The Disappearing Mohalla
The Disappearing Mohalla

Reminiscing about my early years, I came to the conclusion that the Urdu word “mohalla” does not translate into English very well. It certainly does not mean “neighborhood”, and “locality” is too restrictive. “Community” would be closer to the truth, but it does not have a physical aspect. I suppose mohalla is like another favorite word of mind which also does not have a direct counterpart in English: takalluf. Some might say takalluf is “grace,” but that robs it of its culture and tradition. Mohalla too is hard to transliterate and does not have a direct counterpart in English. As I get older, I am getting more and more possessive about the childhood memories of my old mohalla.

Holding a scorpion in the shrine of Hazrat Shahwilayat, patron saint of Amroha. The scorpions are sacred and don't sting. Amroha, UP, India. 2009.

I think it’s natural that I would feel this was about the mohalla I grew up in. There is a natural inclination in my family and consequently me, to immerse and identify with a place, culture, and people. Some fourteen centuries ago my ancestors travelled from Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia and settled in Wasit, currently in eastern Iraq. In the early 13th century my forefather and the patron saint of my community Hazrat Sharfuddin Shahwilayat came to Punjab to study under the famous Sufis Bahauddin Zakariya and Shah Rukn-e-Alam. When his spiritual studies of the Suhrawardiyya order were complete, he made his way to Amroha, a small town in north India where he would be the paramount Sufi of the region. It was the reign of the Tughlaqs, and India was a fertile ground for learned scholars. Shahwilayat was soon famous for his karamaat (miracles), like the miracle of the scorpions- that infested his tomb due to a curse from the Sufi he overshadowed would not sting the visitors who came to seek blessings at his grave. Even today the big black scorpions can be safely held by mendicants and visitors and several times I have experienced this miracle, the last time in 2015.

While Shahwilayat was preaching and building his reputation, even rejecting overtures by Mohammad bin Tughlaq for a family union through Shahwilayat’s daughter, my own immediate family settled in the mohalla of Bagla in Amroha. It was named after the storks that would live along the banks of the lakes that abutted the mohalla. They were to stay there for the next eight centuries. Such was the case for other Syed families of Amroha who stayed in the mohallas of  Katkoi, Danishmandan, Guzri ,and other locations with similarly colorful and descriptive names. This long stay led to the development of subcultures that were unique to the different mohallas. For instance, people in Bagla were supposed to be scholarly and cosmopolitan while those from Katkoi were reputed to be insular and agricultural. Intermarriages within the families kept the Syed bloodlines pure and the culture was maintained for eons.

The development of subcultures within a small town is not unheard of. Villages and towns across the world have individual characteristics such as dialects, vernacular, pronunciation, music, etc. George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” is centered around the concept of different subcultures and accents in London. Today the boroughs of New York have a distinct culture— Queens is distinct from the Bronx and Harlem is distinguishable from the rest of Manhattan. In Karachi if people lived in the same locality for over a century, they would have their own subculture too. Even within the short period of time post-partition, different towns in Karachi have developed certain characteristics. People who have lived in DHA and Nazimabad continuously for decades would be easily distinguished from the other.

Evenings were spent with visiting relatives and endless conversations, 1980

In 1947 many Syed families immigrated to Pakistan, but they continued to build their lives around the mohalla. This was expected. After all, immigrants to a new land would try and hold on to whatever they can from the mother country. The various Chinatowns dotted across cities in America are reflective of that sentiment. My own family first settled in the newly established PIB colony, making their way to Pakistan Quarters, and then Nazimabad. This movement was followed by the other Amrohvis of similar socio-economic status. In early 1970s these families came to Federal “B” area where some 30 Amrohvi families built their homes. My family moved there in 1974 into the house where I spent my early years and the mohalla I grew up in.

