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People & Society

Farooq Soomro, the Karachi Walla

Updated May 22, 2015 03:13pm
Farooq Soomro looks at Karachi's first drainage system | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Farooq Soomro looks at Karachi's first drainage system | Mohammad Ali, White Star

It’s easy to take one’s city for granted. When that city happens to be Karachi – the messy concrete jungle, increasingly walled and gated, and plagued by crime – few would care to explore it, let alone document it as a hobby. Compared to other megacities around the world, many of which are hubs of tourism, Karachi is almost a neglected afterthought when one thinks of touring Pakistan. After all, for a city of its size and scale, how much is there to see and do?

A lot, according to blogger Farooq Soomro. On his blog, Karachi Walla, Soomro documents the city through photos. “Karachi Walla is not an academic or historical approach to the city. It’s more about how I experience it,” he says. As he takes the Herald on a day tour, we visit parts of the city that are rarely explored, even by its permanent residents.

His own first experience of the city was that of an outsider. “I was raised in interior Sindh so looked upon the city with great suspicion… I felt it was too materialistic and there was no place for me in it.”

Born in Sukkur, Soomro first moved to Karachi for his studies in 1999. He later received a degree in management sciences and worked at a corporation in the Middle East for three years.

We speak about the complete lack of sculptures in the city, save for the recent one of the late Benazir Bhutto at Boat Basin (“Oh, that is one ugly piece of sculpture”).

He travelled extensively during his stay in the Middle East: Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Dubai and Lebanon. “When I was trying to recall Karachi while living in the Middle East and speaking to people there, I didn’t have many memories.” So upon returning to Karachi, Soomro began his blog, as an attempt to map out the city that seemed disconnected from him. “I was working at a nine-to-six job and there was nothing to do on the weekends.” He invested in his first camera and started venturing out into the city.

Karachi Walla soon began drawing an audience, mostly from Pakistanis living abroad: expats settled in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. “I also get a lot of people from India [who visit my blog], many of whom I realised later were also migrants,” Soomro informs.

Whenever he searches online for a landmark in Karachi, a lot of times, one of his own photographs will usually show up. Aside from getting hits on his page, he also gets the odd personal request. There was an elderly Canadian woman who asked him to find her baptism certificate from a church in Karachi. A British couple wanted to know the name of a hospital their grandmother worked in as a nurse during the 1970s. An Australian, who lived here in the 1960s, requested Soomro to mail him a bun from a bakery in Saddar.

The Ratan Talao gurdwara lies in ruins | Mohammad Ali, White Star
The Ratan Talao gurdwara lies in ruins | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Kabootar Chowk | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Kabootar Chowk | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Inspired by The Delhi Walla blog, the writings of journalist Peerzada Salman and architects Yasmeen Lari and Arif Hasan, Soomro mainly documents Karachi's architectural heritage. His idea is to visit and explore old locations before they are eroded completely and to capture people’s connection with history: “As Intizar Husain says: These buildings are like trees that have roots within people.”

As I pick Soomro up near the Sindh High Court, a Super Karachi Expressway bus passes by, with young adults sitting atop, clicking photographs. “I’m really glad they’ve started this. I now direct a lot of people to it as I don’t always have time to do tours anymore since I have a day job.” In the occasional group tours he conducts, consisting of two to three people – “a large group of people draws too much attention” – he takes them to a number of places but at least to one that is new to him as well, for his own interest.

“…There are places [where] I still feel alienated or uneasy. That will happen in a city this diverse for anyone.”

Soomro first takes me to the D J Science College on Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Road. It's terrace gives one of the best views of the city, he says. “If the chowkidar is in a good mood, he’ll let us through.” To our disappointment we find the gate locked and with nobody around to let us in. “That’s the thing about this city. There’s no guarantee of anything,” says Soomro.

We head to the National Museum close by. It’s early in the morning, on a sweltering Sunday; even the guard looks surprised at having visitors. The museum is going through renovation, with cement structures abandoned midway. It isn’t the most awe-inspiring sight but walking a little further through the parks where there are boys playing cricket and families lounging around, you realise that like much of the city itself, there are pockets of beauty and history hidden behind the mess. “Isn’t it a beautiful structure? It looks like something that should be in Italy.

