Looking back on Karachi

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Satcam Boolell

The approach to Karachi by air is an eyesore. A bleak desert dotted here and there with clusters of flat-topped buildings is the only sight that greets the newcomer. Not until you have left the airport and driven eight to ten miles in the interior that Karachi assumes its character of a capital city.

We landed in Karachi in a burning heat. Even before the passengers stepped down the plane they were already taking off their coats. Decorum was flung aside and the risk of looking undignified to our Pakistani hosts did not seem to matter.

Two members of the Pakistani National Assembly, one of whom was a lady elegantly clad in a green sari, greeted us with courteous smiles. They were accompanied by a host of young officers from the Secretariat. These young men who were to be our Liaison Officers and our constant companions for the duration of our stay in Pakistan were the most interesting and amiable people I came across during my whole tour.

The customs formalities being over, we were whisked off in twos and threes in shiny American cars to the Metropol Hotel, some ten miles away from the airport.

Before Partition Karachi was reputed to be one of the cleanliest and most beautiful cities of India. Built on the fringe of a desert it has a very dry climate with a long spell of hot weather. But the winter which lasts for three months, November to January, is very bracing. Our hosts were at pains to account for the heat in November. “Winter this year is very late; it is most unusual,” was the explanation. Rain never falls in Karachi although I was told that there was a heavy rain once after twelve years. To have a green patch in one’s yard in very costly. Even the tall trees have to be watered and water is not a cheap commodity. A large part of the city is supplied with water during certain hours of the day only. When I was told about this plight and the repeated promises by political parties on the eve of municipal elections to improve the supply, I thought of Port-Louis and the municipal elections. The scarcity of water hits mostly the poor areas.

After partition, when Karachi was chosen as the Capital of Pakistan, there has been a large influx of population which went up from 5 lakhs to three and a half million. The majority of the newcomers are refugees and the government’s housing programme could not keep pace with the increase in population. As refugees kept coming in for a few years after partition, they could not all be settled. Most of them turned squatters and built tiny hovels with petrol tins and hard boards on the open spaces of the municipal lands. These hovels which run for miles on some of the main approaches to the heart of the city have completely spoiled whatever beauty Karachi had. As the refugees moved in with their buffaloes and goats the backyards of the hovels began to be occupied by buffaloes and the front yards by goats.

In spite of the heat, the city was bustling with life. The tall hefty Pathans in their baggy trousers and flowing shirts were briskly moving on the hot pavements to attend to their business. The cycle rickshaw boy was pedalling as fast as he could to catch up with the fast-moving Cadillacs. The street barber had installed himself on the kerb in front of the haberdasher’s shop to give a shave to his Punjabi customer firmly seated on a mat. There was a constant going in and coming out of the fashionable shops and cafes. Nobody looked indolent or tired.

The lay-out of Karachi suggests that it is a planned city. The streets are wide and the buildings are of modern architecture. There are beautiful gardens and parks, the most famous of which in the heart of the City is the Gandhi Zoological Garden, named after the Mahatma. But life in the City is a constant competition between the old ways and the new. The camel and donkey carts engage in a desperate struggle for survival against the diesel fitted lorries, the cycle rickshaws and the horse buggies race frantically in the main thoroughfares with the latest Cadillacs in a bid to prove their usefulness in a world of speed.

As every big City Karachi is cosmopolitan. Practically every race is represented. Indians are very few but Americans are conspicuous everywhere. I even met a few Mauritians most of whom work as clerks at the office of Air France. They earn good money but they cannot fit themselves into the Karachi social life. Not that they want to keep aloof but rather because they are so different in so many respects from the Pakistanis. Yet the latter are a warm-hearted and hospitable people. After a few days I discovered that there were a few things with which I could not put up. For instance, I could not understand why the local people were so unmindful of the dust and the flies. There is no limit to the number of passengers in the train and buses.

College girls would never venture out in the streets unveiled. There are exceptions but they are few and, curiously enough, belong to the upper class. Riding bicycle without light does not seem to be an offence in Karachi.

Mauritius Times – Friday 17th January, 1958
5th Year No 180

* Published in print edition on 24 December 2021

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