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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Karachi Vignettes

I- The Wrong Turn

I forget the year. Back then I used to visit Pakistan frequently and on one of those visits I was invited for some show or the other at PACC (Pakistan American Cultural Center.) After it was over I sat in the car and drove off. Soon I realized I should have turned right instead of left, but on an impulse I continued past the Indian Embassy, turned back at the Cantonment Station and headed towards the Avari Towers.

Cantt. Station was the last station for the rickety over 100 year old trams of Mohamedali Tramway Company. These trams were open. There were no doors. Passengers could get on or off from either side. With the curves in the track their whole body shook in unison like the slowly moving wipers on the windscreen.

Fazal Khan with the genuine smile always let one of us drive the tram. He was all of 5-2 155 lbs, swarthy, stocky built, smelly, naswaar stained crooked, yellow tarred teeth, but the front two were always shiny and clean. He had a habit of running his tongue over his front teeth. An unlikely Pathan.

Those trams were powered by the earliest manufactured internal combustion engines. They had only two gears, a chain brake and a levered accelerator. Fazal Khan made lots of us happy by letting us drive the tram. Basically it involved changing the gear lever or handling the accelerator. The trams had no steering mechanism. They did have a bell, a lever by the foot where you stamp with all of your 50-60 pounds and it would ostensibly clank. The trams stopped right over the bridge, over a nullah in front of the school gates.

On one side, the right side was an open air sewage. The poor had built jhuggis around the nullah.

Waiting for the tram on the way back I would look over and try to imagine their life. In the afternoon there were mostly women, old and young, and some old men and lots of children in different stages of undress. The youngest ones were almost always naked, and had bloated stomachs and runny noses. Even when they smiled it looked like they were crying.

And the stench emanating from the nullah would invariably force us to cover our noses and move away.

As I negotiated the turn that day, I noticed the landscape had changed. The squatters were removed. There were some new high rise hotels there. Lots of Iranis had occupied those hotels on their way out from Iran waiting for greener pastures, greener cards, using Karachi as an interlude in their lives. On the right side they had built a road leading up to the Jinnah Hospital and there were flats being built. Past these buildings I saw the familiar wrought iron gate. It was open.

I pulled over, waited for a minute or two, then drove through the gate, half expecting Jamal Khan the chowkidar to emerge and waive me away. No one came out.

I took out my camcorder, rested it on my shoulder and let the tape roll as I drove forward slowly. I was facing the dome. I felt the presence of my friends as we entered the school in the morning, even though it was dusk.

I heard M.E. Hyderís stern voice, making some announcement. 5-8, 170 lbs, fair, bow tied, sometimes nursing a cane, short almost curly hair, parted on the left. Mr. SHK Zaidi, Miss Val, Miss Musharraf, Mrs. Chaudhary, Mr. Hidayatullah, Mr. Z.A. Khan, Mr. Alvi -- they were all there behind him.

Took the right fork, past Mr. Hidayaullahís science lab, past the classrooms, Principal's office and lurched to a stop facing the Minwala Block. This was the new block they had added and ours was the first class to occupy it. After this block, there was nothing but bare land for 3000 yards. In the distance you could see the buildings of Jinnah Hospital.

I could not believe my eyes. The dull gray had changed to blase yellow. Thank you ZAB! Plaster had fallen off, revealing the iron skeletal bones, nary a window had a pane left intact.

There, right there it was XC, right next to XB.

In the recess, sometimes I volunteered to be one of the two guards. Riaz Alam used to be the other one. Or Yasin Ali Reza. Or Qayyum Khan. And in IXB sometimes Nishat or Zeba. And Morse coded messages would be knocked on the common walls.

It wan an eerie sensation, looking at this ghost of a building. It was getting dark now. Still no chowkidar. The Camcorder was still rolling away silently. I switched it offand began contemplating what I would be telling my sons when they will watch this video back in Toronto.

As I left the school buildings behind and turned on to Drigh Road, now Faisal Road I had a strange empty feeling. Wish I had not driven in. The image in my mind was more powerful, more pleasant than the dilapidated wreck I had just visited.

What made me take that wrong turn?.


II- The Age of Innocence

I had practiced reversing and parking all week long in our Vauxhall. The examiner took the form from me and ordered me to do the reverse eight. They had placed six five feet long iron rods in the ground in two rows of three. The trainee driver was to do a reverse eight without knocking down the rods. I negotiated an almost perfect eight in reverse, niftily sliding through the iron rods.

