The real Father of Karachi — II

Updated Sep 16 2015


Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta inaugurating the Gul Bai Maternity Home. — Public Domain Photo
Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta inaugurating the Gul Bai Maternity Home. — Public Domain Photo

In my previous blog on Jamshed Nusserwanjee, I mentioned how he had a keen interest in establishing maternity homes for the community. In this second and last blog on Nusserwanjee, we will speak of the saviour’s role he played for Karachi by doing exactly that.

Hatim Alvi writes in his article of Nusserwanjee's love for his mother. Perhaps, that's why he was so driven to improve the healths of mothers and children.

Jamshed sahib had a maternity home built near Jehangir Bagh in memory of his mother.

Hatim Alvi writes that Jamshed would always look out for rich lads who would further his cause of establishing such centres; people who would make a good amount of money that year. He would then coax them into helping him. It was no walk in the park. But the man had devised a special strategy for this, such that no man of wealth would ever refuse him upon being approached.

Also read: 'Harchand Rai Vishan Das: Karachi's beheaded benefactor'

Alvi narrates the following incident:

"I once mentioned of a wealthy Bohri businessman to him and how the angel of death seemed to be closing in on him. His relatives would be quick to claim his property after his death.

"Jamshed responded saying he would try. I told him it was going to be a tough race between him and the angel of death. A few days later, it turned out Jamshed had won. The result was a maternity home in the 'Eid Gah Maidaan' area by the name Seth Ismailjee Ameenjee Nathani Maternity Home."

I decided to visit both of these maternity homes.

Incidentally, my wife happens to be a nurse working in a public hospital, which is also a public maternity home. At the time I was hunting for Nusserwanjee's maternity home, I used to live with my family in the quarter allotted by the hospital to my wife (now we live in a flat in a separate area).

So I thought, why not begin the search at home like everything a good old husband should. I asked her, and in the politest manner of course, if she had heard anything about a maternity home by the name of Seth Ismailjee Ameenjee Nathani Maternity Home.

“In my 20 years of working as a nurse, I have never heard that name,” she replied.

But I caught a glimpse of my son Ali Hassan. He looked like he had something to say. Moments later, he spoke out: “I know about it.”

This was nothing ordinary for me. Ali Hassan is known among his friends and even the young and old of our neighbourhood as Ali Hassan aka Ma Kana. Ma Kana is Balouchi for ‘please do not’. Famous for his mischiefs, Ali Hassan is often found at either the hospital's rooftop or at places where a young lad like him is not supposed to be wandering.

So I asked my son — a student of sixth class — how he'd come to know about the maternity home. He shyly asked me to follow him. So I did.

Ali took me to the hospital’s rooftop, from where we climbed over to another rooftop as if following public enemies. There, he showed me a plaque that read in English: Ismailjee Ameenjee Nathani Maternity Home. Surprised twice within a few minutes, I looked at Ali. His shyness had been replaced by a victorious smile.

A name plate of Ismailjee Ameejee Nathani Maternity Home. — Photo by author
A name plate of Ismailjee Ameejee Nathani Maternity Home. — Photo by author

You will find the Eid Gah Maternity Home adjacent to the office of Union Council No. 5 of Saddar Town, if you ever happen to visit the place. I believe the side that has the plaque with the maternity home’s old and original name on it must have been the side of the main entrance. Encroachments could be one reason for why the gate has been sealed now.

Anyway, the place is known as the Eid Gah Maternity Home. Sadly, no one knows about the story of the angel of death losing a one-on-one with Jamshed sahib, nor does anyone know about Ismailjee Ameenjee Nathani.

The new name of Ismailjee Ameejee Maternity Home - Eid Gah Maternity Home.  — Photo by author
The new name of Ismailjee Ameejee Maternity Home - Eid Gah Maternity Home. — Photo by author

I still had the second maternity home to visit, so off I went.

I already knew that Jamshed sahib’s mother was called Gul Bai. Thanks to Hatim Alvi, I also knew the maternity home would be located somewhere around Jehangir Bagh. This garden is now known as Jehangir Park. But soon as I arrived there, I found the place to be much less of a park than a barren home to heroin addicts.

