Before the Divide. Karachi, early 40’s.

Last night, a friend posted this decades old video, taken by a British soldier during the final days of the British Raj in pre-partition Karachi.

I watched it, enthralled (as I’m sure you will too if you’re a Karachiite) and all I could think was…..THIS was the backdrop of my mother’s childhood..

I called her up first thing in the morning to tell her about the video and see what she could remember about those days, and what she said was a revelation for me….! I got dressed as fast as I could and dashed over to unearth some more of the past….from the horse’s mouth.

Mummy (Khatija) sitting on a stool on the left, Rubab (the eldest daughter) standing behind her. Maimuna sitting demurely on the floor, Nanima(Mariam) looking bemused and regal on the chair between them, Bawaji standing behind her, carrying Hatim(the eldest son). On the far right is Amina, Mariam's sister and Mummy's most talented aunt. And the lady in the middle? That's Bawaji's mother.


When Little Khatija was a year old (or thereabouts) 🙂

Mummy was born in 1940 to Mariam bai and Fida Hussain Marvi, third in a line of eight children, in the second year of the second World War. They were a well-to-do family amongst the old Bohra families of Karachi, and Bawaji (Mummy’s father) was an enterprising trader running a Lever Brothers agency, operating his flourishing business from the ground floor of a huge house on Marriot Road. Their family was known as ‘the house of the great Moghuls’ amongst Bawaji’s peers, for their prosperity and lavish lifestyle.

One of Mummy’s earliest memories is of British soldiers rolling down Bunder Road on army trucks, throwing chocolates to the excited children lining the street, standing by to watch the fascinating spectacle with their families.

She was 3 or 4 when Karachi was declared unsafe, it being a port city in a time of war, so the entire extended family, including aunts and uncles and their children, deemed it wise to bundle themselves into a coach of the North-West Railway and move to Sidhpur temporarily. Mummy was too small to remember anything much. All she knows, or was told, is people in Sidhpur (some of whom ended up being her unwitting in-laws!) adored her as the short, cute little thing with curly hair, famous for roaming around with a ‘jharoo’ and sweeping the patio of the house they stayed in, and they would hold her little hand and take her everywhere.

They ended up staying in Sidhpur for a couple of years, coming back when the coast was clear.

Mummy smiles wistfully as she recalls the peaceful, quiet life of the Karachi of her childhood. Those were the days when traffic consisted of bicycles and horse-drawn carriages (ghora-gaaris) camel carts (oonth-gaaris) and donkey-carts (gadha-gaaris). Troughs dotted the landscape as watering-holes for the thirsty animals. It was a clean city, where the streets were swept every day and washed with water.

Trams of the East India Tramway Company plied the streets with a route that went as far as Keamari on Bunder Road past the Boulton Market and Mereweather Tower. Other routes took people from Garden Road to Preedy street, from Frere Street to the Karachi Cantonment Station and from Bunder Road to Mansfield Street on to Commissariat Road and Soldier Bazaar. Another route took the tram to Lawrence Road.

Mummy has vivid memories of Marriot Road being permeated by the mouth-watering smell of frying pakoras and bhajias every evening. It was a popular snack, and a common sight to see people munching from a stash of pakoras in cones made of newspaper, accompanied with tea from a shop called Sadaqali chai-wala.

An old woman, generally addressed as ‘Dosi’ (old woman) would sit with her basket of red sour-sweet berries called ‘ber’ all strung together in strings, packets of sliced guavas, red badaams (almonds) and tiny little cucumbers called ‘kotimba’ (Mum thinks they’re extinct now). These snacks cost 1 paisa or 2 paisas in those days.

A woman called Sara sat by the wayside with a deg full of chickpeas in a savoury gravy. She made squares of bread smeared with red chilli paste, doused in the chickpea gravy and sold it by the plate. Mummy swore by its deliciousness.

It was a wonderful, enjoyable childhood for Mummy, with moonlit excursions to the Kothari Parade Ground and Lady Lloyd pier on Clifton beach. They would pile onto an oonth-gaari and set off for the far reaches of Clifton which were nothing but sand dunes then. Sometimes the road would get covered with drifting sand too, and it was an exciting, fun-filled expedition involving a long walk down to the beach, culminating in refreshments at a snack bar by the sea with the whole family laughing and enjoying each others company. But their favourite outing by far had to be the West Wharf at Keamari harbour, where they would hang out at the Native Jetty bridge (popularly known as ‘Netty Jetty’) and watch the goods-laden ships coming in.

Karachi was a small city then and its civilisation ended with certain landmarks. The Polo Ground was one, as was the ‘tekri’, or hill, where Quaid-e-Azam is now buried. Mummy remembers the ‘Parsi no kunwo’, a place shrouded in mystery for non-Parsis……I presume the Parsi Colony near present day Mehmoodabad must have been on the outskirts of the city then, as was a certain Sanatorium for patients of tuberculosis somewhere on Korangi road. It used to be that Karachi was populated mainly by those which are now known as the minorities. Marriot Road was full of Bohras, living amicably alongside the Hindus and the ubiquitous Parsis and Goan Christians and Khoja Isna’asharis of Saddar, Soldier Bazaar and Kharadar. (This is what Mummy recalls from her memories, which are at once clear as day yet fuzzy around the edges.)

30 thoughts on “Before the Divide. Karachi, early 40’s.

