated from our cultural life. In contrast, however, bazaars in every locality, lower, middle class, or upscale, are filled with scores of Chicken Karahi & Tikka shops in a row. Obviously, the public tastes have greatly changed!

… to be continued


Post A Comment