Professor Dr Nasreen Aslam Shah’s tome on the financial and industrial hub of Pakistan, titled Shehron Mein Shehr Karachi: Aik Mutaaliati Jaiza [A City Among Cities Karachi: A Survey of Studies] is, without a doubt, a commendable effort. But even with its value as a useful work of reference, it leaves much to be desired.

The director of the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Studies at the University of Karachi, Dr Shah has chosen to present facts and figures in book form — spanning some 500 pages. Had she opted for presenting it on the internet, she could have updated the facts and corrected the errors.

In the foreword, Dr Shah relates her long association with what is now a megacity. She briefly refers to the people who inhabit Karachi, less about the haves and more about the have-nots.

The author then moves on to the history of the city, beginning with the names that the village-turned-city was known through from time to time. But in the discussion on the British period, she fails to mention that Sind (as it was spelled until very recently), including Karachi, was a part of the Bombay Presidency for 90 years — from 1847 to 1937.

On the other hand, Dr Shah reveals what is lesser known and that is about the various historical and pre-historical sites that were unearthed when digging the soil for construction in places such as Malir, the University of Karachi campus and Gulistan-i-Jauhar.

A hefty tome that surveys literature on the megalopolis of Karachi could have done with more rigour and better fact-checking

She claims, and quite rightly so, that the first railway line in the subcontinent was laid between Karachi and Kotri. It measured 174 kilometres. In 1889, a 4km railway track was extended from the Cantonment Station to Keamari, which came as a boon to trade within and outside the subcontinent. It was later that a bridge was built on the Indus. During the two world wars, the Karachi harbour was of immense value to the colonial army. But Dr Shah falters in mentioning the year that the Second World War began; it was 1939, not 1935.

The author takes great pains in writing about every township in the megacity, mentioning in the process the population, places of worship, graveyards, bazaars, banks, fuel stations, educational institutions, libraries, police stations and, of course, the locations. Some colonies merit special mention. A case in point is Moosa Colony, which is largely inhabited by Bengalis who stayed behind after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. She laments that the lanes in the colony are in a highly dilapidated condition and basic amenities such as water are in short supply. It is one of the worst slums of the city.

There is a section in the book which deals with the eminent people who were born in Karachi. They are classified under different heads. First, there is an exhaustive list of people who were, or are, socially and politically important. One person who should have been included is Mushtaq Chhapra (1949-present), one of the founders of The Citizens’ Foundation (TCF) which has built, or otherwise taken over, more than 1,500 schools in the country for children from economically underprivileged backgrounds. Chhapra has also formed the Patients Aid Foundation that offers free services to poor patients at the Jinnah Post Graduate Medical Centre (JPMC).

There are sections in the book about Karachi-born sportsmen as also concerning people in the entertainment sector. The celebrities are well known and one hopes that in the next edition the list will include Sultana Siddiqi, who rose from the position of a producer of drama and music at Pakistan Television (PTV) to heading the HumTV network, which she has established painstakingly.

Dr Shah also gives a list of cinema houses in Karachi, but inadvertently includes those which are no more. For example, she throws up the name of Nishat Cinema. The cinema was burnt down in a riot in 2015. Four years later, the building was also pulled down. On the other hand, Capri and Scala are ignored. Capri holds a place of pride on M.A. Jinnah Road, while Scala is on the same premises as Bambino. It was the first mini cinema in Pakistan and initially, at least, it screened only classics.

While on cinemas, how can one forget that some shopping malls in Karachi have multiplex cinemas, too? For instance, Ocean Mall in Clifton has a four-screen cinema, Atrium in Saddar has three screens and Nueplex in DHA has six screens, while Nueplex in Askari has 11 screens. They should have at least been referred to.

With respect to community centres, Dr Shah mentions the Aga Khani jamaat-khanas, but ignores the Bohra jamaat-khanas which are functioning in many localities. There are some Memon jamaat-khanas as well, which merit mention. But what makes the Aga Khani jamaat-khanas different is that they also serve as places for prayers, while others are merely meeting (and eating) places.

Dr Shah also gives a very long bibliography and, in her foreword, states the names of friends and associates who have in many ways helped her in compiling the book.

The publisher and/or the designer of this book on Karachi should not have reduced the size of the photographs of various spots in the city. By trying to include as many pictures as possible, they reduced them disproportionately and annoyingly, to say the least. Lapses in captions should have been avoided, too. For instance, “Kothari” has been spelled “Attari” below one particular picture.

A few words about the dedication of the book: you never see the picture of the person with the dedicatory note, but Dr Shah makes an exception. She shows the photograph of her grandson and, what is more, he is not alone. He is in the arms of the author!

Jumping from the beginning to the end, a discerning reader is bound to appreciate the inclusion of maps of various townships and, more importantly, one of the entire megacity.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Shehron Mein Shehr Karachi: Eik
Mutaaliati Jaiza
By Nasreen Aslam Shah
Royal Book Company, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699453093
498pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 5th, 2020