  1. i didnt know they went to sidhpur for a few years!!!!!!!…….mummy never tells me anything!..*pouts*..:D
    good job mun..i loved reading it and the video is the perfect clincher for providing the back drop…:)
    keep em coming….its very engaging to re_visit our parents childhood in such a descriptive and comprehensive manner..:)….it makes me teary to envision mum as the chubby little kid , with dimples and adorable curls , …doing the same things our kids have done……………………………….hugz

    1. I didn’t know either until yesterday morning!!!!!! Can you imagine my shock, surprise and delight?? 😀
      My head has been swimming in the days of yore since listening to Mummy talk for two straight hours yesterday…and the video really was like a trip in a time machine.
      You’re teary? I keep bursting into tears! 😀

  2. Some more photos to augment your imagination 🙂

    1. Argh! I thought so 😛

      Thanks but I’m sure the credit once again goes to some gay British soldier 😉

      1. Kudos to the (ahem) British soldier for capturing all this lovely footage for all posterity 🙂 We are deeply grateful to him! But if you had not posted it on your wall, I wouldn’t have seen it, and this blog post would be sorely lacking in atmosphere, now wouldn’t it? Plus it made me drop everything and write it! Hence you are definitely up there in the chain of events, in my humble opinion 🙂

  3. Well done Mun! You’ve put together the post so well…made me all nostalgic 🙂 My Mom used to love ‘ber’ too but stopped eating ages ago because she believed them to be bringing on the cold! Enjoyed the journey through Karachi too and once again – stunning pictures!

  4. Thank you o kind and crazy Goan girl! What can I say…these pictures just make my imagination explode. They make me nostalgic for a time that wasn’t mine…
    Writing this, going through old faded, torn photos has been very emotional for me somehow and I find myself looking at everything around with such a different perspective. Y’know, I live just a stone’s throw away from the Kothari Parade Ground. Can’t imagine a time when the highly developed area where I live was just forlorn sand dunes…

  5. Very well written Munira Apa… it took me to 1940s better than any book on history I have read or studied 🙂

  6. No one knew at that time that ,how events would take turn, there would be established relationship between Sidhpurwalas and Karachiwalas . Only Mamoowala family has entered into matrimony relations . My uncle Sh.Saifuddin Mamoowala (Sidhpuri) married to Batul d/o Sh.Hussainbhai Bandukwala (Karachiite ), and myself : Mohammedi Mamoowala married to Khatija Sh.Fidahussain Marvi.

  7. Hello There!
    Just stumbled upon your blog and i find it simply beautiful, and very nostalgic. You see, i too am from Karachi, and i was born in 1941.
    i lived in the saddar area. The land where our ‘flat’ was, was known as “Chand Gali”. A bohra family owned the big blog=ck of ‘flats’ at athe end of the street/ By this i mean what one called the beggining or the end :). There the Bohra’s huge building was opposite to the Memon Masjid.
    I wonder if your Mom would remember the street or if she knew the families that lived there.
    The girls, a lot of them were my friends. We were a Chrlistian family, but not goan.
    Please keep writing, as i love going down memory lane.

    “Karachi, i shall never forget thee” ..

    Today, the flats where we lived is not there, i think though the flats that belonged to the Bohri family may still be there.
    That street is no longer as i remember it. 😦
    But… in my mind it will always be the way it was when i was a child.

    Thanks so much. and God bless you. sc

    1. I am so glad you found my blog Stella! We used to live in Saddar too, until I was around 7 yrs old. I asked my mother about Chand gali and the Memon masjid, but she isn’t too sure about them…..but I’m pretty sure my father would know 🙂
      I associate Saddar with my early school days, when my sisters and I were sent off to school in a ghora-gaari, and traffic wasn’t as mad as it is now. Even though I was so little when we moved to a different area, I still have very vivid recollections of the time we lived there. Very nostalgic indeed.
      I wonder where you live now?

      1. Hi Munira,
        i live in Canada now.
        i miss Karachi pretty awful at times. Are you still in Karchi?
        Thanks for getting back.
        Being old now, i do not keep too well. Thats whats “Golden Age’ is about i guess. 🙂
        God bless you and your family.

        1. Yep, still live here. I think you’re better off in Canada, the way things are over here…..though there is something about this place that is eminently miss-able. Everyone who moves away longs to be back. Weird, huh?

          My mom is the same age as you, and she has angina, so she’s dealing with that at the mo. I’m sure you two would enjoy putting your heads together and ‘discussing’ your golden years 🙂

          Thank you for your wishes!

  8. bravo munira! how could i not have read and seen this?me too,surprised about living in sidhpur.also mum, abbajis,foundation laid back then.amazing!i am interested in the sindh archives.have you visited?can we go together?

  9. A rather unusual bit of trivia, I noticed the trams were having the BEST logo on it (BEST here in Mumbai means BOMBAY ELECTRIC SUPPLY & SUBURBAN TRANSPORT) …… so, was the BEST supplying the logistics and electricity to Karachi back then?

  10. Wow! That video is amazing! And I love the details your mum gives. You’re lucky that you could pick her brain like that. By the time I was interested in recording the past, my grandparents were dead, as was my dad, and I don;t have any contact with my mother anymore.

    1. Oh I’m so glad you thought the video was amazing too!
      I was hanging out with my parents yesterday, picking their brains again, listening agog to every memory….such fun! And I do realize how lucky I am, more so after reading your comment.
      I need to put in more work on this blog for sure…

  11. I just stumbled upon this blog and this reminds me of all the stories my mother, grandmother, mother in law and grandmother in law tell me about the good ol’ days that they have spent in Karachi! Thank you so much for this!

  12. This was a beautiful read. I can’t help but place a vintage filter over my memories of Karachi and pretend to have travelled back in time in my imagination, what I wouldn’t give to be part of the truly golden era of my city! Thank you.

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