It is hard to describe what my mohalla was, but I will try. One way of thinking about it is as one large compound where a child would be surrounded by relatives of various hues, age, and sizes. There was an aunt or an uncle in every house I would go to, and they had the liberty to feed, bathe, teach, and scold me. In the days before babysitters and daycare centers, this arrangement was heaven-sent. Once, I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother’s cousin waiting for me. There had been an emergency that my mother had to attend to and the aunt took me to her house which was in the same street as mine. I was only six. Nowadays, leaving a child in the hands of another would be considered strange, but it was perfectly acceptable because in my mohalla a child was the collective responsibility of everyone. My aunt changed my clothes, fed me with her own hands because she knew that’s the only way I ate, and then helped me complete my homework. By the time I was picked up in the evening, I had spent a glorious afternoon playing hide and seek with the other children in the house.

Everything seemed more magical in the mohalla, including summer vacations. May is a seminal month in Karachi, an intermediary that hints of the pleasures of a South Asian summer. The searing April heat is omnipresent but in late afternoons you can hear the cuckoo’s song that makes it palatable. I would hear the song from the many trees in my mohalla and to this day it brings back memories of final exams, the never-ending wait for summer vacations, gola ganda (ice cones) and all the other things that made summer the most important season for a child. It truly is the sound of Karachi’s summer, a redoubtable counterpart to the robin’s warble that heralds spring or the cries of the south flying birds that welcome winter.

Karachi’s summer weather is deliciously fickle, a courtesan whose coquetry and harsh indifference distracts one to distraction but come sundown she opens her charm first with a zephyr of cool sea breeze and then the loving embrace of the night’s quietude. Sultry days give way to ochre, silky dusks which melt into indigo nights and the moon never looks as kindly as it does then.

Summers in those bygone days meant mangoes which always tasted better when unripe and stolen from a neighbour’s house. Of course, the green unripe fruit would, through alchemy, transform into the king of fruits to be gobbled at breakfast with piping hot parathas, eaten for lunch with crumbly baisan ki roti and at dinner as dessert with fresh cream.

There would be other homemade mango delights such as ice cream, shakes, squash, pickle, and the Amrohvi filfora– a scrumptious concoction of mango pulp, onions, fresh mint, and chillies which is eaten for lunch with buttered bread. There would be mango parties with buckets of iced mangoes and ample utensils and appetite to go around. We would be as bold with our consumption as our tummies would allow.

Mangoes were a recurring refrain but no less exciting were the summer sports. The dive in the icy pool of the mohalla’s gymnasium marked the beginning of vacations and no week would be complete without a pool foray. Nights would be put to good use with cricket played on the street. I played out several Imran Khan exploits in my head only to discover a woeful lack of talent.

Nonetheless, the dawn halwa puri breakfast would more than make up for any defeats and soon I was making plans for the next match. If it wasn’t outdoor sports then it were indoor games. Carom, scrabble, ludo, and chess were fixtures and helped through the lazy afternoons. Monopoly notes would be hoarded in sweaty palms until they fell apart and card sessions would last hours until the inevitable fights over barely concealed cheating or the yelling from elders to quiet down.

Summer meant visiting cousins and spending the night at houses of tired but welcoming relatives and even random acquaintances for no reason. It meant having access to summer delights – video games for instance. It was the season for books with Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and Dickens – firm favorites. Comic books would be bought by the dozen and guarded and exchanged with all the earnestness of a Wall Street transaction. Comics would be best enjoyed in solitude or possibly around grandparents since they never asked silly questions about powers and costumes.

Load shedding was ubiquitous but generators were still a luxury and the hum of the machines would be replaced by the cries of neighborhood kids on the roads playing games of baraf pani and tag while the elders talked in the candle light or under the glow of emergency lights. Toddlers would swing in crude but effective dupatta hammocks and fall asleep in the serenity whilst listening to a grandmother’s lullaby.

Come August you could hear a dirge – the millions of children lamenting summer’s end. School shopping would start and we would start the academic year finding solace in the knowledge that it may seem like an eternity, but we will eventually be welcoming another Karachi summer in the mohalla.

