Karachi: The City That Was – 3

By Ahmed Kamran

Among other many finer things of a city’s life that Karachi has lost over time, the greatest loss has been the disappearance of its book stores – the windows of Karachi’s reading and thinking abilities. These are now long shut and closed. Many of the good book stores, about 18, were located in Saddar, a kind of a cultural capital of Karachi. Starting from the well-known Thomas & Thomas Book Store on the Preedy Street, next to Irani Cafe George, there were many book shops on the Elphinstone Street (now Zaibunisa Street). There was Kitab Mehal (Book Palace) inside one of the market on Elphinstone Street, known for stocking good Urdu books. Kitab Mehal was owned by a fine gentleman with good literary taste who probably had a book store by the same name near Jama Masjid in old Delhi, before Pakistan was founded. A few blocks further up on the street, there was a book store by the name of Paragon Books. It was usually well stocked with books in English at reasonable prices. Almost diagonally opposite Paragon, there was Pak-American Books, a fairly big store with a large collection of titles on all subjects and Paramount Books. A few steps up on the street there had been a book Kiosk right on the footpath, owned by the Urdu writer and dramatist Hameed Kashmiri. I remember a jovial Hameed Kashmiri manning the book stall and talking to owners of other stalls selling other smaller items. These temporary shop stalls were later removed to clear the footpath. Further up, at the intersection of Elphinstone Street with Inverarity Road, taking right turn towards Alpha Restaurant, there was Almas Books, owned by an Irani (probably a Baha’i) gentleman. He always had a variety of good books in Persian, Urdu and English. A very talkative man, the owner always approached me and volunteered his comments in his Persianised broken Urdu on the books I used to select for browsing. In late 1970s, I had bought my four volumes of Farhang-e-Asifya, (a reference Urdu dictionary) published from India from Almas Books at Rs.250, a princely sum for me in those days, a little less than half of my then one month’s salary from a bank’s job in Saddar that I had recently got. Further up on the Elphinstone Street after crossing over the Inverarity Road, a little ahead of Rio Cinema there was the Sassi Books Store.

Almost none of these book shops exist today. With the changing demography and character of the city, these book shops closed down, one after the other, falling like nine pins. They have all slipped into oblivion, leaving only some fading memories in few people’s minds. Probably, the last to hold among them was the Almas Books. The last time I visited the store sometime in 2008-09, I met the Irani owner, now a fairly old man, and found him quite angry with himself. He complained that nobody visits the book store anymore; that all other book stores are closed in Saddar, and he spends his days in the store, sitting idle and alone. He told me that his sons were pressing him hard for selling the store to some jeweller or garment trader. But he had told them that they could do that only after he was dead. About a year later, I noted that the Almas Books was no more; it had given way to a garments label store. May Lord bless the soul of that last lone crusader!

Another centre of book shops in Karachi was the Urdu Bazaar, near Burns Road and Eidgah on Bunder Road. It had innumerable book stores, printers, publishers, and stationery sellers, spread over in many adjoining streets. The offices and stores of Urdu Academy Sindh, Sheikh Shaukat Ali & Sons, and other well-known publishers were located there. The Urdu Bazaar is still there but its character has significantly changed, clearly reflecting the transformation that the society has undergone in the last about 35 years. Apart from a few book stores like Welcome Book Port and Fazli Sons who are still selling Urdu literature books, the entire Bazaar is transformed into a large centre of well-stocked, colourfully bound books on Islam – Quran, its various translations, books on Hadis (Cannon), Tafseer, Fiqh, and Jurisprudence.

