This was the history of Karachi’s oldest tavern. Ancient tales recalled.
Do you know that the famous Deh Sharafi of the Malir area in Karachi is actually Deh Sharabi (drunkard)? Government records still call the place Sharabi. Gul Hassan Kalmati’s book, ‘Karachi: the Marvi of Sindh’ says on page 521 that: “Khudadad Gabol (the person with whose name the Khudad Colony of Karachi is associated, and the land of the colony is also his property) was known for the fact that during the British Raj, whenever public land would be auctioned, he would always purchase most of it.
Locals say he always drunk. That is why the area which was his property came to be known as Sharabi. Deh Sharabi is located in the Landhi tehsil.
In ancient Sindh, production or consumption of liquor was not a taboo. There were many ways of producing liquor. Author, Lok Ram Dhodheja writes under the title ‘Liquor Kilns and Drink’ on page 326 of his book Mera Watan Mere Log (My Country My People):
“The liquor of Sindh was famous locally and internationally due to its quality. Britons used to prefer Sindhi liquor over European liquor. In fact, they would take bottles of Sindhi liquor as souvenirs back home.
There were liquor production houses in many other big cities of Sindh. Taverns and bars would order for liquor to be produced for their businesses. Eager landlords and wealthy traders would have special liquor produced for them which was produced from grapes, dates, musk, fennel, saffron, rose, jaggery, and acacia bark. They would provide these commodities to the liquor producers and would have special bitter or smooth liquor produced for them.
Old husbands of young wives would have liquor produced from sheep’s flesh as such liquor was considered to enhance their sexuality. Another type of liquor was produced for the well-to-do clients, meant to instill sexual desire.
Twenty-four bottles of locally brewed liquor were mixed with special virility mixtures obtained through Greek medicinal methods. These mixtures contained fat from 70 francolins and a sheep. The fat was then boiled and bottled. The bottles also contained musk, amber, tapioca and crystalised sugar. The bottles were then covered with fuller’s earth and buried in the roots of an acacia tree. After a period of six months, the bottles were dug out. The liquor in these bottles was so strong, then, that even the most habitual drunkards could not handle it.
Kebabs were dipped in this liquor and eaten. Even those dipped kebabs would give a strong buzz. The British Raj shut down all such production houses to improve the sales of imported liquor. However, bootlegging of the special liquor continued for some time.”
In his column on Karachi, which was also published in renowned literato Ajmal Kamal’s book, Karachi ki Kahaani (The Story of Karachi), civics expert Arif Hassan writes: “There were many bars and billiard rooms in Saddar. The Ritz Bar, which used to be located opposite the Paradise Cinema, was considered one of the sophisticated taverns. It had teak-frame partitions and a counter which was made of zinc.
Often, the bar administration would play Bollywood songs. Many customers would shed tears while listening to these tunes from the neighbouring land which was once their homeland. The Old Toddy Shop in the Empress Market, the U-Bar opposite Jahangir Park, and the Winners’ Bar on the tram track were mostly common places for a drink.
With the advent of Islamisation, these bars disappeared. The only trace of the glorious past is the billiard room near Lucky Star. It still exists.
Senior photojournalist Zafar sahib, who began his career in Karachi in 1972, tells me that the most expensive bar room was in the Hotel Excelsior. Its entry ticket was 350 rupees. Only the most affluent would go there; the bar also hosted cabaret dance.
Furthermore, there was a Taj Hotel adjacent to the Civil Lines Police Station. It was later changed to Peacock Hotel. This hotel, too, had a bar which was mostly a recreational place for middle-classers.
The Metropole Hotel had a bar called the Oasis. It was later turned into a Chinese restaurant. There was a Cabana Bar on the Airport Road. Whereas, there was a bar near the United Hotel in Saddar, as well which was known as the Lal Pari (red fairy). Most customers here were of humble origins.
In the Frere Market, there used to be a Romana-Shabana Club. Romana and Shabana were both dancers there, who became the identity of the place. The ticket to this club was worth 30 rupees.
All these taverns were closed when Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) started the Nizam-e-Mustafa campaign, a rightist movement, against the then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. To mitigate the implications of the movement, PM Bhutto ordered the closure of all bars and announced Friday as the weekly holiday in the country.
Even this desperate measure could not save Bhutto. The rightist movement against him resulted into tyrant Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law. Soon, Zia announced the implementation of an Islamic code in the country. However, he did take back complete prohibition of alcohol in the country, conditionally allowing non-Muslims to sell, purchase and consume alcohol in limited quantities.
Today, there are several liquor shops in Karachi for the non-Muslims where all sorts of Pakistani liquor is sold. However, these liquor shops can never compete with Mokhi’s tavern or, for that matter, the bars in Karachi in the 60’s. Why? A picture with words, worth a million words, perhaps. Read below the notice glued to the wall of a liquor shop and ponder:
“You, sir, are requested not to sit and drink in front of the liquor shop. Also, roaming in the liquor-shop street, while holding bottle(s) of liquor, is strictly prohibited. In case of any violation, you will yourself be responsible for any legal action.” – Excise Police, Saddar, Karachi. (Dated: 5th of May, 2013)
There is no alcohol available for Muslims in the country. However, the only difference is that the tax or capitation on liquor now goes to the pockets of smugglers and corrupt police personnel, instead of going to the national exchequer as it used to in the old times.
-Translated by Aadarsh Ayaz Laghari
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