The Faqeer

imageI have not been back to my school building for close on to thirty years now. The building where I spent eleven of my formative years and where my name was so diligently chiseled into the wall of its bell tower. Not sure why I did that, but suffice to say I have not looked at that piece of art for decades now. So what seems meaningful at one moment in life, becomes pointless at another. However, those school years formed very strong memories, which I have regularly recalled most of my life.

This particular piece is not about any philosophy or reflection. It is about the recall of one such memory from my school days. That I have not thought about it for several decades, makes it unusual, as I remember much trivia quite regularly. Nevertheless, this particular memory is about an encounter which happened daily for almost a decade. And when I do describe it, there will be many of my school fellows who will recall this one.

In those days, the main gate of KGS senior school opened onto Depot Lines, which was one way at the time, going towards Empress Market and TramPatta Road (as it was called; Trams were used in Karachi till 1975). One would get in the car, go to the Empress Market, turn left, across and then turn left onto Mansfield Street. Past the Fire Station, which is still there today and onwards towards Bandar Road (MA Jinnah Rd today). I think Depot Lines and Mansfield St traffic flow has been turned around and flows in the opposite direction nowadays.

It was a route used by most who were going to PECHS. In those years DHA was just commencing and many of us resided in PECHS. So, as we proceeded down Mansfield Street, we had a flotilla of KGS cars with us, just after home-time. We would hit the Capri Square crossing with Bandar Road and after waiting for the traffic lights (strictly followed in those days) we would turn right and proceed down Bandar Road towards our PECHS destination.

This Capri traffic light, one always hoped would be red. For one sole reason! The cry of ‘Allah hi Allah’ was infectious and so part of my life. I would wait for it expectantly every time. There he was, the most important Faqeer in my life. He wore a patched colourful robe, with a few big deep pockets. The string of beads were many and hung around his neck and wrist. Partially balding white long hair, flowing white beard and eye brows. He was ageless. I saw him there in all those years. A ‘chimta’ would be in his hand and he would form a beat with it and keep chanting ‘Allah hi Allah’. We all knew the beat and tune and would chant ‘Allah hi Allah’ with him. Many times one of us would give him some money. He was so much a part of our lives.

Time moved on and 1976 arrived; I moved to Clifton and stopped taking that Capri Square route. I was driving myself by now and went down the Trampatta Road, quite in the opposite direction. I never saw my Faqeer again. Infact quite forgot about him. Such fickleness quite astounds me. My memory has played fast and loose and betrayed my more human self. Till today! Out of the deep reaches of my mind popped up the chant of ‘Allah hi Allah’, with chimta beating in the background and a white haired face swimming in my mind. Alas too late I suppose, as the Faqeer (my Faqeer) would have gone by now to a more permanent abode.

On such little moments are lives made. A Faqeer chanting his slogan, is associated with a Karachi which will never exist again. Of a life simpler, less demanding and more fun. Of days and friends and teachers and parents and faqeers who are all gone or changed. Its all a bit melancholy, but then why am I smiling at these memories? I hope my Faqeer is granted maghfirat and Jannah by Allah (swt). He was an inspirational part of our lives for a decade. Allah bless him.

*picture of a sufi, from oldindianphoto.in

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The Karachi Moments

imageUnashamedly, for me Karachi has attachments which only happen, when you have spent your early life, memories and emotions in a place. I have written about this before, about how one would go through the art of living daily (https://sarfarazar.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/old-karachi-a-string-of-memories-from-days-gone-by/). But living is not just about eating, playing and being entertained. The soul needs nurturing also. It is this nourishment that I will try and remember here.

My nourishment and the grounding of my insides in the streets of Karachi, has so much to do with the culture and image of the place. Its got into my head and even today, when I look at my hometown, I look at it with a rose tinted glasses. Biased and unreal, but nevertheless, my perception.

Part of that imagery recalls the old, old Karachi. From pre-partition days. Archaic, but the landscape so enticing. The architecture of Elphinstone St and Victoria Rd. Those old style stone buildings. Most are gone now, but they left an impression! One building which survives today is the Karachi Grammar School building in Saddar. Huge thick stone walls, cold as hell in the winter, but the warmth of years and the embrace of history grips one. There was Mereweather Tower. I identified it with the bus conductors call of “Tower!Tower!”. But it was so much grander than a mere tower in reality, and when you saw it, the centuries smiled down from it.

There was Wazir Mansion, Katrak Mansion and a few more. Old, walls of stone, Gothic art mixed with God knows what. To me they smelled of age and richness. The ceilings high, the walls plain white and the ‘roshandaan’ such a characteristic of old days.

There were those old houses in Bath Island. Thick Walls made of stuff (sand and straw), which fascinated one and told such a story of life within. Termites had to be regularly battled on these walls, but they have survived a hundred and fifty years nevertheless. The lawns had these pepal trees. Massive ones, maybe a couple of hundred years old, having dropped their roots all over the place and grown and grown. They reminded me of Buddha and one envisions a holyman sitting under these trees thousands of years ago. Then there were those lovely old style houses, which don’t exist anymore. Why? Because we dont need the evening breeze anymore, nor do security concerns allow it. They would have a courtyard in the middle, and around it a square structure, with a patio all around and rooms behind the patio. The breeze would waft through, but then so could an intruder from outside. So such a structure is gone in today’s world.

