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Vanished coffee houses

April 25, 2010

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THERE may never have been people from the beat generation or from the Imagist Movement in Karachi. Hippies may have never invaded the city the way they did in some other metropolises of the world. But way before, and till a couple of decades after, India's partition there were intellectuals, artists, poets, writers, thinkers and Hellenists who frequented (and had a good time at) coffee houses, Irani restaurants and bookshops. Karachi was a city that revered its poets, loved its music and enjoyed its cup of coffee.

Many of us have grown up listening to stories of the coffee house culture that was once an inalienable part of the city. Not much of it is now left to be experienced. What we see today is a hodgepodge of pop culture, fast food restaurants, ill-planned constructions, unruly traffic, a lack of interest in literature and a total disregard for heritage. This is indeed a glum picture. However, as a famous Hemmingway line goes, it's silly not to hope. So what went wrong? Where exactly were those places where the crème de la crème used to hang out? Where have those streets vanished, restaurants gone and bookshops disappeared?

Surely it can't be that Karachi has suddenly begun facing a dearth of aesthetes or that the number of nature lovers has shrunk. The megapolis still has voracious book readers and art connoisseurs. It's just that individualism has taken over collectivism, if that makes any sense.

Writer Anwar Mooraj says, “The coffee house culture was superb. Basically a guy would order a cup of coffee and sit there for hours. Owners used to tolerate this. However, once there was shortage of accommodation, they just packed up. There were many progressive people who used to visit these places. Faiz Ahmed Faze would be seen at a coffee house whenever he came to Karachi. Then there was Younis Saeed (who started a magazine); there were advertising people, journalists, etc.

“India Coffee House was a famous place, after which Zelin's Coffee House at the corner of Bunder Road and Victoria Road carried on. I also remember a few discotheques. One was in Variawa Building. The Railway Institute was a 'happening' place too,” says Mr Mooraj.

Zelin's! The name rings a bell. You've heard it from the old Karachiites on certain occasions, if not often.

Journalist Asif Noorani says there were no fewer than three branches of Zelin's Coffee House. “It's important to discuss India Coffee House first, which was run by the India Coffee Board until the mid-1950s. The one that was located near Hong Kong restaurant opposite Hotel Jabees was not the original India Coffee House. The original was next to the underground crossing on Victoria Road on the first floor of a building smack opposite Café George. It later became Zelin's and was subsequently bought by an Irani who named it Eastern Coffee House. The one that existed at the corner of Victoria Road and Bunder Road was called Zelin's Corner. Literary giant Qurutulain Hyder, renowned cricket commentator Omar Kureishi, poet Rasa Chughtai and journalist M. H. Askari, among others, often graced the place with their presence. The same building also housed the offices of the British Information Services,” says Asif Noorani.

Surely it can't only be the places where you can buy drinks and simple meals to go with the regular confabs.

Actor Talat Husain says, “I don't think places matter more than quality of life, and quality of life is made worthy by virtue of human behaviours and attitudes. What we have to look into is the factor which dominates our behaviours and attitudes. People have always been materialistic, but a few decades ago materialism didn't denigrate human beings. With the passage of time our outlook on life has changed.

“In my early days great names such as Raees Farogh, Shamim Ahmed, Salim Ahmed and Mujtaba Husain used to gather at Radio Pakistan Karachi. Radio Pakistan was the hub of intellectual activities and artistic pursuits. You'd be surprised to know that poet N M Rashid had worked for Radio Pakistan Peshawar and Lahore. Now the question is how come so many big names existed at the time. The answer is such things emanate from our collective social behaviour. Karachi in those days was a truly cosmopolitan city. The rich and the poor co-existed peacefully, because there were certain moral and educational values that each adhered to.

“Bookshops too had their contribution to how the city looked. One of them was Thomas & Thomas (opposite Odeon cinema, now a shopping mall). It still exists and is one of the oldest bookstores. We knew that literature made you a tender-hearted person. And we knew the value of learning. Here I must mention a cabin-like store that sold books a little away from Capitol cinema. It's now a big publishing house. Sadly all of it started to change in the '70s,” says Talat Husain.

Somewhere in Karachi a novel is being written, a ghazal composed, a short story conceived, and a painting given the final touches. But there's no one to discuss them at a coffee house.

— mohammad.salman@dawn.com