Eating and meeting in Karachi
On the very first day of my visit I had a taste of the exotic Karachi cuisine in the house of Sait family. The sisters gave me a memorable home cooked Karachi meal which consisted of Seek Kabab, Roast Chicken, Biryani, different kinds of salad and a bread called Bagirkhani (the dough for which is made with milk). I was also served a locally popular drink of Karachi called ice cream soda. It is green in colour like (khas ka sharbet) but smells like ice cream. The desert they had prepared was Firni (which is my favourite and is an integral part of our Kashmiri cuisine, where it was invented by the Mughal royalty, during their many extended vacations in Shalimar Gardens). It is actually a type of rice pudding made with rice flour and milk, garnished with almonds, covered with silver foil and set in an earthen bowl. They also served me large helpings of a very crunchy and juicy fruit from the melon family called sarda.
Again on my last day in Karachi I partook of their hospitality. They were proposing to take me to a Chinese restaurant which I vehemently opposed. I thought it will be a shame to eat Chinese food in Karachi. I wanted to settle down for nothing less than a typical Karachi meal, the memory of which would stay with me for ever and ever. Finally we settled down for ‘Bandoo Khan’s Restaurant’. Bandoo Khan is a legend in Karachi. His is not a glamorous place but always over flows with customers. After reaching there I saw, jetting out on the pavement, five large barbecue fires burning nonchalantly. The expert cooks were busy in roasting legs of Chicken and rolling seeks (iron rods covered with the minced meat) over these open fires, emanating exotic smells. At Bandoo Khan’s service is quick, and the menu uncomplicated which consists only of five items i.e., seek kabab, chicken roast, parantha, halwa and kulfi. We ordered all the five and came out, after an hour, licking our the fingers. Outside we helped ourselves to a special sweet ‘pan’ to complete the meal.
At the restaurant I saw the elite of Karachi dinning there along with the lesser mortals like us. Later I learned that Bandoo Khan was the most influential person in town. Every important person, be it a minister or a civil servant, ate at his place and he could get any favour done for any body. For example, if a civil servant wanted a transfer, Bandoo Khan was the man to help him. At the right time while serving the kulfi or a delicious seek Kabab he could gently whisper the recommendation to the Minister Sahib or Secretary Sahib. This speaks volumes about the power of Bandoo Khan’s delicious Food. My sincere suggestion is, do not miss Bandoo Khan’s food in case you happen to be in Karachi.
Coming back to ‘Pan’. Eating pan is an expensive habit in Karachi. The habit was cultivated in pre-partition India when chewing pan was a day to day routine. But eating pan today in Karachi is a past time. The betel leaf has become a scarce commodity in Karachi, so are the betel nuts, suparis, pan parag and other pan masalas. If you are visiting Pakistan take plenty of betel leaf and nuts for your hosts. They will really appreciate it. They will also appreciate if you take the gift of cashew nuts. In spite of all the pistas, badams, sultana and chilgozas they still miss the good old cashew nut.
There were two more memorable dinners which I attended in Karachi. One was given by Commander Nassim Chowdary, Federal Secretary for Rural Development. I understand that the paternal branch of Commander Nassim’s family was from Haryana. The food had been ordered from the best place in Karachi. The menu included among other goodies mouth watering Sag Chicken, Shammi Kababs and the ‘Sheer Chai’ the salted Kashmiri tea garnished with almonds and cardamom. I could not believe that the Sheer Chai (salt tea) which I have always enjoyed back home in Kashmir will be served to me in Karachi.
To make Sheer chai the dark black tea leaves are boiled for over half an hour into a very strong decoction after which milk, salt and cream are added. This tea gives warmth and nutrition, activates the mind and in addition is a very good digestive. It was the right thing to take before going through a night-long entertainment programme which was part of the dinner. We had a live gazal concert by Gulbahar Banu and party. It was a real treat. Apart from singing Gazals of the great masters like Galib and Mir, she sang folk songs in Punjabi, Sindhi, Multani (Saraiki) and topped it all with ‘Damadam Mast Kalandar’ of Runna Laila fame. Gulbahar Banu, though not too well known, is an up and coming artist who has been a disciple of her own father. Before partition the family lived in UP. She is an ambitious young lady and has a great desire to perform in India. One day Insha Alla (God willing) she will get there.
The other dinner was hosted by Mr. Shamsul Haq, the Director of CIRDAP, the sponsor of our workshop. Mr. Haq is a Civil Servant of Bangla Desh and hence resembles any good old civil servant of India. This dinner was hosted on the lawns of the Beach Luxury hotel with lots of sea food and such frontier delicacies as Kadahi Gosht (pan cooked meat). During the course of this party I met some of the finest people in Karachi which included leading journalists, a well known music composer and the owner of a recording company. When I informed him that Mallikai Tarunum (queen of the melody) Noorjehan, was my father’s good friend, he immediately arranged a gift of two Noorjehan cassettes which his company had just brought out. This amazing collection contained the songs she had sung during last fifty years. It was a wonderful gift. I still listen to this cassette whenever I think of my father.