The policeman handed me a slip - Failed. Disgusted with myself I asked him the reason. Practice some more and come back again, I was curtly told.

I drove back over the Clifton Bridge, past Lady Haroon's stone mansion, past Frere Hall to the right, past Hotel Metropole, the Trinity Cathedral and School, and turned left at the musical fountain, opting for Aiwan-e-Sadar Road past Governorís House and the Polo Grounds on my left, right past Dawn office and turned left on MacLeod Road, now I.I. Chundrigar Road, passing Jung Offices, G.P.O., City Station, Habib Bank Plaza and Finlay House.

I did not even realize I was driving without a license.

The Police Headquarters was an imposing facade, gray and pink, about seven or eight floors high facing the main road, about four or five floors in the two blocks away from the main road. The paint was still relatively fresh.

Dark maroon pan spittle, the great paint equalizer for any accessible public wall in the city had all but covered the accessible spit-able areas of the walls, spreading colourful uniformity all around. Spittle, hand bills, painted slogans and advertisement for astrologers and mahir-e-amraaz-e-poshida were the great equalizers throughout the city. A post modernist abstract framed by the paan spittle.

The learning permits and test dates were given out from a barricaded office to the right and in the rear of the building. I had to line up for two and a half hours, some in scorching sun. When my turn came I paid the required fees for re-testing.

The road test was conducted in a vacant plot of land past Columbus Hotel. As you descend the Clifton Bridge and head towards Clifton, Columbus Hotel was the last building on the left. And next building was a couple of miles away. Am not sure but believe it is called Schon Circle or Teen Talwar now.

Between Columbus and the circular island where one road led to Old Clifton and the other to New there was no other building just marshy, salty, smelly land. The Adamjees had built three bungalows just before the traffic island. But they were later demolished. There were some dry patches there. In the distance you could see the firing range of Ack Ack (Ik Ik) School, the hydro towers, and I think Nawab of Kalat's tower like building.

Next week I arrived early for the test at the grounds. The omens were not good. The same policeman was conducting the tests. I did the reverse without knocking down any of the iron bars. Failed.

An older passerby, wearing a straw cap, with a pan spittle streak running down the left side of his mustache-less beard, several missing teeth, in a kurta that must have been white at the time of the Great Boer War with several buttons missing, took me aside and told me to slip a five rupee note to the panwala next time. I followed his eyes. The panwala would wave a greeting at the policeman every time he received the fiver. The lucky would pass the test.

I was young, stubborn and idealistic and had all the time in the world. A combination that stood me well. I will not pay a dhela in bribe, I told myself. Heck, if I had indicated, the license would have been delivered to my home. No questions asked, sans any testing. Like Majeed got his. Or Rafique. Or Tito. But I was determined to pass the test.

Recently I wondered---rob someone blind in the land of the guardians of the two holy shrines and your hands are chopped off. Rob a country blind and they have you as state guest. Some justice.

Third time I arrived really early and practiced the reverse eight with some stones as markers. This time the examiner in-charge as a lean, lanky ASI, Asif Shah with jet black handle bar moustache, and pink threaded eyes.

He asked my name, told me to do the reverse eight and while I was doing this he had his back turned toward me as he yelled at someone far away. I completed the task, parked and walked up to him. He interrupted his shouting to almost yell in my ears, Kiya hay? Sir, I did the reverse eight. Passed he wrote on the piece of paper. I was on cloud nine that day. I even waived at the panwala as I passed by him!

Left Karachi as a student, having never worked a day in Pakistan, I can euphemistically claim to have never bribed anyone there nor having received a bribe from someone: a small consolation, but one nevertheless.

Friends tell me if I were to return permanently today, this record will most probably be broken within a week. I am not so stubborn any more. And the idealism, though not destroyed, has been tempered with by Mother Nature.


III- Asli Chouraha

The intersection of Burns Road and Frere Road is the Asli Chouraha --- the real Chowk. Roughly speaking Frere Road ran East -West and Burns Road North-South.

It is a microcosm of old Karachi.

Near it are the famous Sind Muslim Law College, NED (Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw)Engineering College, now a University, DJ (Dayaram Jethumal) Science College, British Council and Pakistan Chowk in the South West quadrant.

