My Odyssey with Karachi started when my flight from Kathmandu, carrying me and my co-repatriates (displaced Urdu speaking people from Bangladesh), landed at Karachi airport on a sizzling day of 9th June 1973. My feet touched the ground and the entirety of my existence transformed into a unique feel of bliss and serenity. After remaining in forced detachment from Pakistan for 18 months (December 1971-June 1973), I realized that the touch of a mother and that of the motherland have the same impact: of security, shelter, and reassurance.
I came out of the airport. My relatives, who were waiting outside, drove me through Drigh Road (today’s Shara e Faisal) to North Nazimabad. The road then was narrower and almost tree less. From the next day onwards, I was out exploring Karachi; visiting my relatives’ places, public spots, and frequenting restaurants and cinema halls.
Fortunately, within a few days, I got few private tuitions at Kharadar and PECHS and started earning my pocket money. I got admission in Islamia College. Commuting over longer distances became my daily routine. First thing that fascinated me about Karachi was its transport facility. Although in an unkempt condition, the Tram was still operating in Saddar and Tower area. The Bus system was extensive and effective. Circular railway was another organized and cost efficient means of transportation. Downtown was always full of hustle and bustle. Buses were overflowing with passengers. Students would prefer standing either at door pedestals for flamboyant actions or finding room close to female section to exchange smiles with the acquainted ones. And it was always a fun to dodge the conductor and getting off without paying fares.
Another charm of the city was the population matrix which was composed of Urdu speaking migrants, Sindhi, Baluchi, Punjabi, Pathan, Memon, Irani, Bengali and many other groups. Listening to Urdu in varied accent was immensely enchanting. Diverse ethnic culture was the beauty of this mega city.
Frequenting restaurants, sipping tea and gossiping was a regular time pass then. Elphinston Street and Victoria Road (today’s Abdullah Haroon Road and Zaibunnesa Street respectively) had variety of restaurants, including Irani hotels and Chinese restaurants. Few names to mention are Sheezan, Café George, Hongkong Chinese restaurant, Jabees, Pioneer, Café Grand etc. If one would go for tea in the evening to these restaurants, he/she would find the venue buzzing with poets reciting ghazals/ nazms and audience showering accolades on them; in another corner, there could be heard a friendly debate between left wing idealists and right wing diehards.
Political and literary discussion were inter woven. Topics would range from nationalization in Pakistan, Kosygen’s politics in Russia, nuclear explosion in India, Nixon’s water gate scandal, Vietnam war, Faiz’s poetry, Englebert’s masculine voice, Zia Mohiuddin show, Ibn e Safi’s latest novel, Sofia Loren’s seductiveness, the Hollywood movie Mackenna’s Gold to French story teller Maupassant. However, never was any debate fierce enough that it would blow out of proportion. Constraint, decency and discipline was the cultural norm of the day; to respect other’s opinion would prevail as decorum. Sessions in these places were honestly, extremely refreshing.
On weekends, dancing floors at posh hotels and night clubs – Hotel Metropole, Inter Continental Hotel, Horse Shoe, Playboy and Oasis would remain open for socialites. People would dance to their frenzies to the songs of Bee Gees, Boney M, Disco Inferno, Donna Summer, Kishore Kumar.
Karachi had for its inhabitants numerous recreational places: parks, cinema halls, art council, libraries and sea shore. These public places were well kept and maintained. Cinemas were a regular family entertainment. Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor, Racquel Welch, Greogery Peck and Roger Moore were the favorites. Not to forget the desi heartthrob Waheed Murad, fit-in-all hero Nadeem, Muhammad Ali, Zeba, Shamim Ara, Rani and Babra.
The global fashion, style and trends had found its way amongst the youth here – flowery and broad collar shirts, broad belts, bellbottom trousers, high heeled broad toed shoes, flowing long hair and long side burns – an absolute departure from 60’s gentlemanly wears and postures. Young females would be seen wearing flapper trousers and short shirts, and maxy (long gown) was a common attire in weddings. At high end social gatherings, women would be seen elegantly draped in saree with sleeveless blouses exuding a regal refinedness and grace.
In the evenings young Christian and Parsi couples, who were recognizable from their western attire, would stroll hand in hand on the footpaths of Saddar and Soldier Bazar giggling and chuckling at each other. Nobody would bother the pair.
Mosques, whatever maslaq (school of thought) it belonged to, were considered places of worships and spiritual solace. Being there was never unsafe. The sanctity of Imam Bargahs was always respected. Worship at churches and temples were considered individual business. Bohri and Ismaili communities always added color to the diversity of the city.
