SHAFAQNA- One of the consequences of Karachi’s turmoil, I feel, is one that is experienced daily but seldom addressed by the state, its citizens, or the empowered land developers in the country: the lack of pedestrian-friendly activities in the city.
City-walking in Karachi has been reduced to beaches, parks, malls and residential enclaves, walled high to segregate the insecurities of the bourgeoisie from the rest of the ‘open city’.
The argument that ‘a city is best discovered on foot’ may be lauded when we travel outside the country; within, it triggers the ultimate discussion of the naazuk surat-e-haal. As a result, the average Karachiite experiences their city with some restrictions, and its history with even more.
That is why, stumbling upon a recent initiative undertaken by Karachi-based youngsters and riddled with curiosity to walk the streets and ride atop a colourful minibus, I had to resist the urge to doubt.
Look through: Karachi’s bedecked buses
Within a week, I had booked myself a seat on the Super Karachi Express, not knowing what to expect, primarily because the tour guides purposefully remain vague about the locations they cover on a given tour. They like to maintain an element of surprise. I gather it is also a clever security strategy.
The price of the tour, which includes breakfast of chai-paratha or halwa puri at a local dhaba, is equivalent to the price of a movie ticket at a luxury cinema in the city, but certainly more valuable.
Early one Sunday morning, we dismount the Super Karachi Express (SKE) to walk down Zaibunnisa Street in Saddar. The street, yawning itself awake given the hour, is the second in Karachi to be named after a woman – the other being Fatima Ali Jinnah Road.
Formerly known as Elphinstone Street and once considered to be the Piccadilly Circus of Karachi, it is named after Zaibunissa Hamidullah. Bengali by origin, in 1948, she became Pakistan’s first female English columnist and contributed to Dawn, The Mirror, and the Morning News, amongst others.
On Zaibunnisa Street stands the Mohammed Ali Building. Our guides tell us that it is owned by the government of Belgium, which refused to hand over ownership to Pakistan after independence. Because of this, the maintenance of this historic building is disputed and largely neglected.
We are driven to the Karachi Parsi Institute, formerly known as the Parsi Gymkhana, established in 1893. Here stand the statues of ‘Ed and Ned’. Ed, or Edulji Dinshaw, was a prominent businessman and philanthropist of pre-partition Karachi’s Parsi community and his son Ned, or Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw, continued his father’s legacy.
After Ned’s death, his children made generous donations to the Prince of Wales Engineering College. Today, it is known as the NED University of Engineering and Technology. The KPI provides sports facilities, including a cricket ground and billiard rooms, for the Parsi community of Karachi. Our presence, though not allowed officially, is tolerated.
True to their promise of venturing into the cultural and religious flavours, SKE drives us to the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir. Muslims are generally not permitted inside the premises of Hindu temples in Pakistan, but upon the SKE’s request, the management here has granted us access.
The temple feels like a hidden space of colour and serenity, a stark contrast to the gated community of Karachi’s Hindu minority, which in 1947 made up 51 per cent of the city’s population, and whose cramped, informal settlements now encircle and overlook the premises of the mandir. Its residents peer over our group, as curious about us as we are of them.
The veranda, reserved for wedding ceremonies, Diwali and other festivities, opens onto a staircase leading you up, barefooted, to the places of worship that house idols and showcase murals, each with its own unique story from Hindu mythology. While Gujarati scripture decorates the walls inside, peacocks perch themselves onto railings and boundary walls, undeterred and resilient in the face of unexpected visitors.
Karachi’s British legacy, dating back to 1843, can be witnessed during a drive or a stroll across Saddar and Fatima Jinnah Road. Among the remnants of this legacy is the Merewether Tower on M.A. Jinnah Road, known locally as ‘Tower’. Although today, it stands cramped and wall-chalked in the middle of a congested area, its physical location once had a unique significance.
The tower was named after William Merewether, commissioner of Sindh between 1867 and 1877. Prior to the development surrounding the area that today encircles Port Grand, the tower was symbolic of the British Raj, visible from the Port of Keamari to those entering the city by sea.
Read on: Karachi’s ‘Yahoodi Masjid’
Part of the tower’s gothic architecture includes star-shaped symbols thought to be modelled after the Star of David. But according to Usman Damohi in his book Karachi Tareekh ke Ainay Mein, these symbols had nothing to do with Judaism.
The Merewether Clock Tower
One of our guides remarks that while historically prominent figures were recognised by having monuments named after them, contemporary personalities have their successes measured by the number of billboards they lay claim over.
Nevertheless, today, it is common to find dull remains of washed out graffiti on the sides of the tower, sprayed on by religious political parties and groups, as if to mark their territories.
We are then driven towards Bandar Road to visit the Memon Masjid. The mosque’s trust dates its development back to 1948. However, Damohi’s book suggests that prior to the construction of the present structure, the original Memon Masjid on these premises was built during the British era, presumably around 1857. Its location (now M. A. Jinnah Road) would have been one of the initial points of development for the colonialists, before they headed towards Saddar and beyond.
A lesser known fact, we are told, is that the mosque stands on a graveyard. Two of these graves are visible through an iron door on the side of the mosque. It is alleged that this graveyard existed prior to the construction of the mosque, possibly dating it back to the early 19th century. But its complete history is yet to be discovered.
Memon Masjid, M.A. Jinnah Road
Atop the SKE minibus now, we head towards the St Patrick’s Cathedral, through narrow streets strewn with garbage and shops adorning large boards with enlarged images of arms and ammunition, boasting of ‘Guns for Defence’.
Inside St Patrick’s Cathedral
The Cathedral, built in 1881 to cater to the growing Christian community of Karachi in the 19th century, was visited by Mother Teresa in 1991, but has had no missionary visits since those 15 years.
While St Patrick’s Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Church, our next stop, the Holy Trinity Church, established in 1855, is Protestant and humbler in its décor.
The foundation of this Church was laid by Sir Bartle Frere in 1852. According to Damohi, the tower of the Holy Trinity Church was one of the tallest in Karachi at the time of its construction and was visible from the Keamari port, just like the Merewether Tower. But because residents of the area were apprehensive that it may collapse in the event of bad weather, the top two stories of the tower had to be removed.
Inside, the walls of the Holy Trinity Church are lined with plaques commemorating British and Indian soldiers who died in various battles during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including The Great War.
A plaque commemorating the Baloch Regiment inside the Holy Trinity Church
The Super Karachi Express is an inspiring initiative and similar efforts must be encouraged. While a treat for foreigners, it is equally relevant for local residents.
With Karachi’s overall cultural scene developing rapidly, its citizens have a growing appetite for delving into their own histories.
Opportunities like SKE are necessary for situating Karachiites closer to their multicultural legacies and walking the spaces that need to be reclaimed and re-imagined as the glory that once was.