April issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

You will be the glory of the East; would that I come
Again to see you Karachi, in your grandeur!”

Famous last words of Sir Charles Napier, the first governor of Sindh, who turned this small congested town “perched on the edge of the Arabian Sea” into the megacity of Pakistan. Plenty has been written about it, and plenty more remains to be explored.

Attracting seamen, travellers, traders and businessmen, local and international, Karachi is a city that has embraced anyone who entered its precincts. Many have arrived here in search of economic stability, while others are drawn to the coastline that offers tremendous potential.

The second edition of Karachi: Megacity of Our Times, edited by Hamida Khuhro and Anwer Mooraj and published by the Oxford University Press, comes at a time when Karachi is, once again, in the grip of suicide bombings and target killings. That Karachi is a city to love is evident throughout the pages of this publication. The book contains contributions by 13 eminent writers including Muneeza Shamsie, Arif Hassan, Asif Noorani, Marjorie Hussain and Ayela Khuhro, to name a few. It covers a vast spectrum of topics, ranging from its humble beginnings when it was a town of under 20,000 people to now, when it is one of the largest cities in Asia today. The contributions cover politics, economics, art, culture, architecture and the people who worked hard to make this city what it is. Some of the pieces are very personal and strike an emotional chord in the reader; others are more analytical and heavy with maps, photographs, illustrations and drawings. No publication on Karachi can ignore the water crises the city faces, so the book naturally addresses this issue as well.

Karachi: Megacity of Our Times is very well structured. The first four chapters of the book cover the history of Karachi in detail. The fifth chapter is devoted to the founding fathers of the city. The sixth and seventh chapters are about the economy and expansion of the city. And the rest of the chapters focus on arts, literature and culture. In short, this book is all-inclusive.

As the first governor of Sindh, Sir Charles Napier had the vision of a modern city for Karachi. From its inception, the city drew people, and as it grew, its intellectual progress, too, gained momentum. A very interesting incident relating to the arrival of the first airplane in Karachi on January 18, 1919, has been dramatically narrated. Vivid glimpses of the city’s glorious past life are also presented. “Elphinstone Street was the fashionable shopping centre with smart shops stocking the latest goods for the imperial market from ‘home.’ Memsahibs in their Victorian carriages and protected from the sun by their umbrellas and sunshades shopped for gewgaws from the Army and Navy Store in London, that lifeline of Englishmen serving the Empire.”

One is rather startled by the accounts of the bustling nightlife in Karachi before the arrival of the “Islamist” general, Zia-ul-Haq, who banned all such activity. Boasting all manner of entertainment venues, Karachi promised a nightlife that could beat any western city. Not only were there clubs holding all sorts of social functions, but numerous dance bands performed every night. Nearly all clubs featured cabaret dancing. Unfortunately, when the general took over, he banished all forms of entertainment, leaving the elite with nothing except private parties. In his nostalgic piece, ‘Being Young In The Fifties,’ Anwer Mooraj reminisces about a once safe and secure Karachi. However, most young readers will hardly be able to identify with that image when he says, “Ethnic violence was unheard of” or “stopping at the red light was absolutely mandatory, and offenders were duly punished.” He appears to be talking of some city on the other side of the planet. Sadly, that was Karachi’s past.

One wonders if the city will ever be able to regain its past glory.