A reader who liked my piece, “The Karachi that was — and never will be” (January 8) , pointed out that while I had highlighted most of the issues that mattered, there were a few things that had not been mentioned, like the great eating places of yore. Well, here are some of the bits and pieces that I left out.
In 1948 Karachi was a quiet, wholly remote town and to the modern denizen would have appeared to be a totally unrecognisable place. The hungry trawlers had not yet harvested the sea’s upset meadow and Elphinstone Street was still the centre of the universe. There were no messy stairwells in multi-story car parks and people lived in a simple mutually reliant society. There were no fast food restaurants, just places where one could get a tasty, decent inexpensive meal. In fact, the city offered the finest cuisine this side of the Suez Canal. For the aficionado with a seasoned palate all roads led to the North-Western Hotel which served the finest of western culinary delights; and for the cash strapped student and the workman there was the Bokhara Hotel and the Bahai Iranian restaurant, located at various street corners in Saddar where for half a rupee one could get a plate of delicious Bombay roast and a small loaf of white bread.
If a party guest, returning from a celebration at three o’clock in the morning, a little maudlin and mawkish, suddenly felt like a snack, there was the famous Star of Asia restaurant in Bolton Market where mutton chops marinated overnight in papaya were in plentiful supply, and one rubbed shoulders with camel drivers and bleary-eyed revellers who looked as if they had just emerged from a bacchanalia. On Sundays, wayfarers who fancied a three-course meal, gravitated to the restaurant on the platform of the Cantonment station where for a rupee and a half one got a plate of soup, roast veal and fried potatoes and the inevitable caramel custard pudding, a culinary relic of the Indian Railways, served by waiters in crisp white uniforms. On weekends haleem was served at the race course, and for nihari and paya there was always good old Burns Road. Those who fancied more exotic far eastern flavours, headed for the legendary ABC restaurant on Elphinstone Street, regrettably no more. It was started during the Second World War and named after America, Britain and China. A portrait of a smiling Chaing Kai-Shek beamed down on the shark fin soup, sweet and sour chicken and egg fried rice.
In the early ‘fifties, there was a modest little place at the corner of Victoria Road and Bunder Road, known as Zelin’s coffee house. Here, over a mug of Indian coffee, the sagging rump of the urban intelligentsia and resident cynics deliberated for hours on every theme under the sun and distributed their own packed lunch of prejudices. The anarchists were against all types of government. The Trotskyites claimed that Stalin was a fascist and that communism, which was the final stage in the evolution of a society characterised by class conflicts, would one day come to the Soviet Union. The long-haired professor wished our ICS officers would be as educated, well informed and sophisticated as the Chinese mandarins. The existentialists stated that man first is, before he is this or that and that existence preceded essence. There were no fundamentalists in the sense one understands the term today. The closest thing to a religious zealot was the convert who posed as a censorious moralist. The Sufi intellectual pointed out that nothing was real and that existence was an illusion. Sometimes I feel that he might be right and that Karachi’s golden age was an illusion.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 17th, 2012.