When you catch yourself spending more time indulging in nostalgia than dreaming of the future you know you are getting old. I guess I’m getting old. Childhood memories, snapshots of places and people long gone, seem to creep up out of nowhere. My parents were the Partition generation i.e. they were witness to the excitement as well as the ensuing misery as people migrated, got killed and separated from their loved ones. My mom lost everything - her father, her property, her childhood, her joy, so it is not strange that she would spend the rest of her life looking back, saddened by the turn of events and what could have been. As a reaction to her attachment to the past I lived my life with one hand on the delete button. A lot has happened in my life but I really don’t remember things with clarity, I have always looked ahead. So it is doubly strange that suddenly I have become nostalgic.
I belong to a generation that straddles two completely different eras. My early childhood was spent in a time when Karachi was still carrying the vivid impressions of the ‘Raj’, where things were built to last a 100 years and where change occurred infrequently. My adult life has been part of the IT revolution where each day brings a life changing innovation. Perhaps that is why even my earliest memories seem to be like old black and white photographs – slightly faded and tinged with sepia.
Karachi was such a different city back then. One of its most defining features was the tram service which ran right down the middle of the roads of Saddar and M.A Jinnah road (or Bunder road as it was known then). I didn’t see the trams run for very long as their era was almost at an end by the time I was old enough to notice them. I remember people getting off and on these trams as they slowly made their way up and down and most vividly I remember the clanging of the brass bells as they warned people to get out of their path. The city was filled with the sound of bells and occasional horns rather than the pressure horns of the public transport which took its place. Where Gul Plaza now stands on M.A Jinnah road was the central depot of the trams or Tram Godhi as it was locally known. It was a humungous structure with corrugated metal sheets as roofing and though it was no more than a very big shed, it was still architecturally more pleasing to the eye than the ugly monstrosity that has taken its place.
The 60’s and 70’s saw an explosion of property development where beautiful building were torn down and replaced by eye sores which as time passed by became more than just sores – they became puss infected wounds which unfortunately we have no choice but to suffer each day. The area of Soldier Bazaar had grand stone bungalows, each of which had large gardens filled with ‘peepal’ and banyan trees. In fact these trees were all over Karachi and perhaps the best known characteristic of the city. As we started tearing down the structures we also cut off all the trees barring a few that remained on M.A Jinnah road, and the task of tearing down the remaining ones has been taken up by nature through gale force winds during the monsoon season. We are a nation which is addicted to shortcuts and quick profits, therefore no one ever bothered to plant new peepal or banyan trees since they take a very long time to grow. During the 90’s we started to wake up to the importance of trees for the environment and massive plantation drives were undertaken. Karachi now had little space and no patience to allow these trees to take roots, so instead of these slow growing trees we saw hundreds of eucalyptus trees being planted, hence changing the character of Karachi once and for all. The oases of shades in a concrete desert were no more.
Of course most people will wonder why I am not reminiscing about the peace, and tolerance of the city. I too miss those qualities of the city but then the city itself has gone through a physical metamorphosis or I daresay, mutation. And this new city has a personality befitting its new looks. A city that looks harsh and scarred has a personality which is hard and enjoys scarring others.