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Monday, April 24, 2006

Nobody in Karachi whistles anymore

The way we were

Nobody in Karachi whistles anymore

By Kaleem Omar

In the Karachi of the old days, the city of my youth, one often used to hear people whistling a jaunty tune as they cycled home at night after a movie. Many things in Karachi have changed since then, mostly for the worse. Which probably explains why nobody in Karachi whistles anymore - or, if they do, they do so in secret, as if it were a crime. Indeed, whistling has become so rare now that a whole generation of Karachiites has grown up not even knowing how to whistle - at least not in the way that many members of my generation could whistle entire songs in the old days, including catchy ditties like "Awaara Hoon Mein", "Jambalaya" and "The Happy Whistler" Some of us could even whistle classical pieces like Ravel's "Bolero" and Dvorjak's "New World Symphony"..

The carefree Karachi of that happy-whistler era has gone forever, lost in the mist of time. Today's Karachi is a beleaguered, angst-ridden city, where most urban problems seem bigger and more intractable than those in any other Pakistani city, though Lahore has been coming along nicely in recent years, thank you very much.

Whistling is not the only thing that isn't heard in Karachi anymore; jazz isn't heard here either. Back in the 1950s, however, Karachi had many jazz musicians. Most of them belonged to the city's Goanese community and lived in a section of Saddar some people called "Little Goa". Romeo Pereira's bakery in Saddar was famous for its "black bread". Rodrigues, a tobacconist on Elphinstone Street, was the shop you went to for your favourite blend of pipe tobacco and other smokers' requisites. Where does one go to buy black bread now? Does today's generation of Karachiites even know what black bread is?

In the 1950s the US State Department had a programme under which leading American jazz groups were sent to give concerts in cities around the world. Under that programme, such legendary jazz groups as Duke Ellington's Band, Dizzy Gillespie's Band and the Dave Bruebeck Quartet (of "Take Five" fame) came to perform in Karachi and Lahore.

Duke Ellington's 60-member jazz band gave two concerts at Karachi's Metropole Hotel in 1959. The band included such famed musicians as Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves on the alto sax. At the Newport Jazz Festival in the US state of Rhode Island in 1957, Ellington's band gave an open-air concert attended by 150,000 people. One of the pieces they played was an Ellington composition entitled "Diminuendo in Blue, Crescendo in Blue". During the course of the piece, Paul Gonsalves cut loose with an incredible 57 choruses on the alto sax that brought the cheering audience to its feet.

When Ellington's band came to perform in Karachi, some of us jazz groupies informed him during a practice session at the Metropole that we had a local jazz musician named Paul Gonsalves who also played the alto sax. Intrigued, Duke Ellington asked us to bring him over. When Ellington heard him play, he was so impressed by the quality of his playing that he invited him to play at the concert that evening. The American Paul Gonsalves and the Karachi Paul Gonsalves were seated next to each other at the concert. Their free-wheeling jam session brought the house down.

The Karachi Paul Gonsalves is still around, or was until a few years ago when I came across him one afternoon playing at the Pearl Continental Hotel's coffee lounge. But he was now playing soft background music - a far cry from the foot-stomping jazz numbers he had played with the other Paul Gonsalves when Duke Ellington's Band came to town nearly five decades ago.

If you want to look for Country Club Road in the Karachi of today, you won't find it; it's called University Road now. But the name isn't the only thing that has changed.

Forty-five years ago, Country Club Road was a lonely, 12-foot-wide track, leading out of the city toward Malir Cantonment through a virtually empty landscape frequented in the evening mostly by courting couples who wanted to be alone. Nobody bothered the courting couples in those days, not even the city police.

Heading out of town on Country Club Road in those days, the built-up area ended at the Sui Gas pipeline terminal. Beyond that there was nothing until you got to the Country Club, a small tiled-roof structure that housed the Karachi Flying Club. A dirt strip next to the building served as the runway for the flying club's two-seater planes - a few Tiger Moths of World War II vintage. Beyond the club, there was again nothing until you got to the Karachi University campus, on which construction had begun in 1956.

Today's University Road is a noisy, traffic-choked, six-lane artery running through some of the city's most densely populated areas, including Gulshan-e-Iqbal - a huge misnomer of a development that wasn't even a glimmer in planners' eyes in the 1950s, or even until the late '60s.

In this context, I am reminded of some lines from a poem by the early twentieth-century American poet Vachel Lindsay: "...Then, up around the apple-earth they come, / Blasting the whispers of the morning dumb, / Cars in a plain, realistic row, / And fair dreams fade when the raw horns blow." You can't hear people whistling over the roar of traffic and the screech of Japanese air horns.

In 1813 Karachi occupied an area of some 30 to 35 acres and its population was an estimated 13,000. The 1901 census recorded the population as 136,297. In 1941 it was 435,887. By the time of the first post-Independence census in 1951, it had risen to 1,137,667 - an increase of 161% over the 1941 figure. Today, it is an estimated 15 million - meaning that Karachi's population has grown more than 1,000 times since 1813 and now accounts for nearly 10% of Pakistan's population.

Today's Karachi is an urban sprawl of some 1,200 square miles, nearly 22,000 times the 1813 figure. It needs some 600 million gallons of water a day and close to 2,000 megawatts of electricity. It is the country's financial, commercial and industrial capital, and generates 70 per cent of all government revenue. It has more than a million vehicles, including some 55,000 auto-rickshaws, 16,000 intra-city buses, 10,000 minibuses and close to a thousand inter-city buses. By any standard, then, Karachi is a mega city.

But mega cities tend to have mega problems, and Karachi is no exception. Over 200 million gallons a day of untreated highly toxic sewage flows into Karachi harbour through the Lyari River, which now has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted river in the world (having overtaken England's Mersey River in the mid-1990s). In many parts of the city traffic conditions during peak hours are now approaching gridlock. Landfill projects have severely damaged coastal mangrove forests and altered the ecology necessary to sustain many species of marine life. The list goes on and on – but you get the picture.

A British army led by General Charles Napier annexed Sindh in 1843. In February 1843, Napier declared Karachi the capital of the new British territory, in place of Hyderabad, capital of the Talpur rulers. In August 1947 Karachi became the capital of the new state of Pakistan.. In 1959, General Ayub Khan (he hadn't yet promoted himself to field marshal) decided to shift the capital to the then non-existent Islamabad. Doxiades Associates, a firm of Greek town planners, was hired to prepare the master plan for Islamabad. Work on the new capital began in 1963.

The irony is that more than half of the land in Karachi is still owned or administered by federal agencies, including Port Qasim Authority, Pakistan Steel Mills, Civil Aviation Authority, Pakistan Railways, Defence Housing Authority, various Cantonment Boards, the Ministry of Housing and Works (which controls PECHS), and the Karachi Port Trust - which, under a 1895 ruling by a British official that has never been countermanded, technically owns all the coastal land in Karachi "up to the high-water mark".

On April 19, 1986, Karachi schoolgirl Bushra Zaidi was crushed to death under the wheels of a minibus. Karachi has never been the same "City of Lights" since then.


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