It was my good fortune to meet the Commissioner of Karachi region during this dinner. The Commissioner Sahib’s family had hailed from Hyderabad in India. He was about nine at the time of migration to Pakistan. He had fond memories of Hyderabad. He belonged to the 1965 batch of Pakistani Civil Service and had been on a course to UK along with Indian Civil Servants. He was very keen to give a taste of Pakistani hospitality to me and arranged an elaborate sight seeing programme for me the very next day about which I will discuss next week.
As promised by the Commissioner Sahib, next day promptly at eight in the morning the Sub-Collector and Assistant Commissioner of Karachi reported at my hotel. I was duly escorted by them in a jeep full of armed guards to the Karachi museum and to the Clifton Shiva temple. Karachi Museum was got opened an hour before, to enable me to visit it without disturbing my official programme, courtesy Commissioner Sahib.
On arrival in the museum I discovered that the Chief Preservation Officer of the Karachi museum was a good friend of our very own Harinarayana (the ex-director of the Madras museum). They were together on various training programmes and International conferences. He took great pains to show me all the rare objects in the collection and made my visit most rewarding. TA visit to the Karachi Museum is a must for all, since it houses all the archeological finds of the Indus Valley Civilization. It also has an enormous collection of objects made from the site of the ancient Buddhist University of India at Texshila. I had no idea that so much of ancient Indian culture and heritage is hidden in Karachi museum. The pride of the place goes to the largest collection of Buddhist sculptures belonging to the Gandhara School of Art. It is the Indo-Greek school of art which flourished in this region with Indian and Greek cultures coming together (an unintended contribution from the acts of Alexander, the Great).
Amongst the Indus Valley collection I was delighted to see the Priest of Mohanjodaro. Originally Karachi Museum housed the entire Indus Valley Collection. It is a freak chance that half of the collection is today in India. As luck would have it a part of the Indus Valley collection was on an exhibition tour to other states of India at the time of partition. After partition what was in India remained in India and what was in Pakistan remained in Pakistan. As a result, I was told jokingly by the museum director, that the Dancing girl was separated from the Priest. He also said that they were happy to retain the Priest as he resembles any present day mulla in Pakistan and felt India was a better place for the dancing girl (dancing is not encouraged in Islamic countries). The dancing girl and other Indus Valley Artifacts never came back to Karachi and are now housed in the National Museum at New Delhi.
This museum also has an amazing collection of coins. The coins of Harsha, Ashoka, Chandragupta and early Muslim dynasties like Slave, Lodhi, Tuglak and Mugal, which we cannot see in any museum of India, is well preserved and well presented in Pakistan. The collection includes many gold coins. There is an excellent display of rare books of calligraphy and a collection of the Holy Koran manuscripts in different styles of calligraphy in different languages of the world. There are also a number of miniature versions of the Holy Koran. This museum also has an excellent section on Islamic art. As a parting gift, the authorities of the museum very kindly gave me a replica of the Priest of Mohanjodaro and a head of the Buddha from the Gandhara School of Art. On my return I placed the priest in the room of the Chief Secretary and Buddha on the writing table of my husband where they stayed for many years.
Earlier my hosts took me to the Shiva temple at Clifton. Azra also accompanied me. It was a familiar experience for me as if I was in a district in Tamil Nadu visiting a temple accompanied by the fellow officers. The temple of Shiva at Clifton is a very ancient one. I had to visit it as my mother, grand mother and the great grand mother had all visited it. It is largely underground in a cave like structure. It does not have any ancient carvings but it has the marble statues of Shiva, Nandi and other deities and pictures of Gods and Goddesses. Shri Maliji is the priest of the temple. He looks like any other Pakistani and wears a salwar suit. He lives alone in the temple while his family lives in a neighbouring village. On Mondays rice and dal (lentils) are cooked and the hundreds of devotees who visit the temple partake of the community meal. There are several thousand Hindus living in Karachi. Most of them are engaged in small businesses. Several Hindu families live in remote villages in Sindh and Baluchistan.
Our host Commander Nassim narrated a story to me. He had earlier been the Commissioner of Baluchistan. According to him there were a lot of Hindu traders in the tribal belt of Baluchistan. They were well protected by the tribal chiefs. Once when a Hindu household was robbed, the entire tribe collected money and paid it to the robbed family, as a compensation, in front of the Commissioner Sahib. When I was eating Kulfi and Faluda in a restaurant called Sunshine Restaurant I was told that it belonged to a Hindu family. While travelling on the Karachi flight, I met three Hindu families going back to their native villages in Pakistan after visiting pilgrim centres in India. I saw their Hindu names when they requested me to fill in their immigration forms. One thing I felt very sad about was that on this flight there were several illiterate persons traveling both from Indian and Pakistani side. I myself filled the forms for about ten persons. On my return journey from Karachi I met some very excited nuns who were on their maiden visit to India. They were headed for Goa and for the church of Bom Jesus. They informed me that in their convent in Karachi many Hindu children were studying. There are also many Christian and Parsi families in Karachi. Pakistan has reservation for minorities like Hindus, Parsis and Christians in the legislative bodies.