Most of us would probably have come across the recent troubling images, doing the rounds on social media and news outlets, of torrents of trash and sewage streaming through Karachi streets in the wake of the monsoon rains. This is yet another image to be burned into our collective memory of how this city, once called the Paris of the East, has gone to the dogs.

No chronicle about Karachi is complete without despairing about its present and invoking its glorious past. A recent Urdu book, Yeh Shahrah-i-Aam Nahin: Karachi Ki Yaadgaar Sarrkein [This is Not a Thoroughfare: Karachi’s Memorable Roads], by Shah Waliullah Junaidi, also tries to narrate the city’s glorious heritage via the names of the noteworthy individuals that adorn its dizzying network of avenues and boulevards, its veins and its arteries. The list of roads provided in the book is pretty comprehensive, and the motley crew of personalities that lend their names to them — a smattering of colonial administrators, post-Independence politicians and bureaucrats, Parsi business magnates, Muslim conquerors and martyrs, some familiar and some obscure — reflects the diversity of the city.

Every account starts with a historical background of how a particular road came to be named and includes forgotten tales of visiting heads of foreign states waving to cheering crowds, of busy cinemas or even a dance bar or two in happier, more liberal times. Junaidi writes of clubs such as the Excelsior, the Oasis and Club 007, which drew young, cavorting crowds like a magnet and mentions how cinephiles, dressed in their Sunday best, would flock to the Capitol, Rex and Rio cinemas among other, now defunct, film theatres. In the pages of this book, that gilded, glamorous metropolis — now a mere shell of its former glorious self — comes alive again. But while it is an enjoyable experience to relive the memories, it does make one painfully aware of the sad trajectory the city has followed in its fall from grace in recent decades.

An Urdu book narrates Karachi’s glorious heritage via the tales behind the naming of its streets, indicating how cities are as much history as geography...

There are also recollections of tragic incidents — bus accidents, protests and terror attacks — that occurred on those very streets. One cannot forget the failed assassination attempt in 2003 on then president Gen Pervez Musharraf on Sharae Faisal, one of the busiest thoroughfares of the city; or the tragic Karsaz bombing of a rally held on the return of the late Benazir Bhutto in 2007; or the bombing near the United States consulate near Frere Hall in 2002.

On closer reading, another troubling trend keeps coming to the fore — that of a city that continues to turn its back on its own history. There are any number of roads, paved during the British Raj and named after figures of the colonial era, that have been renamed in recent decades. The most well known cases in point are Elphinstone Street, which has been renamed Zaibunissa Street; McLeod Road, which has been converted into II Chundrigar Road; Victoria Road, which has been rechristened Abdullah Haroon Road and, perhaps most interestingly, Solomon David Road, which has been Islamicised into Suleman Dawood Road.

There is no shortage of new roads where the names of these towering figures could not have been accommodated, so why the names of people who had deep relevance to Karachi’s past had to be erased is another reminder of the short-sightedness that plagues this city. This neglect is not just reserved for names, but can be witnessed in the city’s architecture itself, as beautiful colonial-era buildings made of sandstone are crumbling, annexed as government buildings or simply demolished to make way for ugly, unimaginative blocks of concrete. What could otherwise have made for charming historical quarters, and even sources of tourist revenue, is being taken down brick by brick in full view of an apathetic populace. Surely, there is tremendous cultural and aesthetic potential in preserving Karachi’s colonial era buildings, which are the common patrimony of every Karachiite.

While it is an enjoyable experience to relive the memories, it does make one painfully aware of the sad trajectory the city has followed in its fall from grace in recent decades.

On its own merit, this book is a horizontal history of Karachi, the human story behind the cartographic lines that make the city function, because a city is just not a grid of lines; it is a labyrinth of stories interwoven in its streets and roads, of which the city is the palimpsest. This is where the book really shines, as the author gently reminds us that, truly, Yeh Shahrah-i-Aam Nahin, and how cities are as much as history as geography, how every street is a story in itself.

Does that make the book a definitive historical account of Karachi? Most likely not. But can one even have a final word on this city, brimming with its chaos, its contradictions and complexity? On its own merit, as a chronicle of Karachi’s cartography, Yeh Shahrah-i-Aam Nahin is an exemplary attempt and a welcome addition to the scholarly work on the city. As for the city’s future, one hopes another golden chapter waits to be written of Karachi, with its grit, its grime, its optimism and humour against all odds, and the propulsive thrust of its 20 million souls striving for better lives. The question is, who will write it, or if it will be written at all.

The reviewer has worked as a producer in news media, an analyst in the NGO sector and is currently a lecturer at SZABIST University

Yeh Shahrah-i-Aam Nahin: Karachi Ki Yaadgaar Sarrkein
By Shah Waliullah Junaidi
Shah Mohammad Hamza Research and Publications Centre, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9692343107

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 6th, 2020