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City of yore

September 15, 2012

Shock and awe, yes! But in a sexy way. That was Karachi in the golden ‘60s, seamlessly spilling into the ‘70s and ‘80s: Sleeveless blouses, tight slitless shirts sans dupattas and hipster saris. When night fell, and the inky green palms swished lyrically cavorting with the cool sea breeze, a million bulbs lit up the city of lights to rhapsodise the beholder.

Regular gals and guys turned into party animals. Elite clubs served alcohol, dimmed the lights and rolled in the dance floor with a live band in attendance. The staid among us sat tapping our feet to the ‘disco’ music itching to stand up and dance. Sure enough, we soon swung our way through crowded smoky tables to elbow out a standing place on the jammed floor, stepping, bumping and hitting others. We cha-cha-ed to the immortal tune ‘Never on a Sunday;’ tangoed to the timeless ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ and jived to ‘Jailhouse rock.’

In those halcyon days, many a fluttering heart strayed beyond the demarcated lines of morality. Having a fling was kind of okay. No one cared! Discreet harmless flirtation never hurt anybody. Key Clubs as in John Updike’s most famous novel Couples (1968) and boozy beach parties under a full moon provided many with hen-party gossip. One heard of best friends’ dalliances with each others spouses. Spicy stuff got aired at Mahjong mornings lasting well into the evenings hosted by society ladies like glamour-girl Saadia  Pirzada, the lovely Maria Jatoi and corporate wives.

Sunday was spent at the races. “Only hookers or women who own horses go to the races,” was my husband’s standard answer each time I demanded accompanying him. But when he returned with winnings, I stopped protesting. Instead, one was happy to drive the four-year-old to Fun Land in Clifton with our maid, the Iraqi-born Khanum. There was the lovely aquarium down the road that we’d always visit to end our day.

Christmas and New Year’s parties were the jewels in our social calendars. Months ahead, strategic planning was put into action with countless visits to the top boutique houses on Drigh Road. Kaftans were the craze. For matching baubles we headed to our favourite shop in Bohri Bazaar where the owner would patiently and creatively design matching earrings, belts and necklaces. Twiggy was our high priestess of maxi-earrings and wrist watches. (By the way, big watches are back in fashion!)

Party-hopping for the elites was a given. For the common man, there was the Clifton Bridge and the seaside to dance, sing and usher the New Year with crackers and revelling. Clubs and hotels had giant Christmas trees in their lobbies. Everyone, rich or poor, joined in the holiday spirit that prevailed.

Politics? No, such word existed. Kidnappings? Are you kidding? Nor did ethnicity play fast and loose. Mohaijirs, Pathans and Punjabis bloody rivalry was unknown. We were all Pakistanis. Period. Neither had Shia/Sunni mischief surfaced. We were all Muslims. Period. There was no gender discrimination. Men and women were equal and free to move as they wished. Ayub Khan had touted his ‘Golden decade’ at the defunct polo ground, near the then Hotel Inter-Continental. We all went and saw the ‘development’ roadshow exhibited in cheery stalls.

‘Ode to Joy’ that’s how I would describe those golden decades. Then one dark day, the skies opened up to airdrop General Voldemort! He unleashed a reign of terror, stirring up ethnic wars, drug peddling and phony religiosity. The villain hanged Zulfi Bhutto, once the life and soul of high society in Karachi (before his elevation to power). Bhutto’s Casino on the Clifton shore was left to die. It did eventually die and razed to the ground. Zia tried turning Karachi into the ‘deathly hollows’ but one media house refused to bow.

One event stands out. The All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) organised a women’s conference in October 1984 at Karachi Sheraton. Zia’s information secretary General Mujibur Rehman was the guest of honour. He had terrorised the press and pushed to a corner, converting the most outspoken Zia critics into a pulp. But the owners of this newspaper stood firm. The weekly Star Magazine, sister publication of Dawn kept the flame of press freedom burning bright. Zia and Mujibur Rehman hated the guts of this weekly and tried everything to kill the stories that were printed week after week against military dictatorship and the subjugation of women that the regime’s bogus ideology propagated.

On that October day, when PHPL’s (Pakistan Herald Publications Ltd) deputy chief executive took the podium, there was pin drop silence as he began a roll call of 40 women — editors, journalists, staffers employed by PHPL. We stood tall. This was the ultimate tribute to the army of females manning the most prestigious media house. At the end of an edifying speech, claps rang out and cheers were heard while the dictator’s information secretary sat glumly silent.