Essay on Karachi Essay
‘The city consists of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past…A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all of its past. The city however does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps…’ (Calvino, 1974: 10-11) Like the city of Zaira, Karachi contains its past between layers of memories, each having a narrative of its own replete with personal history and anecdotes that help us understand the city for what it was and how it has changed over the years.
In his essay on Karachi, In the Eye of the Storm, the author introduces us to the Saddar of his youth. His essay reveals a fascinating journey through Saddar one unknown to the present generation of Karachites who have perhaps seen it only at its worst. Today Saddar is little more than a traffic clogged node of transaction for people trying to get from one part of town to the other. The presence of the Central Bus station, multiple bazaars and commercial buildings has added to the congestion and unmanuverability of the place. By night Saddar is a favourite haunt for drug addicts and the homeless.
The Saddar of Khan’s University days however was a golden glittering Saddar, the centre of all creative and cultural activity in the city. The author navigates the streets disappointed to find that the cafes, patisseries and bookshops of his youth have now been completely taken over by electronic shops and commodity markets. He recounts his own narrative of frequenting the chai khokas or tea dens on his way from university where student youth groups used to gather to exchange intellectual and political thought over cups of tea and espresso.
Cafes would fill to full capacity to hear upcoming poets and orators engage in intellectual repartee. The streets were filled with bookstalls and booksellers and going to the cinema to watch Shakespearean movies was a principal form of entertainment and education for literary circles. With nostalgia khan relates how in those days Karachi’s streets were washed and cleaned with water every night; ‘in the hindsight of the elderly, the streets of childhood are almost bound to appear happier because they unlike the present had a future. ’(Jukes, 1990:51).
Today four out of twelve cinemas, five out of thirty-seven eateries, two out of six libraries and five out of seventeen bookshops have survived. What brought about this transformation of Saddar? The present degradation of Saddar and its environs did not occur overnight but was a result of the changing socio-economic and political dynamics of the city; ‘As the wave from memory pours in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. ’ (Calvino, 1974: 10-11) As the city grows in some places it atrophies in others for decay is a product of evolution.
Post-Independence of Pakistan in 1947 refugee migrants poured into Karachi from India settling in with their families in Saddar district. By the 1960s the population explosion in the city center nessacitated the development of housing colonies at the periphery of Saddar and its environs. As a result some of the oldest families in the district slowly moved out into the housing colonies abandoning some of the most beautiful period mansions of the colonial era or selling them off for commercial use.
Even today a walk downtown saddar one is pleasantly surprised to find rundown period buildings above street level, behind banners of commodity stores that almost entirely cover the ground floor level of these buildings. The second wave swept the city in the late 1970s in the form of General Zia-ul Haqs Islamisation policy. Saddars clubs, bars and billiard rooms were seen as a den of vice and shady activities, hence there was a crackdown on all such premises which were forcibly closed down.
In all seventeen bars and eleven billiard rooms were shut down. The hut bar and discothque is now an electronic shop, the paris bar and billiard room is a retail shop, the old tody shop is now Virgo restraint, the ritz bar –ritz snacks, Legourmnet bar and cabaret is the Sheraton hotel, lido bar and night club taken over by shops. Simultaneously the Karachi university whose student unions organized strikes and disruptions to destabalise the military government was deliberately relocated to the outskirts of the city.
Deprived of its active youth population and participation Saddar quickly degenerated into its presnt state and the cafes and restraints lost a great chunk of there clinetale running into losses these places had to be shut down. Cultural activities now have to be relocated to other parts of the city problems of access, no centre for cultural activities. Karachi is essentially a dual city. The first a Victorian city of barracks, cantonments and municipal buildings runs as undercurrent to the present one of multinational corporations and banks, a chaotic city of noise, glamour and lights.
This duality is apparent in the usage of street names in the Saddar district. Post independence, street names were slowly renamed from Victorian ones to those commemorating national heroes. Hence Elphinstone street named after the Governor of Bombay- a Scotsman Sir Monstuart Elphinstone morphed into Zaib-un-nisa street, Victoria street named after Queen Victoria herself became Hajji Abdullah Haroon road, Frere road became Shahra-e-Liaquat while the present day I. I. Chundrigarh road the premier road housing all the big banks, insurance companies as well as the Karachi Stock exchange was once known as Mcleod road.
Even streets names that had no semblance to Victorian ones were updated from Victorian times to echo a nearer more familiar (favourable) past; Bunder road the most important traffic artery of Karachi leading from the port to the outskirts of the city through the city center was renamed M.. A. Jinnah road after Pakistan’s founding father. It is interesting to note that even Burns road, the food street of Karachi is known as bunce road, the English pronunciation taking on a distinct native pronunciation.
Renaming the physical context of the city is perhaps an attempt to rewrite its history and instill nationalist values by burning out the history of a Colonial past and replacing it with that of the memories of our struggles for independence. However memories are neither as shortlived nor as pliable as street names; those Karachites who lived and grew up here before the street names were changed, still use the Victorian names. The present generation has adopted the new ones as they do not share the significance of the memory of these places with that of their parents hence the duality.