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City by the Sea


Narayani Gupta

KARACHI DURING THE BRITISH ERA: TWO HISTORIES OF A MODERN CITY
By Roland DeSouza
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2007, pp. 157, Rs. 395.00

THE HISTORICAL QUARTERS OF KARACHI
By Yasmin Cheema
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2007, pp. 185, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 10 October 2008

South Asia has hundreds of towns dating back centuries, populated continuously or recycled. It also has a few towns established in the colonial period. Because of the abundance of written, printed and visual primary material, it is the few colonial towns that have been most written about. Mumbai scores a first in the number of biographers it has attracted. Its equivalent in Pakistan is the port of Karachi.   Karachi town celebrated its centenary in 1943, when it was described as ‘one of India’s premier cities’. Within a decade, it was called the ‘Gateway to Pakistan’ (a challenge to Punjab’s Lahore, at a time when many hoped that Karachi would be chosen as the new nation’s capital). The two books under review commemorate ‘60 years of Pakistan’. What is Karachi’s USP, as different from that of Lahore? This ‘sleepy fishing village’ that became a port-city has none of Lahore’s grand past, but it is proud of its role as a busy centre of trade and business. DeSouza’s is a reprint of two books written about the pre-Independence years, by (Parsi) citizens (in India their equivalent would be Mr Muthiah on Madras) who pay glowing tributes to the work done by the municipality to make Karachi a great city, a twin to Bombay. Behram Sohrab Rustomji covers 1839–1947 in over 120 pages, with appendices and a bibliography, and Sohrab Katrak contributes an 18-page note nostalgically recalling the comfortable days before 1947 when there was little heavy traffic and food was cheap. There is a sharp change in mood for the period after Independence. As Karachi copes with the flood of immigrants from India (more numerous than the 1,70,000 Hindus who left the city), its spirit crumbles. ‘Its very soil seeps with corruption’ (p. 100).   Nostalgia and a sense of local pride can fuel concern and activism (the two are distinct—the first is easy to express, the second more demanding and often frustrating). Celebrations and anniversaries can catalyse the will to change. The nostalgia that prompted the reprinting of the two histories is also what has prompted the architect Yasmin Cheema to study the physical vestiges of the great days, and see what can be salvaged while at the same time developing a humane city—challenges all too familiar in Indian towns.   Cheema’s book is the result of a year-and-a-half’s project by the Heritage Support Cell of the Department of Architecture ...


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