Spending time at the relatives’ living in the mohalla was the done thing; I did plenty of that. The best way to go from one relative’s home to the one behind it was by jumping over the connecting wall. Planning cricket matches would be based on whoever had the best snacks available, and electricity outages were celebrated with board games and impromptu games of ‘tag’ right on the street. There was no need for tea houses; elders would gather at each other’s homes for Amrohvi delicacies such as maash ki khichri or card games. VCRs would be rented to watch Indian movies and most movie review discussions would continue long into the night and over the next many days. Weddings, deaths, Ramzan, Eid, Muharram, koondas and other cultural or religious events would be almost self-contained; so rich, and varied, was the landscape.

An anaar was a firm favorite at Shab-e-Baraat. Block 13, FB Area. 2021

One of these was Shab-e-Baraat which is celebrated on 14th of Shaban. When I was a child, this night was more important to me than the Eids, birthday, and end of exams day put together. Just the thought of lighting loud firecrackers, setting off blazing rockets, running around with dazzling phool jhaaris, and dancing around the anaars emitting colorful stars was enough to feel tingling sensations from head to toe. The anticipation would build up from first Shabaan with a visit to buy the first set of aatish baazi (fireworks). I am saying first set because this purchase would be used up in “experiments” and “quality control”.

The fireworks would be exposed to sunlight every day to keep the powder dry and several times a day I would go to the roof to marvel at my collection. Invariably a cousin, friend or neighborhood kid would drop by to cajole me to “test” a firecracker or dibri just to see if my stock is of the best quality. This would start a complicated negotiation around the terms and how the kid would also test his purchases on another date and so on. This exchange would put a Goldman banker to shame and like all best negotiations would leave neither party fully satisfied.

The day itself would never come soon enough and finally the honied aroma of chanay ki daal simmered in milk, sugar, cardamom, and others secret spices would announce the arrival of the much-anticipated moment. The chanay ki daal ka halwa and sooji halwa was lovingly prepared by Ammi and then set in shining silver trays, buffed, and carefully polished for the occasion.

Phool jharis light up the house and the heart. Block 13, FB Area. 2021

A few trips to the corner store were a ritual as one can never have enough nuts and silver leaf for the garnish. The halwa was carefully divided into sections for Imam Mehdi (AS), the Masoomeen, local imam barah, neighbors, family members and for general charity distribution. Then the chiragh which had been washed and blessed were filled to the brim with ghee and Ammi would arrange them with much fanfare with rose petals and other flowers from her garden. Fourteen chiragh were lit for me as a mannat, a tradition she still follows to this day and will do it tonight.

The chiragh would be lit at sundown and the house would be filled with the unique perfume of incense, rose petals and halwa. The dining table would groan under the weight of delicious dishes as relatives would visit and I can still taste the dahi barays and puris that would adorn the freshly laid white linen tablecloth that had been a part of my grandmother’s dowry.

Showered and dressed in finery, the children of the house would be given the task of distributing the halwa. It seemed like a chore then as I would be chaffing to get to my fireworks, but it had to be done. Meanwhile there was a constant stream of halwa and other niaz dishes coming from our neighbours, Sunnis, and Shias alike.

The distribution finally done I would get down to the serious business of fireworks setting. Oh what joy! What happiness! What absolute bliss! The trick was to hoard your own and try and let others finish their store first. My next-door neighbor, Kazmi Bhai (may Lord bless his soul), was generous to a fault and would have his servants lay down boxes upon boxes of fireworks on the grassy footpath outside his home and we would take full advantage of his magnanimity and make merry. His sons never begrudged me and the phool jhari, anaar, rockets, dibri, murra, mehtab, gaslight, rani bomb, barfi bomb, flares, and other exotic-sounding fireworks would be set off with absolute abandon.

