After entering retirement, the scrap heap of life, one can’t help thinking about the time when Karachi was a great place to bring up one’s children. Girls used to cycle to school and people loved the old trams that trundled along from Empress Market to Kemari from where they would then hop into a sailboat that took them to the great picnic spots of Sandspit and Hawksbay. There weren’t many cars on the roads, but one still caught an occasional glimpse of a sporty playboy, scarf-in-the-breeze, roaring down Victoria Road in his pre-war MG, with his car full of bright young freeloaders with ravenous appetites. They were invariably heading for Cumpers Café Grand, which served the most delicious macaroon cake with almond icing and cucumber sandwiches. Life in those days was peaceful, serene and predictable.
In fact, what I miss most about the Karachi of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was the spirit of tolerance, secularism and open-mindedness that existed. There was also what Judge Morgan Freeman in Bonfire of the Vanities described as the qualities that distinguished a dishonest society from an honest one — decency and graciousness. In the early 1960s, on a stroll down Elphinstone Street, it was not unusual for a man to tip his solar helmet or raise his felt hat in the presence of a lady; and if she happened to drop one of her parcels, he would leap to her aid in a display of gallantry, escort her to her car and ensure that she was safely and comfortably ensconced in her seat, before popping his head into the cubicle of Jimmy’s Store for some pipe tobacco.
For the young at heart there was the Manhattan soda fountain which doled out iced milkshakes with exotic titles like Green Goddess, Hangman’s Blood and Purple Prince. Here schoolboys and schoolgirls returning from that huge imposing red sandstone structure near Empress Market cooled off in the hot summer afternoons, the ice clinking in their glasses like uncut Kimberly diamonds; and one often heard the gauche outpourings of an adolescent’s heart. For the man with an insatiable thirst there were the bars and saloons in Little Portugal with their swing doors and blaring radios. For those who preferred something more risqué and salacious, there were the fading continental blondes adept in the art of striptease who entertained customers at the Excelsior and the Oasis. On weekends the more sophisticated revelers headed for Le Gourmet, the rightful successor of the infamous Central Hotel Casino, which was run by a White Russian named Arty who has an inexhaustible supply of the distilled essence of grain.
Those were the days when no citizen of this blighted republic ever thought of migrating to Britain or the United States. There were no Mujahideen, no Taliban, no suicide bombers, no MQM, no PPP. One could still visit Old Clifton at night and listen to a wandering Sindhi minstrel playing his ek tara without fear of having one’s car snatched; and one could still enjoy great cuisine in roadside cafes without fear of somebody sticking a Beretta in his ribs and taking away his wallet and cell phone.
So, what went wrong?
What was it that turned a reasonably disciplined populace — which once could distinguish right from wrong and practiced the rule of law — into an unrelentingly miserable throng of disgruntled citizens who for years have had to ingest the vile emetic effluviums of a string of pathetic leaders?
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2012.