Karachi: Before the British Conquest
By Arif Hasan
Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697985142
146pp.

My immediate reaction upon reading the first few pages of Arif Hasan’s book Karachi: Before the British Conquest, was ‘Good grief. How can I, a born and bred Karachiite, be so removed from my own city that I know almost nothing about it beyond the superficial?”

Very kindly, the author answers that question in his introduction: “Although there is a lot of British and ‘native’ literature on post-British Karachi, there is almost no ‘native’ literature on the pre-1843 period…”

Architect and city planner Hasan is one of the foremost authorities on Karachi and this is the first of a projected series of four books that intend to look at the city’s evolution, from the earliest times to just before Partition.

Thus, via short, pithy chapters we race across time and space, feeling quite as if we’ve taken one of those one-day bus tours that were all the rage some years ago.

Arif Hasan’s engaging book about the history of Karachi, before its surrender to the British in 1839, is full of nuggets of information and deserves to be read widely

From the Lyari river — whose water was once “crystal clear and used for drinking” — we make pit stops at Karachi’s many temples and shrines. These used to be the centrepiece of their localities, but are now buried by high-rises, slums, elite golf courses and luxury housing encroachments.

We read on to realise that if the tombs of deities and venerated holy people are not spared by greed, then the graves of relative commoners hardly stand a chance. Hasan writes that the Chaukundi Tombs — burial grounds for the many who died in a terrible battle between the Kalmati and Jokhio tribes, and now a major tourist attraction — are under threat from an unauthorised truck terminal that is expanding operations rapidly.

I, unfortunately, have never visited the tombs. Going by Hasan’s words, it seems I never will: “immense physical and social pollution … has made access to the site difficult and is also damaging the stonework. Attempts at removing the terminal have been unsuccessful for the last 12 years.”

The author’s summation of the coast’s history is a treat for anyone interested in the evolution of words. Nearchus, an admiral in Alexander the Great’s navy, gives the earliest documentation of the region and the place names he uses are intriguing: could “Morontobara” be ‘Manora’ if spoken really, really fast? And is ‘Churna Island’ a botch-up of Nearchus’s own name?

Nomenclature is a fascinating subject in itself and learning why a place is called what it’s called is always fun. Take Aram Bagh. I’d always thought it was called that because of its furniture market where people went to buy ornate chipboard beds, since ‘aram’ is Urdu for ‘rest’. My mother had laughed and told me it was a Muslimisation of the original ‘Ram Bagh’, but she didn’t know much about its history.

Hasan tells us that this clump of traffic and trade congestion was once a garden (bagh) where Ram, Sita and Laxman stayed a night on their way to Hinglaj in Balochistan. Now, according to Hindu mythology as quoted in the book, Ram lived 2.25 million years ago and according to Hasan, the “Hindu concept of time … is not considered scientific”, so nothing can be confirmed, but it does put the place in a different perspective.

The transformation of the ‘Fort’, the first settlement of what can be considered present-day Karachi, likewise seems unreal. Built in 1729 by Hindu merchants over an area of 35 acres, it had two gates: Kharadar [Salt Gate], which faced the sea and Mithadar [Sweet Gate], which opened towards the Lyari river for access to — and again, this will be impossible for modern Karachiites to accept — potable water.

A fascinating detail here is that “foreign labour, from Muscat, was called in” to help build the fort and wages were paid in “dry and wet dates”, which were also imported from the Middle East.

By the 1830s, Karachi’s population had swelled to 14,000 people, of whom the majority were Hindu. Hindu students went to the three or four schools run by Brahmins; fees were a rupee a month and a daily handful of rice along with a few sticks of wood for cooking fuel. Muslim students studied at the mosques.

The government subsidised the manufacture of liquor and controlled the one place where gambling was permitted. Meanwhile, religious ceremonies took up a large chunk of the social calendar — understandable, as by 1938 the town was home to “21 mosques and 13 shrines” as well as “34 temples and dharamshalas.”

With many more such interesting bits of history, Hasan brings us to Feb 8, 1839, when Karachi was surrendered to the British. Cue the next book in the series.

Karachi: Before the British Conquest is very slim, but it works great as a layperson’s reference, since the author avoids the clutter of too many dates. And, while it is certainly invaluable as a stepping stone for more detailed research, fiction writers should browse through it too, because it has so many nuggets of information that could form the basis of entire novels.

For instance, Chinna Creek, whose waters lap at the edges of Beach Luxury Hotel, is apparently named — although there is no recorded evidence — for a Chinese captain who was buried eons ago on the Oyster Rocks, after his ship sank off Karachi’s coast. Just that much should be enough to start Pakistan’s own, very believable, Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

But as I put the book down, that same old question resurfaced. Why didn’t I know more about my city? And it’s not just me, either. I asked around to see how much other people knew.

The responses were fairly predictable. “It was a fishing village where a woman named Kolachi lived,” said three people. “It was called Debal,” said several others, “where Muhammad bin Qasim landed. Remember that PTV drama serial Labbaik?”

Another said that we don’t know the history of many places because they’re not accessible for a variety of reasons.

Good point. Access to many areas is difficult, the Chaukundi Tombs mentioned above, for instance. Hasan also notes that the tomb of Mororio — the fellow who killed the whale that had swallowed his six brothers — is in Mauripur’s cantonment area and therefore cannot be visited. Then there are the usual issues of personal safety, especially for women.

But lack of access is not really the reason for our ignorance, is it? Again referring to the Chaukundi Tombs, I’ve never been there, but then I’ve never been to Stonehenge in England either and still I can spout off a whole stream of facts and folklore about it.

Maybe we must glamourise the past with some drama serials or films — it was remarkable how so many people mentioned Labbaik when asked about old, old Karachi. If that’s too expensive, then at least popularise books such as this one, which make history quick, interesting and engaging.

The reviewer is a member of staff.

She tweets @sarwatyazeem

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 7th, 2022

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