The main sources of obtaining Chinese political literature in those days was the Chinese Consulate located on the south-end of Elphinstone Street, in front of the then Rio Cinema, a little ahead after crossing the Inverarity Road, going towards the Flag Staff House and today’s Avari Hotel. Here, the famed ‘Red Book’ and the selected works of Mao Tse Tung and the weekly political journal ‘Peking Review’ were available for free. The ‘Great Helmsman’ and the capital of China were still not officially renamed as ‘Mao Ze Dong’ and ‘Beijing’. Similarly, the political literature published from Moscow was available from the Soviet Union’s ‘Friendship House’ on Drigh Road (renamed as Sharea Faisal in 1974). Here only small booklets and pamphlets and the weekly political journal ‘New Times’, published from Moscow, were available. Most of other Soviet literature was available from the Standard Books, an exclusive book store that was run and supported by the pro-Moscow faction of the Communist Party of Pakistan. This book store was managed by Kabir, a lean and talkative Bengali. The Standard Books Store was on the first level of Marina Hotel & Bar, situated on the corner of the intersection of Elphinstone Street and Inverarity Road. This hotel & bar in a colonial structure building was operated by Mohammad Hussain Ata, a co-accused in the famous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, involving Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, together with some Pakistan Army officers, including General Akbar Khan. The Marina Hotel & Bar is also no more. It was closed, among other Bars in the country, after the alcohol prohibition orders of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the spring of 1977, in a desperate attempt to save his government from the onslaught of a united front of nine political parties espousing the demand of establishing an Islamic political and social system. In late 1980’s, the building was eventually demolished and a shopping centre, Atrium Mall, is now built on the site. The Friendship House’s activities also gradually died down; first it moved out to a smaller premise in a back alley in PECHS Block 2, before it was finally closed down. Now, in its place on main Sharea Faisal, a large IT firm’s offices and US’s multinational software giant Oracle’s training centre is located.

Many of the City’s public libraries today are dysfunctional and dilapidated, including its oldest and largest, Khaliqdina Hall (1856), Frere (now Liaqat)) Hall Library (1865), KMC Library, and the Liaqat National Library (1950). The culture of visiting libraries and Reading Rooms is also evaporating. In Karachi neighbourhoods there was a strong tradition of one-anna-a-day lending libraries, offering mostly fiction to reading hungry youth and elders alike. An interesting aspect of current state of public libraries in Karachi is that according to an official undated (most likely sometime in early 2000s) list of city’s small and large public libraries prepared by the City District Government is that of its about 55 listed libraries, 23 (42%) are located in Lyari Town and its adjacent Old Town areas whereas only 7 are in in Nazimabad & North Nazimabad, 3 are in Federal B Area, 2 in Liaqatabad, 1 in Gulshan-e-Iqbal (excluding libraries of Karachi University, Aga Khan University, NED University, and Liaqat National Library Complex) and 1 in DHA & Clifton.

The steep fall of Karachi’s cultural life is again not limited to callous displacement of its minorities, disappearance of its book stores, and disuse of its public libraries but many of the city’s public entertainment mediums have also been eradicated. Of its 119 cinemas till 1970s, about 89 of them (75%) have been closed down. Only about 30 of old cinemas in Karachi are running, none exists in Saddar today. Of late, however, there has been an addition of 5 new multiplexes mainly in Clifton, Defence, and one in Saddar to cater to the entertainment needs of city’s growing elite. Karachi’s well known and prestigious music schools and art schools have long been closed and forgotten. Like city’s cinemas, its numerous theaters, auditoriums, and public halls that were frequently used in the past for social, cultural, political, and trade union activities in Karachi, are all closed down and have given way to commercial buildings, plazas, markets or shopping malls.

The city of Karachi has clearly lost its soul. It has been torn apart and is reduced to its ashes. The dynamic of Karachi’s social and political life is dramatically changed. The wistful mourning of the dead and the past long gone alone will not remedy the situation. The key drivers and contributing factors of this change are several. Some of them are inexorable forces of history, totally oblivious to our pious or wishful thinking. The tsunami of migration rising from predominantly rural hinterland of the country has practically run over Karachi– an island of suave, urban liberal and tolerant culture with a western outlook in a rapidly encroaching sea of conservative, retrogressive society that is still struggling to free itself from the tightly binding traditional tribal, biraderi (communal fraternity) and religious sectarian bonds. This organic and natural force, once let free from the steel frame of the colonial bondage, has risen and hit the city hard and has destroyed its social fabric and cultural structures. But, clearly, some of the catastrophes contributing in the havoc, playing their devastating roles had been man-made disasters and could have been avoided. Both these organic and man-made calamities needed to be managed well, at which, unfortunately, our rulers, elite, and intellectuals alike have singularly failed. It is a task waiting for a new generation to be taken up with extra-ordinary courage and determined resolve.

… to be continued



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