Khaliq Deena Hall, where the legendary Ali brothers, Maulana Mohammed Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali delivered moving speeches prior to the great divide is in the North-West quadrant. Here Allama Rashid Turabi would bring tears to the eyes of multitudes in Moharram Ashura by simply uttering one word --- Kulsoom --- Asghar-- Zainul Abedin. It would fascinate me no end how well dressed uncles and aunties would burst into uncontrollable tears at the mere mention of those trigger words.

Dow Medical College, forever the battle ground between the leftist National Students Federation and Jamaat-e-Islamiís student clone Islami Jamiat-e-Tuluba, and the sprawling complex of Civil Hospital, with its slogan and poster splashed walls, and the stench of urine and death along the Mission Road boundary walls was here too. The poor and disabled would line up for OPD treatment and then not being able to afford even the transport back to their homes or villages would sleep outside on the pavement till the next appointment. Poverty acted as a great equalizer uniformly blanketing the hopes, aspirations and fears of the young and the old. Their only crime was to be born poor.

Also in the same quadrant is the Hamdard Dawakhana. Hakim Saeed and his younger brother arrived there every morning with precision. Next to it Delhi Muslim Hotel. Both prospered and built five-six story complexes. Also nearby at the intersection of Aram Bagh Road and Frere Road that bastion of ayurvedic medicine Sadhana Au Shudahlia.

Further down Shaikh Ghulam Ali & Sons and Ferozsons and Taj Company famous in their own way ---the former two for Urdu literature the latter one for divine. And tucked nearby a little dargah always filled with local charsees. In those days we used to look down upon those poor addicts. Later, well that is another story. Thank you Zia!

In the North-East quadrant is the Radio Pakistan’s government yellow dome.

Yeh Radio Pakistan hay. Aaj ki bisheesh bisheesh khaber eee haaye.President Ayub boloon…the news reader would start his newscast at ten to seven each day: and later at eight p.m. Shakeel Ahmed’s baritone voice would invariably resonate with Yeh Radio Pakistan hay, ab aap Shakeel Ahmed say khabraiN suniyay -- President Ayub nay... And I recall the Sunday morning children's programme, Ahmed Rushdi occasionally singing with us:

Bandar Road say KeamaRi
meri Chali ray ghoRa GaRi
Babu ho jana foothpath pur.

Yeh hay Radio Pakistan
goya khabrouN ki dukaan
Babu ho jana foothpath pur....

Annie Besant's Theosophical Hall (of the famous Jinnah - the ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity- slogan) was across the road where Ibn-e-Insha worked for some time, and Urdu Bazar to the west of Radio Pakistan, built over an open air gutter -- a nullah, where you would find most textbooks and rare Urdu books.

Further down Urdu Bazar is the Karachi Women's College with its penitentiary high boundary walls and the famous Lassi and Nihari shops in the South-East quadrant. How the street Romeos would line up around the bus stop when the college would get over. Many salaams and messages were discreetly exchanged in the afternoon.

Fresco Sweets at the South West corner was famous for its sweets, particularly fresh jalaybees. During Ramazaan crowds would spill over on the road. Lining up is a distinctly an un-desi trait. At a crowded desi shop on Danforth Avenue, here in Toronto, I patiently waited to be served. A man jostled his way to the cash counter with his ware. Are you from Pakistan, I smilingly asked. Pleased, he nodded. Later he asked me how did I guess. I just smiled some more.

Across from the Fresco was a little shop with a sign larger than its premises announcing to the world Azad Tailors, specialist in ladies tailoring. The white background of this sign bore the smoke mark of countless buses burned at that intersection --- almost as a sacrificial offering before it. His shop was always crowded. It was a source of wonder and miracle for me. How could he stitch those tight fitting, head turning shalwar-kameez suits without taking the client's measurements. And my tailor could never perfectly stitch the T-shirt or pants as I wanted them despite taking measurements!

Right beside it in a laneway abutting Frere Road, Maulana Saheb would set up his thela (kiosk on wheels) in the evening. Straw cap, kurta, lungi, the ever present glooori in mouth. Discerning clients from all over the city would descend to purchase his bun-kebabs and aaloo tikkiyas. Again no lines. Just a jostling crowd. If the breeze blew, then your nose would be alternately treated with aromas of sweets and kebabs. Impulse buying at its fascinating best.

