By Akhtar Balouch/Dawn
Karachi and Bombay were the most important and populous cities on the western coast of British India. The two cities had many things in common, most notably, a kind of cosmopolitanism which other cities in India did not share at that time. And the two cities influenced each other through constant business, cultural and population exchanges. These links formally snapped with partition in 1947, but vestiges of the past relationship are still to be seen in Karachi if not in Bombay. Karachi has doggedly retained its emotional links with its twin in India, but Bombay hasn’t, choosing to move on. Today, there is only one shop named after Karachi in Bombay – Karachi Sweets in Bandra.
On the other hand, in Karachi you will find businesses of all sorts named after Bombay. There are Bombay garments, Bombay fruit vendors, Bombay coconut vendors and what not.
On a building near the Chamber of Commerce, a rusty plaque still reads “Bombay Insurance Company”.
There is also a Bombay Bazaar on Bandar Road that dates back to the mid-19th century. The bazaar was a fruit of the efforts that the former Commissioner, Karachi and former Governor, Bombay, Sir Henry Bartle Frere had tirelessly put into Sindh’s economic development.
Khan Bahadur Khudadad Khan writes in his book Lub-e-Taareekh-e-Sindh (1900):
“In 1869, a unique, week-long exhibition was held at Frere Hall, Karachi. It promoted the handicrafts from across the province. It encouraged people to not only buy such goods but also produce them in larger quantities.”
According to historian Usman Damohi, back in 1867, when Bartle Frere visited Karachi as Governor, Bombay, he had summoned a darbaar (a formal gathering usually summoned by a ruler or a person of high repute, e.g. a tribal leader etc.). Later, in 1869, a commercial exhibition was also held in the prestigious hall, wherein traders from Britain, and India and other South Asian countries had exhibited their goods for sale. Along with traders from afar, those from Bombay had also participated. The exhibition was quite a success with the visitors.
After the exhibition ended, something interesting happened. Traders from Bombay found some empty land by the Denso Hall on Bandar Road. When the exhibition ended, these traders set camp on this unused land, and gradually built shops and stalls and selling their goods in the open.
As a result, a market bloomed out of dust and weeds — the Bombay Bazaar.
Sir Henry Bartle Frere was the second commissioner of Sindh. He was appointed on this position in the early days of 1851. Khan Bahadur Khudadad remembers him as a man with great respect and compassion for the poor and the old. He writes in his book:
“In the neighborhood of the Mir Bahrs in Karachi, there lived an old man named Buddho. Of humble origins, the man was unable to make ends meet for his family. Frere would call him Baba Buddho. The governor even exempted the two boats Buddho owned from tax. Not only that, but he would also visit Buddho’s family every week, always leaving some money in the hands of his son, whom Frere called his brother. The governor respected and addressed Buddho’s wife as his mother.
“Suleiman was another old man, a tailor by profession, who was among the old people Frere respected and remained in touch with. Suleiman’s shop was located near the neighborhood in which the locally infamous Seth Naomal used to live. Frere would always visit him and never take leave without putting some money into the tailor’s hands.
“An old Brahman, who kept asking the governor for a favor which could not be condoned as lawful, would later be seen with him most of the time. Frere would call him Chobdaar Baba. When he was bidding farewell to Karachi, Frere took pictures of all three of his friends with him.”
So, that was Bartle Frere whose activism and volition gifted Karachi the Bombay Bazaar among other immeasurable developmental and progressive results.
There are a number of shops in Karachi which did not open up until after Partition, yet their plaques proudly carry, in many a form and color, the name ‘Bombay’, a brand which the owners use to flaunt the proclaimed history and standard of their products.
Bombay Dry Fruits: Near the famous Fresco Chowk, there is a store that sells dry fruits. Its owner, Mr Abu Bakar says his parents were from Bombay and they have been through some tough times.
“I used to be a vendor on a cart right below the Delhi Store, yonder,” he recalls.