On 9th & 10th Muharram, a number of Sunni youngsters would be seen accompanying their Ahl e Tashee friends in Tazia processions and would treat themselves to sweet flavored drinks (sharbat), traditional delicious cookies and kheer, distributed at various points along the procession route. Parents would not frown upon this mingling. During the month of Rabi ul Awal, holding Milad e Mehfil by Mohalla committees and individual households was a routine matter which never stirred any dispute in terms of sharia.
Christmas would be celebrated in full swing with shops in Saddar being decorated extravagantly. Christmas trees would also be on sale. Many progressive minded Muslims would buy Christmas trees and keep them in their homes manifesting communal harmony and acceptance. Churches and its surroundings would bustle with festivities. Zoroastrian Parsis and Hindu dwellers would celebrate their festivals Navrose, Durga Pooja, Holi to their fullest joy and fun. Muslims around were all encompassing.
Karachi witnessed an innovative promotion of an English movie ‘Beyond the Last Mountain’ (Urdu version ‘Musafir’) produced by Javed Jabbar, then an ace advertising professional. The name of the movie was inscribed at a horizontal stretch of half a mile on the mountain behind D’Silva Town North Nazimabad – the relevance was brilliantly capitalized.
Government Hospitals would provide needed relief to patients. Para medical staff was professional and caring, medicines were original, hospitalization was safe and the costs were affordable too. Conscientiousness still prevailed and people who mattered could not yet think to embezzle hospital funds. Schools and colleges had sincere and affectionate teachers who were always available to help their students after class; commercialism had yet not polluted their spirits.
On campuses, the Cold War phenomena influenced student politics which was divided into two blocks: socialist and capitalist. Student activists had an emotional and sentimental attachment with their respective ideologies, and were passionate about how to upgrade the common man’s life. At the same time they were intellectually sound and well versed with current affairs and world happenings. Participation in student politics was like falling in romance. Ideological combats and debates in college/ university canteens were highly engrossing.
Gun violence in campuses was not visible except exchange of fists, use of hockey sticks and display of knives, that too in very rare cases. Although a good chunk of students would support socialist ideology, but surprisingly the Karachi University elections for student union president which would see the candidates from Islami Jamiate Tulba (student wing of Jamat e Islami) as successful. For example BBC’s Shafi Naqi Jamei and ex-ambassador Hussain Haqqani, brilliant and articulate students of their era, served as presidents of KU Students Union in 70’s. However post university tenure, their link with their party did not continue.
Game Changer Occurrences of 70’s
In 1972 Provincial government declared Sindhi to be the sole official language of Sind, which was rejected by Urdu Speaking migrant from India. A violent protest broke out in Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Larkana and few other cities. Government withdrew the resolution, but it did sow the seed of fear and suspicion in Urdu speaking people. Karachi centered politics of 80’s actually found its root in this unwise decision and unfortunate violence. A misadventure by Peoples Party provincial government, perhaps.
In March 1977, general elections were held under the auspices of Peoples Party government; but the combined opposition named as Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) refused to accept the results with allegations that it had been rigged in favor of Pakistan People’s Party candidates and demanded fresh elections. This ensued months of fierce and volatile street protests nationwide which climaxed into the toppling of Bhutto regime and imposition of martial law in July 1977 by General Ziaul Huq. Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto was imprisoned and later executed in 1979 in compliance with court verdict. Elimination of Bhutto – a popular leader and statesman – and Zia ul Huq’s martial law and his intrigues changed the complexion of political landscape of Pakistan with woeful fall outs in subsequent decades.
Zia regime was bent upon to cutting the size of Peoples Party, especially, in Sind. To achieve this objective, along with other tactics, the regime facilitated old and nascent ethnic parties in both rural and urban bases to prosper; these parties later mainstreamed themselves on political landscape and their electoral onslaught in Karachi wiped out Jamat e Islami, Jamiat e Ulma e Islam and other national parties which had enjoyed decent vote banks.
In 1979, United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) invaded Afghanistan which led to the nine years long Afghan-Soviet war. Pakistan massively supported the Afghan warriors. This war not only changed the world but also contaminated Pakistani society with religious extremism, gun culture and drug economy. Karachi being the port city and home to international airport saw unprecedented trafficking of drugs and became base city for drug smuggling. A huge number of Afghan refugees concentrated in Karachi. The diaspora gave rise to orchestrated crimes in Karachi.
While narrating Karachi of 70’s, it will be pertinent to say that people of other cities, such as, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta were equally progressive and considerate; lovely and magnanimous; cultured and diverse.
The bubbly Karachi of early 70’s had continued to maintain its luster till the end of the decade and ushered into the next decade only to suffer the pain of hatred, intolerance, deterioration and devastation which continued to expound in the following decades; today’s Karachi portrays the consequences. Still upholding optimism; may nature takes its course and iron out the wrinkled fabric of the society emerging out a civilized Karachi sustainable for the generation of today and tomorrow Amen.