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Karachi's Ranchor Line: Where red chilli is no more

Updated May 12, 2014

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Photo by author

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.*


Ranchor Line is one of oldest settlements in Karachi. A majority of the residents of this area are from the Salawat community, who migrated from Rajasthan.

This community settled here even before Partition. Today, the wide roads of Ranchor Line have been reduced to narrow streets by the extensive encroachments.

Here you will see, perhaps to your astonishment, five- to six storey buildings standing tall on about 120 yards of land. Then, of course, the flats lack even the necessary space for their occupants.

The Salwat community, mostly the occupants of these equivocal domiciles, hardly leave the area to live somewhere else.

Some families have moved to posher areas of the metropolis, but a return to their ‘hood’ on almost every occasion worth celebrating is inevitable. The recognition of the area is an essential part of their identity.

If you ever happen to visit Ranchor Line during election time, you will witness a variegated scene of almost all known flags hoisted in the area. Members of the Salawat community, unlike many other South Asian communities, favour not one but many political parties; no one touches a flag or poster of the other party.

-Photo by author
-Photo by author

A road that begins from the Punabai Tower and ends at the Hoti Market is more or less the main artery of Ranchor Line.

On the right to the Punabai Tower is the spot of the once famous Lakhpati Hotel of Karachi. This little restaurant was known for serving the best tea in the city back in its day. Throngs of people would come here to enjoy the cup of tea, served in little glasses.

Although the restaurant was huge for its standard, one would often see people sitting outside waiting for or holding their tea glasses. The Lakhpati Hotel is long shut now. The only sign of its existence in the days of yore is the rotten plaque above its old entrance.

Interestingly, in Ranchor Line, you will find every type of salon; from the most elegant hairdressers’ to the traditional hajaam with a chair and a mirror hanging in front.

-Photo by author
-Photo by author

Another charm of Ranchor Line that you will notice when you go from the Punabai Tower to the Hoti Market are the wooden benches on almost every corner of every street. These comfy benches are usually now used as beds rather than sitting places: a reason for this being the ever-growing population octopus.

When you see young people on these benches, it means the old folks are back home, resting with the families, and vice versa. Space problems in the houses here are so severe that it is impossible for all members of a household to sit together at the same time.

Beware, though, you must be a Salawat to enjoy the comfort of these benches.

-Photo by author
-Photo by author

If you ever want to enjoy the hurly-burly on this road, visit the place after Isha (last prayer of the day). It will seem that almost everybody has suddenly come out on the road.

A majority of them will be waiting for their paan (betel leaves combined with cracked betel nuts with or without cured tobacco and other added flavours), or waving around their hands, making mild grunting sounds with a stuffed mouth. These people are neither deaf nor mute; they just do not want to spit out their paan for the mere sake of speaking.

There are many food joints here as well where you can enjoy the tastes of Ranchor Line. Perhaps these are the only restaurants in Pakistan which will not serve any item that has red chilli in it.

My friend Mazhar Laghari, currently a democracy and governance expert in Islamabad, previously a well-known Sindhi poet and literato in Sindh, had come to Karachi in 2013 as an election observer. During his visit, he asked me to take him to Ranchor Line for a meal. He stayed for 12 days in Karachi, out of which for six days he would not eat anything else but Ranchor Line food for dinner.

One evening, he was talking to Samandar Khan, the waiter at the restaurant we were having dinner. During the conversation, after adequately praising the food, he asked the reason behind the absolute absence of red chilli in any of the food items. Samandar Khan smiled and replied, “Every food item cooked and served in Ranchor Line had extra red chilli in it about a decade and a half ago, but no more.”

Before he could add the secret ingredient in the reply, a young local, mouth stuffed with Paan, called out to Samandar Khan in a grunting voice. Theirs were the most peculiar signs being exchanged between two individuals who could easily have enjoyed the luxury of word exchange.

Before we could make anything of it, Samandar Khan burst out with acceleration par excellence for even someone repeating a list of food items well memorised: “Bhunna hay, Bogheela hay, Qeema hay, Bhindi hay, Daal fry hay…” And so on.

Once again, the not-mute-yet-mute youngster made some gestures only Samandar Khan could understand. “Okay, I will have a Qeema packed for you,” Samandar told him and the youngster left.

My friend Mazhar, happier than before, confidently looked at Samandar, sure that he would receive the remaining part of the answer. Samandar Khan started walking away from our table, pointing to the young man who just ordered a Qeema and said, “These people are the reason no one cooks in red chilli anymore.”

He further told us that most of the people now have mouth ulcers because of various forms of chewing tobacco, hence they cannot take a pinch of red chilli.

-Photo by author
-Photo by author

Mazhar sahib did not say much in response and just gave him the usual, calm interjections and Samadar Khan left.

Another specialty of Ranchor Line is the way eve teasers, and hooligans, especially outsiders, are roughed up collectively by the community members here. Interestingly, the roughing up is an activity in which women participate as much as men do. That is why outsiders do not usually roam around.

-Photo by author
-Photo by author

The Salawat community has been among the most politically aware, as well as mature communities. Back in British India, they were a huge help in the struggle against the Raj. Baba Mir Baloch is one name to remember.

In Karachi Kee Kahani, a book by known author Ajmal Kamal, he gives a reference of Pir Ali Muhammad Shah Rashidi’s book Woh Din Woh Log which speaks of Baba Mir Muhammad Baloch:

Baba Mir Baloch was a Baloch after all: a courageous, vehement and a fearless man who was an arch nemesis for the British. He would always create mayhem for the government. Mir sahib even got elected to the Bombay Council as a member. Although he did not know English, but by seeking help from friends who knew the language, he would table questions that no one else would ever dare ask the government.

[To be continued…]

Read this blog in Urdu here.


Translated by Ayaz Laghari