A necessary part of those memories are old markets. Empress Market takes precedence. It was truly fit for a queen and inside I remember fondly the parchun walas shop. There were others; fish, vegetables, fruit, meat and chaai. Then there was Bohri Bazaar with its fascinating merchants, pots and pans, shoes and clothes outlets and in the middle of those winding lanes, Capital cinema. Bolton Market, burned down today, but what a place to recall. An old style market structure, with its old building and its old shops, selling many wholesale items. Old Kharadar with its small markets and apartments. Same as Burns Road (Bunz). Those balconies, from which day long women conversed with each other and with the people in the streets and hung baskets on ropes to purchase daily sustenance.

Lastly are the parks. Polo ground, Frere Hall, Jahangir Park, Hill Park, Jheel Park. No walls and children all over the place. Before and after Maghrib. Plenty of cricket and hockey taking place there. Also people having a picnic well into the evening, when it was very dark. No security concerns. But even more fascinating, there was greenery, including grass and trees. Some shrubbery too. Tell you what, I don’t remember seeing a water tanker in my childhood. But the greenery thrived. It means that water pipelines did exactly what they were supposed to do; they delivered water to everyone.

Alas, it all seems like a dream now. My old Karachi.

*the above books were with the compliments of SEED

The Old Bazaars are the real places…not malls

 

Anarkali is a fascinating place that stands out as the character of Lahore. PHOTO: ABID NAWAZ

I remember the first time I went to a mall; it was way back in 1977. The place was called Brent Mall. Hindsight tells me it was not too big and probably inconsequential, but it looked huge and I hated it.

It was a sanitised place of shopping, crowd dressed every which way to impress, straight lines, homogeneous construction, and uniformity of thought. No culture or creativity.

Today, commencing from USA, expanding to Europe, Middle East and now Asia, the mall is the ‘in’ place. It’s a destination, where you can spend the day. shop, eat, snack, have coffee, watch a movie and even go skiing in one instance! The functionality appeals, but its bourgeois lack of character, well in line with modern day living, really palls and one wishes for the old markets.

I was brought up on such fare and it is in the character created by these old markets that we thrived. Even on my travels around the world, I’ve seen that some of the most striking places in modern cities are these ethnic markets which bring out the character and culture of the people and shed light on their values. So, I have tried to recall some of these experiences over the years.

Empress Market:

It was the queen of traditional markets – my childhood was spent shopping here. The smelly meat market, great kiryana stores, the pet market, fruit places and more than that, the feel of the place was just surreal. The Gothic-looking architecture is fabulous! I even remember various English memsahibs (ladies) who used to shop here early in the morning.

Bohri Bazaar:

Bohri Bazaar is a place that answers all the needs of Karachiites. I believe the market caught fire in the 50s and had to be rebuilt. They had clothes, toys, books and specifically delicious nimco! It is God’s gift to Karachi, to be visited once a month. Alas, Tariq Road and Hyderi took customers and this market lost its importance.

Sadly, I haven’t been there in years!

Sunday Bazaar Karachi:

This is a place where you go, to find that elusive Noritake which you pick in bits and make a collection. You get great bargaining. Fruit and vegetables are all available below the retail market prices. It’s given its character by the endless workers who tag along carrying your goods for a minuscule price and guide you to all the secret goodies.

Anarkali:

Now I am not an expert, but Anarkali has that smell and traditional feel – like a wrapped piece of velvet, taken out after decades. It is archaic and redundant now, but grand nevertheless! For some reason, I associate glass bangles and food with Anarkali, though it houses many items. This fascinating place stands out as the character of Lahore.

Quincy Market, Boston:

Here, you can find food of all sorts and people of all sorts too. You are better off roaming in the market on foot as you get a bigger choice. There is music too, which makes the experience even more enjoyable.

I have a lovely memory of a beautiful afternoon, a quarter of a century ago. I think it was summer. A juggler was performing, and I stood watching, biting into an extremely chunky sub, loaded with beef.

I salivate at the memory.

No sanitised mall can provide the sort of experience I witnessed at this market.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul:

At the Grand Bazaar you can buy almost everything, barring a car. This must be the grandest bazaar around. 3,000 shops of all kinds, haggling, and lots of people buying carpets, ceramics, gifts, ornaments, clothes, spices, dates – you name it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to visit the place and the women go absolutely gaga when they go to this bazaar to shop. A few hours of roaming and watching all the haggling and people is an experience in itself.

Petticoat Lane:

My first experience at Petticoat Lane goes back to 1978. I had these delicious, freshly fried sugar-coated doughnuts – piping hot! At the time, I was a student and had very little money to indulge in the trendy clothing available, but there were second hand book stalls.

Sundays used to be crowded and you had to push along watching for pickpockets. I’m not sure if it’s still the same, but it was bordering some seedier parts of London, so I expect that not much has changed.

The real tragedy is that hyperstores demolished the high street market – the small corner shop, newsagent, barber, butcher, veggie man, the pharmacy and such. All the years of familiarity and personal touch were gone at the altar of commercialism. Man has lost depth in life to a corporate existence, flush with glitz and so called glamour.

There are other markets which I have visited and, of course, many more places which others would know. In Singapore I remember buying a quaint Sukarno cap, from an Indonesian market. Lagos is a memory of a shoe purchase from a set of shacks which qualified for a local market. In the Middle East, the old wholesale markets sell below large stores prices and also give you Turkish coffee.

The universal language of hospitality prevails.

The traditional markets are a memory and identity of a world where humans interacted on a personal level and warmth existed amongst strangers – whatever caste or creed.

Alas, it is a world lost!

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This blog appeared in The Express Tribune earlier this year.

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