From Elphinstone Street to Hornby Road

Sixty years ago, you could skate down Bunder Road in Karachi. This, and more, recalls Harish Jagtiani

From Elphinstone Street to Hornby Road
Recently, memories of my birthplace, Karachi – the city I left back in September 1947 – were revived by a new book, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, by Raghu Karnad. Karnad mentions that Karachi had a big airport on Drigh Road with a large RAF depot. At the start of the war, ‘A’ Flight were on duty in Karachi to counter enemy bombers in the sky and U-boat shadows in the water…

My parents Guli (‘Ami’) and Jethmal (‘Baba’) were born in Hyderabad, Sindh, and moved to Karachi after they got married. They lived on Victoria Road from 1938 to 1940, in Saddar on Bhurgri Road from 1940 to 1943, and in Mohan Garibi Ghar in Amil Colony on Bunder Road from 1943 to 1947.
Ami persuaded Mrs Anderson, the principal of St Jude's, that I must also be taught Sindhi

I have no recollection of the Saddar house where I was born, but I do faintly recall the Bhurgri Road residence in Jamshed Quarters. We lived on the first floor of a bungalow owned by Mr Satram Singh. The building was next to Mulchand Malkani’s bungalow and on the same street as Chidakashi Mandir. I remember Bhurgri Road because I would often accompany my aunt, Gopi Thadhomal Jagtiani, to the mandir. Now and then, we visited the Malkanis, whose two daughters, Lila and Pushpa, played with us kids. Besides, on the ground floor of the Malkani bungalow was Baba’s aunt whose son, Khushi (aka ‘George’) would carry me on his shoulders. Jamshed Quarters must have been a posh residential area: I seem to recollect others staying there – my mother’s maternal uncle, Bhagwan Himmatsingh Advani, and her good friend, Hassi Ram Gurbuxani, whom we used to visit.

With the looming threat of invasion by Axis forces in 1942 during the Second World War, Baba and Ami decided to leave Karachi for the safer climes of Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalayas. We moved in May 1942 but returned to Karachi at the end of the year. My maternal grandparents, Naraindas and Gangabai Ramchandani, joined us in Mussoorie to welcome their grandson, Govind, who was born on 1 July. We were also joined by the Malkani family and some cousins.

On returning to Karachi, my parents moved to a larger house – Mohan Garibi Ghar in Amil Colony #2 on Bunder Road Extension. We lived on the first floor of a bungalow owned by Mr Mansukhani, an income tax officer who lived on the ground floor with his four daughters and two sons. It was an enormous house in comparison to the matchbox houses of today. The living-cum-dining room would have been 18 or 20 feet wide and 50 or 60 feet long. The house was at the end of the bus line on Bunder Road, just three or four houses away. Straight beyond that was the jail, at least a mile away, and en route to Drigh Road Airport.

Elphinstone Street, Karachi (late 1940s)
Elphinstone Street, Karachi (late 1940s)

Bunder Road was at least 100 feet wide with 15- or 20-foot pavements on either side. Both the roads and footpaths must have been smooth and well maintained. And I say this because I remember being presented with roller skates, probably in 1946/47, and skating all the way down the road to the post office about half a mile away. It was quite safe as there was hardly any vehicular traffic.

I remember the Gur Mandir, which was a mile or so away. Many other relatives lived there too: Baba’s maternal uncles Gulabrai Malkani and Thanverdas Jagtiani and their families, Ami’s paternal grandmother, Vishnibai Chuharmal Ramchandani, and her paternal aunt, Guli Sakhiram Bhavnani.

A signpost in Malir cantonment
A signpost in Malir cantonment

My first school was the Dhamibai Basantsingh School near Gur Mandir, which taught in Sindhi – Ami was firm that her children must learn their ‘mother’ tongue. However, in 1945, I was moved to a private school – St Jude’s on Frere Road, run by Mrs H. E. Anderson, a retired schools inspector from Burma and the widow of a British officer who was killed in the Burma campaign. St Jude’s had perhaps about ten children at the time. Ami persuaded Mrs Anderson that I must also be taught Sindhi. But instead of a Sindhi teacher, she got an Urdu teacher. I still have my very first primary Sindhi textbook, which taught us the alphabet, and I can read (albeit with a lot of effort) and just about write my name in Sindhi. In July 1947, I joined St Peter’s, a regular boys’ high school. But after a few weeks, we stopped going to school: conditions in Karachi had become worse with the prospect of Partition and the influx of refugees.

Baba started his own business in Karachi in 1938 – the Laboratory Apparatus Supply Co. on Elphinstone Street. His shop-cum-office was on the first floor and, as I recollect, he had one assistant, Hassan, who doubled as the deliveryman for local customers. Baba’s lunch dabba was always sent from home – I am not sure if our cook, Mangal, or Hassan brought it. After lunch, Baba would catch 40 winks in his easy chair. It was a slow-paced life. Now and then, I would be fetched from St Jude’s, which was close by, and return home with Baba, riding a bus. One day, there was a hartal and thus no buses, and so we hailed a horse-and-buggy to take us home.

Elphinstone Street must have been akin to Hornby Road or Colaba Causeway in Bombay. It had many upscale shops, including Easter Drapery House, owned by Mulchand Malkani, and Bombay Sports, which belonged to Thanverdas Jagtiani. At one end of the street was the dental clinic. The dentist must have qualified in England, we all thought, because he had an attractive English nurse to assist. Here, I got my first braces, which, of course, I conveniently ‘left behind’ at home when we had to suddenly leave Karachi on 16 September.

I cannot recollect ever eating out or visiting or even seeing a restaurant. I don’t know if my parents ate out, but I doubt it. We had an excellent cook, Mangal, who had come from UP as a boy and was brought up in the Jagtiani household in Hyderabad. I remember Mangal making fish coated in chutney and breadcrumb. Baba sent him home when we were leaving Karachi and we lost track of him thereafter.

I remember being taken to the cinema once, although I was too small to understand the songs of the great K. L. Sahgal, which must have been from the film Baba wanted to see. A faint recollection of Kaymari beach comes to mind: it must have been some distance away and so not a place we visited often. Generally, we moved around in the neighbourhood or where we could travel by bus.

All this came to an end when we left Karachi on the morning of 16 September 1947. We left on 30 minutes’ notice to board a chartered flight to Bombay, never to return. I did touch down at Karachi Airport in the 1970s, but only as far as the airport lounge. Baba, however, had managed to travel to Karachi in the 1950s at the invitation of Hassan, his shop assistant, whose son was getting married.

Did I say, “never to return”? I haven’t given up hope – hope that, some day, the Pakistan–India visa rules will be eased and allow me to journey to Karachi and Hyderabad without the hassles of reporting to the police station every now and then. Till then, I will make do with the pleasant memories of childhood.