Imagine it lit up at night with qawwali musicians performing live,” he continues, enraptured at the architectural secret he has stumbled upon.

Karachi's first drainage system | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Karachi's first drainage system | Mohammad Ali, White Star

As we drive to our next destination, Soomro adopts the role of a bus tour guide pointing out the landmarks on our route. Mama Parsi School on the left; Richmond Crawford Veterinary Hospital to the right; That’s the Masonic Lodge; This is Radio Pakistan’s building. The first floor once caught fire. He shares interesting bits of information about the places we pass by. As a curious tourist, he is attentive and interested in the life around him, despite having seen many of these places before — and nothing seems to escape his observation. In fact, he has a habit of getting distracted each time he notices something new; his words sometimes trail off mid-conversation.

We stop at a roundabout called Kabootar Chowk opposite the Sindh High Court where people are feeding pigeons. There was once a Gandhi statue here, he informs me, but it had to be removed when people began destroying it. Through Rustom Cowasjee, Jinnah had it gifted to the Indian embassy. We speak about the complete lack of sculptures in the city, save for the recent one of the late Benazir Bhutto at Boat Basin (“Oh, that is one ugly piece of sculpture”). He mentions there are few remaining, and these are all in private compounds.

A large fresco of the Hindu deity Krishna provides shade from the sun and a group of devotees sing religious chants under it. The chants from the bhajan mix with the azan from a nearby mosque.

He wants to show me something he discovered recently that he is very excited about: Karachi’s first drainage system that was run on steam engines, built in 1907 by James Strachan – one of the two leading architects of modern Karachi along with Moses Somake. There’s no documentation of this area which is located close to the KMC football ground in Ranchor Lines. With heavy machinery, dark tunnels and industrial-sized wheels that lie abandoned, this site could well be a set for the dystopian film. Outside lives a family who have the keys to the place. The children start asking Soomro questions as they spot our cameras: “Can you take our photograph? Which [television] channel are you from? Are you Christian or Muslim?”

Farooq Soomro peaks through the locked gate at the Ratan Talao gurdwara | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Farooq Soomro peaks through the locked gate at the Ratan Talao gurdwara | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Iniside the Ratan Talao gurdwara | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Iniside the Ratan Talao gurdwara | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Later, when I ask him whether he ever feels like an outsider when documenting Karachi, Soomro says: “It’s difficult to draw the boundary. There are places [where] I still feel alienated or uneasy. That will happen to anyone in a city as diverse as Karachi.”

On our way to the next stopover, Soomro makes a new discovery: ‘Baba-e-Urdu’ Maulana Abdul Haq’s grave lies inside the Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu office in Saddar. He’s thrilled by this new discovery and wants to come back to the place to find out more another day: “It’s like Khalil Gibran’s grave in his house in Beirut.”

We head to the Ratan Talao gurdwara on Temple Road, enclosed within the boundary wall of a school which shut down in 1947 when reportedly 150 to 200 Sikhs were massacred here. The lock doesn't open; no one can produce the keys. The locals say the place has always been closed when we inquire about entering the compound. But Soomro says that people still come here to worship. They try everything, including trying to break the lock. Finally, a boy comes with a key — and the lock miraculously opens. Inside, history lies in ruins. Ancient tiles that are barely visible under rubble. A black board with writing still visible on it. Foliage clinging to broken down walls and arches. It’s a somber sight.

A large fresco depicting Hindu deity Krishna at the Shri Swaminarayan temple | White Star
A large fresco depicting Hindu deity Krishna at the Shri Swaminarayan temple | White Star

Our last stop is at the Shri Swaminarayan temple on M A Jinnah Road, close to the KMC building. A large fresco of the Hindu deity Krishna provides shade from the sun and a group of devotees sing religious chants under it. The chants from the bhajan mix with the azan from a nearby mosque. “This is the first time I’m hearing it live,” Soomro says. He was last here for Diwali when the entire colony was lit up. “[There were] Lights everywhere. All of Karachi’s ugliness gets hidden.”

Does he feel more at home, wandering through the city, discovering and rediscovering its past? “Karachi isn’t a ‘pretty’ city,” he answers, “but as Khushwant Singh says about Delhi: You fall in love [with it] gradually, over a period of time, only after living here.”