H. Nizamuddin & Sons were on the North East side of this intersection. And across from him Rooldo Mohammed Din. Karachite knew the names very well. Any wedding, reception, milad, whatever the occasion, they would often block the streets with their colourful shamianas (tents), capets, dhurries, chairs, tables, samovars, china and cutlery. And then Kitabistan next to Rooldo.

Walk a few steps along Frere Road towards Sadar, the South-East quadrant you would pass HavMor Ice Cream, and Karachi Lassi House and Dilpasand Lassi House shops in tandem. And across from them Ambala Sweets and Dilli Nihari. But the more famous nihari was made just round the next corner. The Delhi Nihari House with pictures of Rustam-e-Pakistan Bholu Pehalwan and his brother Rustam-e-Zamaan Aslam Pehalwan hung prominently. And the Delhi Kabab House next to it. Obesity was regarded as a sign of prosperity in those days.

The street with Nihari shops would come alive in dawn, and later, very late in the evening. Niharí is dawn in Urdu. Originally nihari was an early morning treat. For the puritan, eating Nihari at dinner is like eating pizza for breakfast.

In the same quadrant you will find Delhi Store. A deceptively small store where one could find anything and everything from groceries to medicines, from J&J Baby Powder, Cussons or Pond's Talcum Powder, Hamdard's Safi, Vick's Vaporub, Tiger Balm, Tibet Snow, Treet or Gillette blades, Hysons or Philips light bulbs, Horlicks or Ovaltine, Brylcreem or Forhan's, Waterbury's Gripe water with 10% alcohol, (I used to wonder why customers would buy cartons of it: how many children did they have any way or did they run an orphanage?) to Sultan condoms.

Right beside Delhi Store was a store front local library. The middle-aged owner or manager was called Bhaijan. You could borrow A.R. Khatoon's voluminous, bound copies of Afshaan or Chasma, Naseem Hijazi's faction novels, Munshi Prem Chund, Krishn Chander, Ismat, Bedi, Manto, M. Aslam, to the latest Ibn-e-Safi or Ikram Ilahbadi paperback thriller for two annas per day. When the country went decimal his clients use to passionately argue over one paisa---twelve or thirteen paisas make two annas?

In the center of this intersection a concrete platform with an umbrella, painted in black and white stripes for the traffic policeman in sparkling white uniform, safari hat and brass whistle alternated with a wooden soap box. This raised circular platform built by KDA or KMC would barely last a few months at a time. Usually some speeding bus or truck would knock it down. And for the next few months the traffic policeman would mount the soap box to guide the traffic. His main function in those days seemed to be to flag his arm and blow his whistle alternately.

This is the intersection where one could get the pulse of Karachi.

A Bushra Zaidi is crushed under the wheels of speeding buses in Nazimabad, or the alien government honchos sitting far away in the shadows of Daman-e-Koh would impose Section 144 over the whole city with a few rotary movement of their fingers around those black PTI phones, periodic ethnic and sectarian violence across the borders, Ariel Sharon's Lebanese holocaust in Sabra and Chattila refugee camps, or the imposition of new taxes or needed little to stroke the ever lurking flames of dissent, unrest and anger. Students would overflow from nearby colleges, as if they had some telepathic mode of communication, and in that distinct and lethal desi signal of restlessness set fire to passing buses and impounded cars.

This chouraha provided a microscopic reading of the civic pulse of the country. Sharp political pundits in government and in opposition would read it just as the various re-election campaign committees of Presidents and leading Senators read their privately commissioned polls.

This was the asli chouraha -- the real chowk of Karachi, of Pakistan, of her dreams and aspirations.


Blogger Spheric said...


I enjoyed very much reading this auto-biographical travelogue/trip down memory lane. And to think, you're the only one in the 'land of the pure' never to have paid a bribe ?? Wow - you deserve a medal, or at least an honourable front page mention on the cover of 'Dawn'. :)

Much respect.

Wanderer aka Spheric aka Kan.

November 25, 2005 10:57 AM  
Blogger karachikhatmal said...

I keep coming to your blog in the strangest ways. This time while searching for lyrics to the Ahmed Rushdi song.

Have never read Karachi described so evocatively, so masterfully. *taaliyan*

May 30, 2012 10:57 AM  
Blogger karachikhatmal said...

I keep coming to your blog in the strangest ways. This time while searching for lyrics to the Ahmed Rushdi song. Have never read Karachi described so evocatively, so masterfully. *taaliyan*

May 30, 2012 10:58 AM  

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