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Karachi: a night’s journey into Time


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When Karachi sleeps, time folds back on itself. As nightlife stirs in quiet bonhomie, its old quarters have nothing in common with their daylight avatars. These magical dark hours before sunrise, as cool gusts of wind sweep across a metropolis in deep slumber, is when one finds its past — a past that awakens as a long day dies.

It is 3am in Ramaswamy and Ranchore Lines; the air is laden with smells of food, occasional whiffs of cigarette smoke, but not a hint of fear. Echoes of yore amplify as one wanders through taut meshes of nerve-like passages that seem exhausted by their own daytime frenzy.

Strains of mellow songs mingle with low tilawats emanating from different thresholds; the doors of most homes stay open with fluttering curtains, and clusters of young men dot various street corners, sharing midnight feasts, cups of tea and backslapping humour.

These neighbourhoods are clearer in the dead of the night than under the blaze of the sun. Almost every second door harks back to the 1800s; many floral motifs on stone dimmed and chipped by eras, and plaques bearing dates from 1920s appear as imprints of forgotten times. However, the pre-dawn mood and ambience pays them a well-deserved homage.

Interestingly, the overarching modern facades are dulled by the night and their surrounding scarred buildings come to the fore like warriors of time, ablaze with more life, light and character.

The plastic baskets strung on long ropes, left dangling from balconies above, to be filled with condiments for breakfast at daybreak make for the quaintest of images. And where the rock stairwells to upper apartments are hostile to navigation — tight, airless and occasionally held up by wood — their inhabitants are far too hospitable at such an inconvenient hour. They belong to various faiths and are, therefore, awake for various reasons. Young mothers with infants insist on making tea and conversation; older ladies look on with cordial caution and the men offer to run down to procure hot samosas.

The dhabas, milk and paan shops below throb with activity: “Yehi toh asli time hai bikri ka,” says a rotund, dhoti-clad Ramesh as he chomps on paan and presides over his teashop.

On another end sits a meat vendor and I overhear a wonderful banter: “Bhaiya, subeh daawat hai toh achhi kaleji dena,” demands a woman who is up to prepare a Sunday morning feast.

“Yehi hai yahan. Apna kaleja de doon?” pat comes a flirtatious reply from the old butcher and as I burst into peals of laughter so do the shopkeepers and residents around me. It’s a street classic and no amount of rehearsed street theatre can capture the raw spontaneity of roadside wit.

To an outside eye, these places are portraits of misery — misery in the living conditions, in the squalor, in the dank homes. The people, however, put affluence to shame. They only speak about getting ahead, their aspirations for their offspring and above all, about abandon.

“Raat ko hum sab miltey hain aur achha waqt guzarta hai,” says George, a young mechanic. He explains that most inhabitants work in hospitals and government departments so their waking hours are spent on duty, which is why they turn to the night for amusement.

The sky is now streaked with lashes of orange and shopkeepers scamper around making their final sales before they close for the day. On the other side, lights begin to twinkle in windows and balconies; bearded men line up for their turns at street taps as they make their way to the small mosques in the vicinity and an ancient pocket, inhabited by lower caste Hindus, buzzes with action.

This is the neighbourhood of Narainpur in Ranchore Lines where tall silhouettes of Meghwar women in bandini saris and ghunghats meander in and out of various doorways getting breakfast together, bathing their children in narrow by-lanes and arranging morning prayers as the fragrance of oil and incense rises in the air.

The call to Fajr prayer, church and sunrise ritual bells ring out in harmony, but the long demolished Megan Shalom Synagogue, once on nearby Jamila Street, is still missed.

These quarters present journeys through clammy mazes of constricted passages where hovels compress so tightly that light can barely filter in. In parts, it is as damp and humid as a rainforest. As the sun comes up, traffic smog and bleats with blankets of black flies change its complexion and it loses the night’s ancient charm.

However, the squalor has light within. In the day, it lumbers on. And at night, it refuses to dispel its fantasies — a testament to Karachi’s pluralism and fortitude.

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Comments (30) Closed

abbas kd Feb 23, 2014 08:55am

Even though I was born & raised in a small town in Southern Punjab & moved out of Pakistan about thirty years ago but I had the chance to live & work in Karachi for about six years in early eighties. I can never forget the time when we few friends were used to go to downtown (Saddar) on our motor bikes after finishing work at 2 am, to eat famous Nihari or some time for Biryani. It was always used to be so busy even at 3 am & people lined up for Nihari, enjoying the Nihari & chatting till dawn without any fear. Burns Road was the place to go to eat Khata-khut ... amazing times we had enjoying the feasts all night.

Nasir Feb 23, 2014 09:14am

Indeed, bring back the memories of simplier times when day or night was filled with hectic chores but no fear

a Feb 23, 2014 09:15am

Oh my god....this article brought tears to my eyes. I miss Karachi soooo much :( It doesn't matter what part the world you go to, Karachi is still heaven on earth for me. I'm a Karachiite (and a Pakistani) and proud of it.

Maarij Feb 23, 2014 09:43am

Lovely and evocative

Kublai Feb 23, 2014 10:22am

Simple, down to earth, great article. Capturing the true essence of a neighborhood. A bazaar. Every day life that goes on. Must go on.

iqbal theba Feb 23, 2014 11:00am

Thank you Reema for sharing this. I was born in Ranchore Lines and even though we moved away from these neighborhoods I still visited until I was in my late-teens. It was such an amazing, lively, colorful, fun place in the 60's and 70's. My phuphee used to live right across from the Jewish temple which was known as the Israeli Masjid. Moharram was the best time to visit with all the tazias and juloos and all the fanfare.... I truly believe that my City will rise again and good days will be back again. #KARACHI ... iqbal theba

A. Waheed Feb 23, 2014 01:29pm

@iqbal theba: Thank you for your comment, I also grew up in the same neighborhood. Matter of fact I was surprised that the article had no mention of Hasan Ali Hothi Market or Tajou hotel. I am sure, even after 43 years, I still have some of Tajou's Chai in my blood. Those were the days my friend!

A. Waheed Feb 23, 2014 01:42pm

Thank you for bringing back the memories. That was real Karachi, from Hasan Ali Hothi Market to Jubilee Cinema, CMS high School to Masjid Bani Israel. I think even after 43 years, I still have Tajou's Chai in my blood. God bless you for this excellent article.

areeba Feb 23, 2014 03:36pm

Beautifully depicted. I felt myself drifting into this strangely remote yet surprisingly endearing aspect of our beautiful Karachi.Thankyou Reema Abbasi for this wonderful walk through.

OS Feb 23, 2014 05:51pm

One of the most beautiful articles I have read in DAWN. All about the beauty of my city and its people. No lamenting today or yesterday. Simple beauty of the resilient Karachiites explained in the beauty of simple words. And same for the comments. No ideological rigmarole from the readers that leaves a bad taste in mouth. Thanks Reema, thanks commenters and thanks DAWN!

GA Feb 23, 2014 06:50pm

Pakistan needs to celebrate diversity through ads in the media. It needs to eliminate the suffocating narrative of the Taliban and their ilk who think they alone have right to define the future of Pakistan.

sattar Feb 23, 2014 06:57pm

@A. Waheed: Where have those days gone !! I used to live in Ranchhor lines, near Poona Bhai Tower, attended CMS High School, and the areas you described were our roaming grounds with our friends without ever bothering about who belonged to what faith. Oh, those were the days !!

Naveed Feb 23, 2014 07:07pm

when you are living abroad you always miss your city. A very good read as after a long time I have read something positive about my city. Showing symptoms of life.

Faiz Feb 23, 2014 07:45pm

Thank you, Reema for a great article.

Ibrahim Feb 23, 2014 09:18pm

Thank you for this beautiful article. You took me back in time, to my childhood days in Karachi. Life was so simple then. May God bless Pakistan!

fowez Feb 24, 2014 01:08am

Those days are long gone.

Born in Maripur, Karachi I left in the 80s. After 80 years with ties to Karachi, it's just too dangerous. Family is now in Punjab or over-seas.

Maybe MQM and PPP will one day bring Karachi back to it's golden era.

Ali Feb 24, 2014 01:45am

@OS: Wonderful memories brought back from my teenage years. Please write more about other places like Burns road food, empress market, old Clifton etc. Thanks for a beautiful articles.

Alexa Feb 24, 2014 04:45am

beautifully written, I live abroad, but I know wherever I go, the spirit of Karachi lives within me. Nothing can happen to this city.

