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Liquor: The bitter and sweet of it

Updated October 24, 2013

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

The shrine of Mokhi. -Photo by Gul Hasan Kalmati
The shrine of Mokhi. -Photo by Gul Hasan Kalmati

The most ancient maih-khana (tavern) in Karachi can be traced back to at least 300 years. Agha Saleem, a renowned intellectual and literato, writes in his book Risala Shah Abdul Latif, under the head Sur Kalyana:

“When Moomal had burned to ashes in Rano’s separation, Natar, a clever and beautiful servant of hers, too, left the Kaak Mahal for good and settled in Gadap near Karachi. Here, she opened a tavern and started selling pots filled with wine. After some time, she mothered a child, a girl whom she called, Mokhi.

Mokhi was as beautiful and clever as her mother. Her beauty enhanced as she grew. People came from distant lands to Natar’s tavern to witness Mokhi’s beauty, while she served them with splendour and the best of her coquetry.

There used to be eight famous warriors (soorma or matara) in those times. Matara is a Sindhi word literally meaning strong. One day, these warriors heard about Mokhi’s beauty. They, too, came to the tavern to witness her radiance and drink the wine. The moment they saw Mokhi they were seduced to their souls.

Mokhi opened pots of old wine for the brave visitors, but the tranquility was weaker than her beauty’s effect. They asked for more wine. After some time, finally, the wine hit, and Mokhi’s beauty did the rest. The warriors left the tavern satisfied in tranquility.

After a few days, the mataaras returned to the tavern, asking Mokhi for wine. Mokhi checked to find she had no old wine left. She knew that fresh wine would not satisfy the warriors. Suddenly, she remembered that that a years-old pot of wine sat in the tavern’s depot. The moment Mokhi unveiled the wine in the old pot, the fragrance swept into every corner of the tavern. The strong ones drank from the pot to their satisfaction. They had never tasted anything from any vineyard so worthy. Dancing in tranquility, they left the tavern in joy.

After they had gone, Mokhi glanced into the empty pot and found a snake’s cadaver. She turned pale in fear. It was for sure, she thought, that after drinking the poisonous wine the strong ones would perish. However, to her surprise, they visited the tavern a few days later. Mokhi was glad to find them alive and filled one after another glass of wine for them to enjoy. Sadly, however, the strong ones did not feel a thing.

Anxious, the strong ones then inquired of her, “Why do you not serve the wine you had served before?” Mokhi told them that the special wine they had enjoyed was in fact poisonous. The strong ones had tasted wine, but had not learned to gulp venom. They died instantly upon learning that the wine they drank was poisonous."

The graves of the eight mataaras. -Photo by Gul Hasan Kalmati
The graves of the eight mataaras. -Photo by Gul Hasan Kalmati

The tale is longer than that. I have tried to summarise it for you. Shah Latif’s motive in this story is that only those people are immortal who drink poison as holy water. Not those who hear of poison and die of the fear. Shah Latif says:

Taigh tani ho gardan per aur lub per jaam pe jaam
Khum ke khum khaali ho’n har su, may noshi ho aam
Who kab tashna kaam, jo paa lein haal-o-masti

Sword on neck, yet wine on lips / Every pot of wine be emptied, common be to drink / How can those yearn tranquillity who acquire the present in ecstasy

Bura na chaaha Mokhi nay, zeher ka tha na asar
Bus aik ghoont ki khaatir chooma maykhaane ka dar
Jaa’n se gaey guzar, bol mei’n zeher ghula tha

Mokhi did not intend to wrong, nor was it the poison’s doing / [They] had come to tavern for a single sip / [They] lost their lives, for there was poison in the words.

The graves of the eight mataaras. -Photo by Gul Hasan Kalmati
The graves of the eight mataaras. -Photo by Gul Hasan Kalmati

You must be taking all this as mere folklore. However, it is not like that. Renowned historian Gul Hassan Kalmati writes on page 366 of his book ‘Karachi: the Marvi of Sindh’ that while en route to Hyderabad from Sohrab Goth, located a mere eight kilometres away from the New Sabzi Mandi, is the grave of Mokhi.

He also tells us that before the Taisar Town Scheme; only the areas in Deh Taisar were part of the scheme. However, authorities also included Deh Mokhi in the said scheme. Bulldozers were brought to the site to flatten the graveyard where Mokhi rested. However, locals fought the authorities off. It seems, however, that like the graves of Moriro’s brothers, Mokhi’s grave will also be bulldozed sooner or later.

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:

-Photos by Akhtar Balouch
-Photos by Akhtar Balouch

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 Ayaz Laghari

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