Monday, March 5, 2012

Memories Of A Karachiwali

A family sitting in the Frere Hall gardens in 1952 – photo by writer

When I think about 'growing up in Karachi', I start preparing a mental list of all those names, places and things that have otherwise been tucked away somewhere, deep in my memory. As the floodgates of my memory suddenly open, a whole lot of things tumble out. In my recall, I relive my past, often in minute detail.

'B.P.' biscuits, sweets and toffees were a staple but once in a while we went to have ice cream at 'Havmore' or 'Pioneer' in Saddar. Those were the days when a small tri-coloured slab of ice cream (vanilla white, strawberry pink and pista green) was served on a plate, and we had it with special spoons that were squared in the front. Much later, 'Topsy' was a favoured place to stop for an ice cream or a cold drink (read Pakola) and 'M.F.' ice cream was the brand with which we had become familiar.

I was familiar with Malbari ki chai (they were the people from Kerala, South India, perhaps mostly from the Malabar Hills, who brewed and sold tea) and the Irani hotels (Irani restaurants and bakeries were mostly set up by members of two communities of different faiths, the Bahais and the Zoroastrians or Parsis, both originating in Iran). These were scattered across the city, but I was hardly ever taken to one. 'Ambala Sweets' was popular, and so was 'Fresco' at the corner of Burnes Road and Frere Road.

Sitting inside the Gallery Sadequain at the Frere Hall recently, speaking to groups of school students who were visiting an art exhibition with which I was involved, I found myself reminiscing about my childhood, and my visits to the Frere Hall during those years. From over 500 students with whom I interacted, only a handful had ever stepped inside the Frere Hall building and the gardens around it. I told them that during my childhood this building housed the National Museum. Outside, in the gardens, there was a bandstand where a live band played each Saturday evening and I used to come with my parents and friends to hang out, eat popcorn or 'chana jor garam' or take to the see-saws and swings. There was a skating rink too where children would swirl and twirl and everyone seemed to be so carefree, surrounded by large trees, water-fountains, marble sculptures of Queen Victoria and others, and the hullabaloo of happy shrieks, laughter and music.

My school was about fifteen minutes walking distance from my house. I used to go there and return home with two or three other children of our neighbourhood. Always commuting on foot, it never occurred to us that the school would be closed for any reason. If it was raining, I would don my blue rain-coat, which I loved to wear on such days, and walk along with my friends who would have a domestic help carry an umbrella over their heads.

I was very young when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower came on a state visit to Karachi and, two years later, in 1961, when Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the city. Our entire school had to rehearse the welcoming act for days. We were instructed to wear clean, crisp uniforms. We had to go and stand along Elphinston (Zebunnisa) Street and wave small flags. Our principal was a wonderful British lady who was thrilled at the Queen's visit. I recall Field Marshal Ayub Khan sitting next to these important guests in a convertible limousine. The excitement around those visits made us children believe that we played an essential role, and that the smiles and nods of the dignitaries were meant for us in acknowledgment of our enthusiasm.

When I turned seven, my father encouraged me to become a member of the British Council Library, then located at the Sarangati Building at Pakistan Chowk. I was registered in the section for juniors. The fortnightly visits to borrow and return books were always a high point for me. There was a wide range of books available on different subjects including fiction, which played an important part in my ever-lasting love for books. A few years later, for Urdu fiction, I would stop by a small shop on my way to school. It was almost like a paan shop, a mere niche in the wall, but full of books. I paid a weekly rent of eight annas (half a rupee) and lapped up the novel or the compilation of short-stories that I had picked up that week.

My father owned a bicycle until I was about five, but he seldom used it for transporting me, although I had heard that my sister, seven years my elder, used to ride in front and be taken to school on his bike. Cycle-rickshaws were my mother's preferred mode of transport. I also remember that my sister and I often rode the tram with her. When I was older, but still in school, my mother's cousin who had come from Bombay to live with us, took me or my sister around on his Vespa scooter. I loved those rides.

I can hardly believe that during my college days in the late sixties, I used to walk the half-hour distance between my place and the Karachi College for Women on Princess Street (now called Chand Bibi Road), only rarely using the public bus. But by this time I had learned to balance myself while standing precariously on the footboard of a bus, holding on to my books or my bag with one hand and a metal rod or passenger's seat with the other.

Going to the cinema was a regular activity. There were several that we visited, and others that we never stepped into. Most of them are no more. I remember watching Indian, Pakistani and American films at various cinema halls, including Nishat, Naz, Plaza, Lyric, Bambino, Paradise, Capitol, Rex and Palace. Those that I never visited included the Godeon, Eros, Kohinoor, Rivoli, Reno, Light House, Jubilee, Ritz, Regal and Odeon. These were, nevertheless, also very popular and always crowded but my father, who used to be my cinema guide and companion, avoided these.

There was the Nazrul (Islam) Academy on Bunder Road, named after the progressive Bengali poet/ writer of (East) Pakistan. Besides my fondness for books and films, my other passion was art. While still under 10, I was encouraged to participate in the children's painting competitions organised at the Nazrul Academy. I also remember participating in the Shankar Weekly's International Children's Art Competition conducted at the Indian High Commission in Karachi. K. Shankar Pillai was a famous Indian cartoonist who published this political weekly, and the art competitions were held for children on an annual basis.

The Katrak Hall located in Saddar, and the Theosophical Hall opposite Radio Pakistan, were two auditoriums where we went to see Khwaja Mueenuddin and Ali Ahmad plays. I had performed on the Katrak stage in a school play, and on the latter while in college. Other forms of entertainment included the circus (from Germany), acrobatic shows (from China) and dance performances (by the Ghanshyams) at the Arts Council and the Metropole Hotel.

Between the late sixties and early seventies, I was an art student for four years. Being out on my own or with a bunch of friends, we hardly ever felt insecure. Walking to and from the Arts Council or taking the public bus was the normal routine.

However, the late sixties is also a period vivid in my memory for student unrest, in which the (progressive/socialist) National Students Federation (NSF) held anti-Ayub Khan street protests. As we lived in the vicinity of several colleges, we bore the brunt of tear-gas used by the police even in those days (together with lathi-charge) to disperse the angry young men who played hide-and-seek with them.

It was rare to see a gun, or a guard, or barbed wire, or barricades, or CCTV cameras, or sniffer dogs. Life was safe enough, and enjoyable enough without these. But these are only memories.

Thanks to Rumana Husain / Dawn / The Dawn Media Group


No comments: