India in Karachi

Updated October 10, 2013

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Akhtar Balouch, also known as the Kiranchi Wala, ventures out to bring back to Dawn.com’s readers the long forgotten heritage of Karachi. Stay tuned to this space for his weekly fascinating findings.


It all happened when I was the Provincial Coordinator of the core groups at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The commission’s office is situated in the ILACO House, State Life building on Abdullah Haroon Road.

Our kind teacher Hussain Naqi sahib had come from Lahore and was at the HRCP office. He was trying to tell someone the commission’s address over the phone: “Come onto the Victoria Road. On the other side there is the Elphinstone Street. Our office is inside the Indian Insurance building.” The person on the other side of the phone was probably not getting any of this.

I politely asked Naqi sahib if I could take over the navigation. He gave me the phone. I told the person in search of the office that if he was coming from Clifton, he should get on the Abdullah Haroon Road, whence he should move to Zainab Market, cross the traffic signal and enter State Life building number five. Considering that the person might not be coming from Clifton, I continued, “If you are coming from the Saddar area, then come onto the Zaibunnisa Street, turn left after crossing the signal and enter the State Life building number five.” Keenly taking mental notes of my navigational instructions perhaps, he took a deep breath and hung up.

Naqi sahib smirked and asked, “So now that is what these roads and streets are called?” I replied, “Yes, sir.” He never agreed that the office was not in the Indian Life Insurance building. I took it as a memory problem, usually a symptom of old age and the matter was forgotten for the time.

One day, when I was trying to find the Victoria Museum on the Elphinstone Street (Zaibunnisa Street), I saw HRCP’s Kashan Kashif enter the ILACO House. It was a Saturday, not an HRCP working day. I thought of going in and meeting Kashan sahib.

The building echoed with the silence of desolation – a typical weekend aura there. I thought, before I go see Kahsan sahib, I should take a look at the building itself. It, too, was an old building and hence could not be saved from my obsession of finding any traces of the Victoria Museum.

Inside the building there were old, wooden stairs on the right which lead to old rooms. A few more steps and I saw an old gate. There was a stone board on the gate. It was too old to be read in a glance. I gave it a careful look, and read “Indian Life Insurance” embossed on it. In an instant, I brought the camera in my hand to life and took a picture. Suddenly, a man, identifying himself as the building’s security guard, came forward and stopped me from taking any pictures. Later, it was revealed that the guard resided in an old apartment on the upper floor of the Indian Life Insurance building. He was afraid that if the building was declared cultural heritage he might lose his home.

I, for one, was embarrassed that I doubted Naqi sahib’s memory.

Some time ago Tayyab Jajvi, a young teacher at the Department of Journalism, Urdu University, Abdul Haq Campus, who also reads my blog regularly, told me that the college where his sister is a student has an old board. His sister told him that the board had a Briton’s name written on it. Tayyab said he had given his sister his cellphone so that she could bring some photos of the board, but the pictures were not that good.

I took the address of the college from him. It was located on Burns Road, where Justice Maqbool Baqir, a senior judge of the Sindh High Court survived an assassination attempt recently. The place is not far from where I live. However, since the electronic media hordes are not fanatical over so-called sting operations across the country, especially in the metropolis of Karachi, it is no longer easy to visit a historical place and click pictures without locals giving you a glare and suspecting what not.

When I spoke of this during a conversation with a journalist friend of mine, Ashraf Khan, he laughingly replied, “My dear brother, the people who stop [you] from taking pictures also have one or another interest against it. Also, media persons are adopting too aggressive attitudes.”

I recalled Ahmed Faraz’s couplet:

Kuchh tau hotay hain muhabbat main junoo’n kay aasaar Aur kuchh log bhi deewana banaa detay hain

(Love has some traces of madness in it / While people do the rest in turning one mad).

I thought of visiting the college when it is closed. One can easily ‘settle matters’ with the gatekeeper and take as many pictures as one wants.

One evening I was accidentally passing by the college building when I saw a small entrance open adjacent to the central gate. I hesitantly entered the building. There was no one there. I kept moving forward, counting my steps and there it was in front of me: the board. I quickly took the camera out snapped some pictures.

Done with the board, I now started taking a look around. Suddenly, I saw a young man coming in my direction. He came and inquired about the reason of my visit in a soft tone. I told him I write on old archeological buildings and that is why I was there. He shrugged and went off, allowing me to breathe a sigh of relief. I resorted to click a few more pictures of some other boards quickly before leaving.

In a while, unexpectedly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see that the same young man had come back with another fellow. The new fellow in the scene had an evident grumpy look on his face. Before he could ask anything, I told him why I had come to the college. He told me in an unfriendly tone that I stop taking pictures immediately, adding that I should come in morning and acquire permission from the principal. Sadly, my work there remained unfinished and I left the building, expressing my intention of visiting the college and meeting the principal the next day.

The current name of the college is Government College for Women Sharae Liaquat. However, the boards inside tell us that the college was called Carneiro Indian Girls High School and was probably founded in 1933. One of the boards has paathshala (lit: school) written on it.

In her book Malika-e-Mashriq (lit: Queen of the East), published 1947, Mehmooda Rizwiya writes on page 119 that there were the Vishnu Devi High School, the Carneiro Girls High School, the Sharda Mandir High School and the Bhanpat Mal Arya Putri Paathshala for girls in the city.

Under the title The Famous Banks of Karachi, Mehmooda Rizwiya writes in the same book that the National Bank of India, the Chartered Bank of India, and the Imperial Bank of India were the most famous banks.

One day I was at the Press Club and was engaged in usual chit chat with friends. Aziz Sangar, who has produced many short documentaries on historical places for the private television channel he works for, was also in the group. He inquired from me, “So, what is your next blog about?” I told him it was going to be on old buildings in Karachi that are associated with India’s name. Well-informed about the subject, he increased my knowledge. He told me that the old building of the Bank of India is located opposite the City Courts. He also shared with me that the current State Bank of Pakistan building is probably the old Bank of India building, too.

I set out in search of the Bank of India building opposite the City Courts. I spotted a building that matched the description Aziz sahib had given me. However, the building’s forehead was hidden behind a signboard of a private Pakistani bank. There were no traces of the name Bank of India. I went close to the signboard and spotted what could be called the remnants of the building’s identity, fading words coughing the name: Bank of India.

From there, I went to the State Bank of Pakistan. Its new building was in line with an old structure. The old building has forcedly adopted a new identity and has become the State Bank Museum. But care to take a careful look and you will find the words ‘Imperial Bank of India’, as if sullenly shooing away onlookers, still with pride.

-Translated by Ayaz Laghari / Photos by Akhtar Balouch

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