The Karachi that was — and will never be

Published: January 8, 2012

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.


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Reader Comments (43)

  • Khan Bhai
    Jan 8, 2012 - 12:49AM

    We forgot we are humans first and Sindhi, Balochi, Mahajjar, Punjabi, and Pashtun later.


  • Ali Tanoli.
    Jan 8, 2012 - 1:00AM

    Yes sir i heard the same things when we were young and lot of jobs oppurtunities were avalable that time and migrated peoples of U.P and Dehli were so nice its hard to see any
    more.. very well said it sir.


  • Iron hand
    Jan 8, 2012 - 1:33AM

    Such a sad article to read. What might have been…


  • omar
    Jan 8, 2012 - 1:52AM

    @Khan Bhai:
    we r not Sindhi, Balochi, Mahajjar, Punjabi, and Pashtun



  • Arifq
    Jan 8, 2012 - 2:01AM

    Dear Anwer Mooraj Sahib, consider yourself one of the lucky ones, generations that came later have no concept or inclination to know and appreciate what has been lost. Now we are all good Muslims and anyone who disagrees is wajub ul qatal like deceased Salman Taseer.


  • Talha
    Jan 8, 2012 - 2:40AM

    Its a shame what certain people have done to this country.

    Paradise lost, that is what can be used to describe Pakistan.


  • venky
    Jan 8, 2012 - 4:19AM

    @Khan Bhai

    I think you are right to some extent. I would even say more than allegiance to region like Sindhi, Punjabi etc., it is the religion first, next regionalism and the last human freedom and values. . Even if someone tries to change this phenomenon, people like Mumtaz Qadri will arise from no where. So, for those like author, the best would be enjoy the nostalgia.


  • kashif
    Jan 8, 2012 - 5:05AM

    Don’t let them think that we’ve broken down;
    That we’ve cracked up.
    We merely dropped leaves,
    For a further spring.


  • Pappo Piplia
    Jan 8, 2012 - 11:25AM

    Ayub Khan laid the seeds by shifting the capital from Karachi.


  • Straight_Talk
    Jan 8, 2012 - 11:28AM

    Karachi of 50s and 60s was the Karachi of 30s and 40s. Karachi of today is different. The question rightly asked by the author is ————- So, what went wrong ?

    The answer in short is —————— Pakistan happened.


  • Apostate
    Jan 8, 2012 - 11:52AM

    Very well written, could imagine how it would be in those days.


  • Jack
    Jan 8, 2012 - 12:37PM

    Sounds like Bombay! It would be nice to visit Karachi someday – at least to understand and see what you describe so beautifully. Frankly Delhi could also be the same except that it is not so female-friendly, and courtesy is generally missing. There are changes in India as well. The Hindu right, which lay dormant for decades after Gandhi’s killing, have found good cannon fodder in the strains of extremist Islam that have also arisen around the same time – but mostly outside the country. In states like my own (Kerala), when I grew up, I had never seen a hijab or niqab; I remember the first time I saw one was when I shifted to Hyderabad. But today when I look outside my ancestral home (during short holiday trips), all you see is a sea of black scarves on tiny school-going children; the need to conform (for the muslim parents) has become much more pressing, mainly a consequence of the high level of exposure to the Middle East (where Keralites form nearly 50% of the Indian expats). The good side is that clearly education is not being neglected in the community :). And while these changes are possibly not aimed at sending a message to any other community, the impact of such a large transformation within a generation also creates ripples within the otherwise secular fabric. Yes, we live in interesting times.


  • Mithrandir
    Jan 8, 2012 - 1:13PM

    What a profound and excellent comment!


  • Jan 8, 2012 - 1:49PM

    This is a nice article. Yes we have a nostalgia about the Karachi of 50’s, 60’s , 70’s and even earlier 80’s. Everything changed post Zia-ul-Haq . We still long for a just, polite, fun Karachi that was.


  • saeed assad
    Jan 8, 2012 - 2:04PM

    i was in my teens when they sent men to moon and we sent them to 600 AD. it is therefore 645 AD as far Pakistan is concerned. so no surprise.


  • Sanjay Bhattacharya
    Jan 8, 2012 - 3:13PM

    Truly sad, and I say this without any hidden agenda as an Indian.

    I remember my father raving about Karachi’s night (and day) life on the business visits that he made there in the 1950’s.

    Revive them is all that I can suggest. Many old Calcutta ‘goodies’ were killed off under the deadening hand of socialism and then 3 decades of Marxist rule.

    Happily, not everything was lost – and I’m sure not everything is lost in Karachi either. These have found new life in the flush of money that has come with economic growth.

    But what is most heartening is the number of things that were allowed to die and are now being revived – the Great Eastern Hotel (the preferred hostelery of East India Company’s top honchos), shady dance bars (seriously, one needs shots of agreeable sleaze from time to time – and some of these – believe it or not – are over 150 years old), Flury’s tea shop (see travellers’ reviews – one doesn’t need to say more), the Calcutta Film Festival etc etc


  • Sanjay Bhattacharya
    Jan 8, 2012 - 3:15PM


    Sorry, Mr Mooraj, I disagree. Read my other email


  • R.Khan
    Jan 8, 2012 - 3:50PM

    Things are going to go from bad to worst! Read latest edition of Time magazine & on front page, the article is about Karachi. I remember the educated crowd going to watch English movies in Palace, Rio, Rex, Bambino, Lyric, Capri & so many other theaters. Good old days!


  • Parvez
    Jan 8, 2012 - 3:50PM

    The question asked is ‘ So what went wrong ?’
    The answer is simple ” All of a sudden we got religion. ‘


  • kilo
    Jan 8, 2012 - 5:53PM

    I believe the problem started with the ‘prohibition’ and zia ulhaqi islam from mid-70s onwards things can get better if we try to be less hypocrite and more human with all our weaknesses for good things


  • Truth Teller
    Jan 8, 2012 - 6:24PM

    State & Religion, a Deadly Combition! Zia ul Haq who destroyed Pakistan. No turning back.


  • Zubair Ashraf
    Jan 8, 2012 - 9:08PM

    Wonderful writing, could feel how it was, and the scene on Elphinstone street is amazing


  • Ennkay
    Jan 9, 2012 - 4:47AM

    A wonderfully nostalgic article of the Karachi I grew up in though Anwers article was slightly before my youth in Karachi – beautifully written. Thanks for the memories!


  • Ahad
    Jan 9, 2012 - 11:47AM

    Karachi still rules!


  • Shehryar
    Jan 9, 2012 - 2:04PM

    So what went wrong? Religion, what else? The bane of human existence.


  • MJT
    Jan 9, 2012 - 3:25PM

    I think there is still hope with new things coming up like Cineplexes, Port Grand, the New Dolmen Mall. One thing is they must restore the heritage sites and clean up the city. A clean city with sero tolerence towards traffic lights and littering can change it.


  • sars
    Jan 9, 2012 - 3:40PM

    This is a shame for our religion that it got hijacked by blood thirsty savages.Recommend

  • Amin
    Jan 9, 2012 - 4:26PM

    It was Zia ul Haq that started the descent into chaos all over Pakistan, not just Karachi.


    Jan 9, 2012 - 8:16PM

    Yes thats my generation & dont forget Boman Abadan Irani Resturant, Cafe Mexico, P F Perara, Coffee House where all the columnist & intellectuals used to get together, Gymkhana, Karachi Club, Speedbird House, Old Clifton etc & Karachi was known as the cleanest city in Asia
    Thise were the days my friend but alas no more, I want my old Karachi back


  • Adil Ahmad
    Jan 9, 2012 - 11:11PM

    What happened? Refined and well heeled people like Anwar Mooraj equipped to nurture enlightened generations, spent their time living the high life and failed to procreate and raise large families, something the destitute and illiterate did with rare abandon. Today we are suffering the consequences of the population explosion that took place in the wrong segments of society.


  • Jan 9, 2012 - 11:19PM

    Anwer Mooraj asks, “What went wrong?” The answer is simple, but not easily digestible: Islamism and the Arabs descended on Pakistan after the 1973 petrodollar boom.

    The native Karachiites, the Goans were leaving, then the Zoroastrians fled while the Dawoodi Bohras turned on themselves taking a 180 degree turn from the Bohra Gymkhana to the Jamaat Khana. Sindhi and Gujurati, Karachi’s two dominant languages were subject to a cultural genocide and the final nail in the coffin came when staring in the 1980s, the farewell greeting “Khuda Hafiz” was abandoned after 1,000 years of use to incorporate the concocted phrase “Allah Hafiz.”

    The city of D’souzas, Allahwalas and Khemjis turned into a flea-market of fake Arabized people, where the very soul of the city was prostituted to seek a path in Jannat which we now call “Jannah”.

    Khuda Hafiz Karachi

    Tarek Fatah
    Toronto, Canada


  • marium khan
    Jan 10, 2012 - 9:38PM

    Your article brought back all the memories of karachi till 80’s when we could go anywhere without fearing of car lifting,pures snatching and target killing _will karachi be the same again?
    I only pray that old it returns back to the old times again.


  • Satya Issar
    Jan 10, 2012 - 11:43PM

    So what happened………..?

    Hate and jealousy and blaming our own underachievement on others. Bring back education and less of religious mumbo jumbo. Long road ahead.


  • Ata Khan
    Jan 11, 2012 - 2:21AM

    Mr. Mooraj is correct in presenting the zeitgeist of Karachi then, although the examples used paint the past with overly Wodehousian colours. You did not have to be so anglicized, the same spirit largely prevailed through most strata of society. People blame religion but what we have today is not religion, “there is no compulsion in Islam” and this is not what is practiced today, it is a coercive dogma that is based on base motives. That Karachi is gone with the snows of yesteryear but we should not give up hope that things will not improve, patience and good works may bring providential change.


  • Ayesha
    Jan 11, 2012 - 4:37PM

    My father tells a similar story of Lahore in the 40s, 50s and 60s when he was growing up. I lived in Lahore for some time and I feel that the spirit has been lost. Insecurity and discourtesy have taken hold. You know what happened Mr. Mooraj. We got religion. We can thank Gen Zia-ul-Haq for that.


  • Emmad
    Jan 12, 2012 - 3:52PM

    @Ayesha: Agreed. Zia era was the turning point in our Country which had distroyed us in each & every department. Before him we were even better Muslims.


  • Bawa
    Jan 14, 2012 - 11:12PM

    You forgot to mention my favourite ‘picture house’, CAPITOL in Bohri Bazaar. I still remember the cool scent of the air conditioned foyer, like entering heaven from the hot, dusty narrow streets of Bohri Bazaar. Unforgettable.
    I lived in ShahJahan Hotel, right opposite Empress Market, in the 50s.
    Your article brought back some sweet memories…..everything was alive and pulsating with sounds, smells both pleasant and not-so-nice, and the general atmosphere of tolerance and freedom…yes, compared to now, it was freedom.


  • You Said It
    Jan 17, 2012 - 12:28AM

    So, what went wrong?

    I know many will take offence for me to say this as a Pakistani, but I think Jinnah and the Muslim League opened a pandora’s box with the Pakistan Ideology. Once the state was formed in the name of Islam, everything in the state had to justify its existence in the name of Islam — religion became the measure of allegiance to the state.

    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.

    Even decency and graciousness have taken a back seat to overt displays of religiosity. Lack of these fine qualities are today completely acceptable — a beard and a skullcap more than compensate for them.


  • Rehman
    Jan 17, 2012 - 7:25PM

    I remember my parents telling me that Karachi even had bars, discos and everything what you would expect in a modern society.


  • Shahzad Kazi
    Jan 19, 2012 - 1:47AM

    Mooraj sahib, I can relate to what you are saying as I grew up partly in that era. I remember going to Cafe Grand for pastries and biscuits and to Shezan for ice cream and sandwiches with my father. We used to go to Zelins Coffee House for cold coffee or coffee ice cream. In the evenings we would sit by China Creek at the Karachi Club Annexe and have tea and sandwiches or on the lawns of Karachi Gymkhana. We would go for evening walks in the park with our nanny or our mother and aunts. Take drives with the family to Old Clifton and listen to the minstrel playing his yaktara.
    During my teenage years would visit the Three Aces Disco at the Central Hotel or Horseshoe Restaurant that had a live band and dance floor. There was a disco called Cavalier behind Maxims on Clifton Road that was the hip place for a while.
    For cabaret there was Excelsior Hotel owned by a friend of my father’s named Jamal and later on by his brother Tufail Sheikh. There was a place called The Peacock and Roma Shabana in Saddar for the lower end customers.
    Unfortunately those days are gone and the people of Karachi have been deprived of the things that some of us could do many years ago.


    Jan 25, 2012 - 12:41AM

    The deterioration started in mid fifties you all are wise enough to get to the point & reason behind all this in discipline and chaos.


  • basit
    Jan 31, 2012 - 2:53AM

    What happened? No sense of nostalgic purity can survive when a city of 400 thousand grows into one with 20 million people in a short span of 60 years. Pre-war New Yorkers will lament a similar loss comparing their NY to today’s, although NY’s population rise is nowhere close to Karachi’s. In Karachi’s case, the situation got much worse given the religio-political and ethnic strife of last forty plus years.


  • Feb 10, 2012 - 5:17AM

    I left Karachi 45 years back and never regretted a day since. Is tajic what I hear about this city. The people of Karachi need to take there city back. Stop blaming others. Don’t except the trash that litters your city or the foul smell of swer. Don’t except poor manners from people and those high society women who intrupet when because they are busy and want the shopkeeper to help them when you are being served. Stop shouting and the poor servants. You pay them poorly and treat them horrabily. Stop marrying your cousins and get rid of ” the Islamic republic” before Pakistan. Your country is not Islamic you chose leaders who are raping your country and running of with fat bank accounts. Wake up Karachi …. The city I knew is no more that’s why I left with out regrets.


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