Also read: 'The story of Ram Bagh'

I entered the park from the central gate and instantly saw a round structure that looked like a huge room. There were some people sitting inside, going through Urdu newspapers. One of them was seated inside a small cabin right in the middle. I approached him and introduced myself. He told me he was a municipal employee and was the librarian of the library we were inside.

I asked this man if he had any information regarding a Gul Bai Maternity Home. He said he didn't, and referred me to the area's union council office (located at the end of the park).

But when I got there, the folks at the union council office said there was no such place in their area. Disappointed, I took off.

But on my way home, as I was about to take the wrong way on a road seemingly leading to Bandar Road (something I'm not proud of), I looked around and noticed an old building. Now, old buildings are something I've always loved to visit. I stopped instantly, entered this place and voila! The Gul Bai Maternity Home! I had found it.

From the front entrance, the building seemed abandoned. A grill-gate with a huge padlock hanging off it kept me from going further in.

Entrance to the Gul Bai Maternity Home.  — Photo by author
Entrance to the Gul Bai Maternity Home. — Photo by author

Slowly, I moved towards the rear part of the building where I found some life — an old couple sitting on a charpoy.

They told me they had been living in the building for 40 years now, but didn't know when the maternity home had been shut down. They did tell me that I may get some information from Rooney Baba, a Parsi who was the building’s guardian. Sadly, they did not have his contact information, except that his office was in Denso Hall.

Gul Bai Maternity Home.  — Photo by author
Gul Bai Maternity Home. — Photo by author

It is a beautiful place, by the way.

Right after the entrance, you will see a water fountain. Then a glass engraving announces the name of the place. On the left, there is a memorial, while on both ends of the building you will find plaques commemorating the inauguration of the maternity home. On the stairs, wooden plaques tell you the names of the people who donated money for the establishment of this clinic.

Plaques with names of people who made the donations. — Photo by author
Plaques with names of people who made the donations. — Photo by author

These tiny details are all I have. If you personally visit the place, you'll feel the real beauty of this building. The only thing I can say is that the architecture is some proof of a son’s love for his mother.

Photo by author
Photo by author

I did not feel like leaving the building. I felt heavy-hearted, as if Jamshed sahib was there himself, remarking proudly, “How did you like it, mate? I had built this place with so much effort and love, and now look at it!”

With heavy steps, I just stepped out when suddenly a rickshaw passed by. The couplet painted on its rear side seemed to fit my state of mind at that moment:

Humein to apnon nay loota, ghairon main kahaan dum tha

Meri kashtee wahan doobee, jahan paani kum tha

(Translation: We were robbed off by our very own, for strangers never had the strength / My lifeboat happened to sink ironically where the ebb was lowest.)

Another one of Jamshed Nusserwanjee's services to Karachiites was in the area of housing. He initiated cooperative housing in the city. The area known as Jamshed Quarters today was flat earth in 1922.

Also read: 'Of streets and names'

Karachi did not host too many wealthy families back then, and anyone who could afford it had built elegant houses in Clifton, Frere and Garden quarters. However, a large number of plots still lay vacant and waiting to be turned into houses.

For middle class families, it was impossible to have their own house constructed.. Jamshed decided that the cooperative housing society will be given land free of cost and will also be given loans for construction of residential units. Many people thought that the man was a communist. Not only did the well of landlords and businessmen object as well as resist the step, but even municipal counsellors – who themselves hailed from middle class – were against Jamshed sahib in order to please their rich bosses.

Perhaps, even in those days, Karachi had a strong municipality mafia. At any rate, Jamshed was successful in getting the scheme approved. A few years later, a number of cooperative housing societies began building nice homes for the middle class. The Karachi Municipality named one of them as 'Jamshed Quarters'.

One day, I went to call on a friend who lived in Jamshed Quarters and asked him, “Why is the place called Jamshed Quarters?” He replied, “Well, just like all the areas have a name, this one is called Jamshed Quarters. End of story.”

I don't know what to think every time I see Jamshed sahib not receiving the least amount of credit for all that he did for this urban jungle.

Translated from the original piece in Urdu by Ayaz Laghari