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 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.)