“It’s an old shop, that Delhi store; so old, it predates the famous Karachi Store. My brother and I used to have this dream that we will open a shop of our own and name it after Bombay, once we have the money. We opened up ‘Bombay Dry Fruits’ in 1980,” narrates Abu Bakar. He says he has been to Bombay once, and met his relatives. His relatives, in turn, have also visited him here.
“They were really happy to read the plaque,” a smiling Abu Bakar recalls.
Bombay Wala: Muhammad Ismail, another shop owner whose shop is called ‘Bombay Wala’, says that his parents had come to Karachi from a ‘Mistri Muhalla’ in Bombay. They had started their business back in 1948. Ismail runs a shop for hand-embroidered clothes.
Bombay Coconut Shop: Iqbal at the ‘Bombay Coconut Shop’ says:
“People around here love the coconuts from Bombay; especially the migrants from the city where the coconuts come from. Although the shop also has coconuts from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it has been named after Bombay due to the distinct popularity of the coconuts from there.”
Bombay Hotel: There used to be a popular Bombay Hotel opposite the Irani Hotel near Shaheen Complex on the former McLeod Road and the present I. I. Chundrigar Road. Its building is being demolished now. A few years back, the building also hosted some Sindhi and Urdu newspaper offices on its stories. I was one of its regular visitors. Never properly maintained, the building was left at the mercy of time and the people it accommodated every day.
One thing I cannot forget about the building are the toilets; none of them had locks or lights. Anyone faced with the inevitable need to visit the toilet would have to be particularly attentive to see the toilet wasn’t already occupied. In case you were inside, the only resort, in this situation, would be coughing it out (no pun intended) until the other party retreated.
There was a time when weddings and other festive occasions in Lyari were incomplete without musical programs and dance performances by the dance muses from Napier Road. There would be Balochi and Bollywood and all sorts of singing.
But nothing was more entertaining than ‘Qadir Bombay Wala’ coming to stage and singing to the audiences. He was no less a star than Muhammad Rafi or Kishore Kumar, among the people of Karachi and Sindh. With discipline followed even during dances by the beauties from Napier Road, one can say those were among the golden days Lyari saw. Sadly, I am not sure where Qadir Bombay Wala is at present.
In Mirpurkhas, a town trying hard not to become a city, there once was an ‘Ustad Bombay’. Although his real name was Muhammad, Ustad Bombay was his better known moniker. Ustad was a huge motion picture junkie, especially Hollywood movies. And he would get to watch these films for free.
Some three or four decades ago, cinema administrators would always be worried about fights and riots breaking up between visitors, so they hired bouncers to manage the film-loving mob. Usually, these bouncers, locally called paidageer, were strong Baloch men especially hired for the job.
The cinema-goers would grin at these men but were helpless in front of them. The musclemen would be the king of the queues. Ustad Bombay had befriended some of these bouncers and was thus admitted into cinemas on every first show, without any tickets.
The day after the first show, after the Isha prayers had ended, the elders from Ustad Bombay’s neighborhood would hold a special gathering wherein Ustad Bombay would be the chief guest. Children and youth would also join in. And then the Ustad would start narrating the entire film from last night in the form a story.
If the film was in English language, which it usually was, Ustad would go through the English dialogue in such haste that his audience would not catch a word. But he quickly translated the dialogue into easily intelligible Balochi. He didn’t just tell the story, he coupled it with animated gestures and onomatopoeia. He voiced the sound of a revolver being fired in a different way than a machine gun.
Years later, people learned that the Ustad did not know any English at all, and actually wove up his story based on whatever he observed in the film. Nevertheless, all of his translations were largely accurate.
All said, the Bombays found in Karachi and other cities of Sindh are still ‘Bombay’ and not ‘Mumbai’.
From Bombay Biryani to Bombay Masala, you will find it all here. The Bombay Bakery of Hyderabad is another significant incidence of the Bombay brand, but let’s leave that tale for another time.