Runal Feb 24, 2014 06:30am

*Reema thank you for nice depiction and well expressed article of neighborhood of narayanpura Ranshodline that was often discarded due to the low caste poor Hindu community. This community live in a very poor housing and most harassed condition but tried to keep all Karachi clean when rest pile garbage on the street corners and empty un-utilized empty space. Yet very happy and keep the tradition of old Karachi "As it was". I visited this neighborhood after forty year and did not find any cultural difference, same old slang and lingo, same old charpai sitting on the street resembling the Dhobi Talav Kalbadevi Road of Mumbai, You can find Chai Nasta 24/7, Still can see open sewage nala running and stinking the entire area but yet happiness is attached on each door front and hanging on each baskets from the old balconies. Reema, I was very sadden to see the disaster of Doli Khata where these low caste, inopportune community for almost a century lost their dwelling by bulldozers of the land grabbers. The rubble is still piled up and place of their worship is still among the pile of rubble almost 2 years. The are still living on open ground without roof over their heads. Story of this disaster was covered in the most Karachi News Papers but it need your magic touch before it is forgotten and another shopping strip is built over it. It is my sincere request that you revisit the DoliKhata neighborhood of Karachi and cover the story of this historical area with your fine journalism expression similar to this article. Thank you.

Wasif Feb 24, 2014 10:56am

I loved it. Brilliant!!!!! Please keep writing - thanks

Nasr Feb 24, 2014 11:46am

Oh My Karachi! When you will be back to your own? I living in this foreign city thousands of miles away just loathe for that time when you will be back to your old glory. The vibrant city of lights.

Ali Feb 24, 2014 11:47am

Ah..Miss Karachi nights alot here at overseas. After reading the article i feel like sitting quietly on a chair and having a cup of tea along with andha paratha. I always used to feel alot fresher during Karachi nights. I wish Pakistan can go back into times of harmony and peace so that i can fly back and live happily ever after.

n s parameswaran Feb 24, 2014 11:53am

" Ramaswamy and Ranchore Lines". Is it really true especially the Ramaswamy part (difficult to believe because it is a Hindu name and a South Indian at that), in karachi.

if true i am really surprised but happy. There were quite a few S.Indians in karachi before partition (it was like Mumbai in that sense) and they left. Mani shanker Iyer is an example, i am told he was born there.

Yaseen Feb 24, 2014 04:09pm

Just someday, I seriously wish, we can offer a neighborhood to our children that is organised enough to display a sense of civic sense as in-built into our genes and not to be pushed that usually we all have different versions to follow.

Shops following a standard size of sign-boards, avoid encroachment of foot-paths, each area marked with defined number of shops supporting daily needs, a food street where all the hussle bussle can continue 24x7, electronic payment receipts enabling proper and just tax collection to be spent on the neighborhood itself.

People spending in neighborhood getting reinvested on themselves.

I wish! -_-

FM Feb 24, 2014 05:20pm

Nice article. This is what makes Karachi - Karachi. Growing up in the 90s, we use to witness this quite often. Though times and circumstances have changed over the years majorly because of security concerns. But its good to know through this article that the spirit of the city is very much there. I have in a way taken things for granted. I blame myself for being part of those silent observers, and not standing up when it was required to preserve the essence of the city. And now, I wonder will my 3 year old son ever see or exeperience the karachi which I love and saw when growing up?

A. Waheed Feb 25, 2014 02:58am

@sattar: Sattar Bhaai, wow, So glad to hear from someone who went to CMS. I still have very very dear memories of those days and that school. When I was attending CMS, Sir Sidhwa was the principle. What a man. Sattar bhaai, do send me an email at

God Bless aw

Danish Feb 25, 2014 06:34am

love you karachi great artical

Shamoun Feb 25, 2014 09:05am

@n s parameswaran: It is true.An old karachite with 100 yrs + heritage.. Still missing the Synagogue with its huge wooden gate and the Ark of Noah at the inside entrance, on the right. After 65 Yrs + still not forgotten

gagan sarkar Feb 25, 2014 11:54pm

@GA: As long as you have hamid gul and zaid hamid, you can never have peace.

Joe Feb 26, 2014 04:58am

Thank you for such a beautiful article. The feelings it calls up are precious, and they are felt by good people universally. One hopes for such dear memories to become images of Karachi's future.