Of course, there were a couple of yells of “Keep it down!” from curmudgeons but they would be politely and completely ignored. There would also be friendly competition among different homes about who had the best fireworks, and each neighbor would take great pride in showing off their dazzling display. By the night was over there would be a layer of firecracker paper and spent gunpower on the road.

Neighbours’ fireworks gone, I would make my way to homes of other relatives to participate in their fireworks show and finally come back to my home, utterly delighted but unsatiated. My own stock would be severely diminished by now but there had to be a show for the relatives who had assembled. That is when Ammi and Abba would bring out a fresh stock that they had kept aside and brought themselves or through Parvez Chacha. Irfan Chacha too would pitch in with his specialty: boxes of anaars, each which would emit incandescent sparks of all the colors of the rainbow: blues, and greens and reds and yellows. The annual restocking was a given, but each year it never failed to surprise and elate me who was afraid of running out of fireworks before the night was over.

The final display would be more about beauty than noise and phool jaris and anaars were the main showstoppers with the ladies joining in. The light show concluded, scrumpitous victuals tasted and praised, we would say goodbye to the guests who would be laden with halwa takeaways. Ammi would then settle down for amaal prayers in front of the chiragh which she had been refueling with ghee since sundown. She would save one phool jari which she would light for Imam Mehdi (AS) at the conclusion of the amaal at sunrise next morning.

By now I would be gloriously happy but also a bit sad as the most anticipated night of the year was over. As I would go to sleep, I would tell myself that 364 days later the earth would hear the terrific roar of my firecrackers and I would be running around setting the sky on fire.

Many cultural personages graced my home in the mohalla including Indian poet Mahindar Singh Bedi who was hosted for dinners and poetry recitals, April 1982

Growing up in FB Area, everything was a communal exercise. There were around twenty-five Amrohvi families living within a radius of 1 km, nine in my own street, which made crises seem bearable, or even an occasion of bringing people together. Among the crises from my childhood that I remember well are the curfews in President Zia’s time.

I was only a tiny mite, but I remember that my father would go to Bhai Shammu’s who would host a card game marathon. Abba, Bhai Azadaar, Dada Razi Khushnood, and a few more elders of the community would gather to while away the hours in cards and talk. The game of choice would be courtpiece aka trumps. Hours would be spent in trying to give the other team a coat or even better – a goo-court (in literal terms a muck covered straight win of seven hands by the team which did not call the trump card). Bhai Shammu’s servant, more his Man-Friday than servant, would do a grocery-run for the homes of the people involved in the game so no one had to worry about it. A-One General Store, also owned by an Amrohvi, was within shouting distance, and he would go around delivering whatever was needed. These meetings were a huge source of interest for me, but it was strictly a no children zone and I despaired of ever seeing the action.

Then one day, opportunity whistled to me, my mother sent me over to tell my father something important, and as I climbed the stairs to the drawing room I was giddy with delight as children usually are when entering the “adult” zone. The scene was magnificent: a frigid room courtesy of two air conditioners running on full blast (one was acceptable but two were absolute opulence in the 1980s), a gleaming white cotton sheet on the ground on which the cards would be played, a pile of rupee notes which would be used for the celebratory qalaqand from the nearby sweets shop. Mahmood, and the elders, including my father in white kurta pajama bent over their cards with the intensity of gold-creating alchemists.

I was greeted with smiles and hugs, but knew the protocol. This was a treat, but best not to abuse it. A quick adaab, message delivered with alacrity and then a hasty exit. Years later when I was older there was another cards meet on a weekend, I had a similar mission, and was accorded the honor of playing a hand-a rite of passage for manhood really, and did it but this was my father’s group, a tryst that would not be a serious affair. I eventually found my own cards quartet and cards became an essential part of growing up. But for years I would reminisce and romanticize about those cards afternoons that would make the curfews bearable, a sort of affront to Zia.

Card sessions were a regular feature with sessions often running for 12 straight hours. Block 13, FB Area. 2020

Then came the Corona virus lock down and as I was rifling through my bookshelves in a halfhearted search of a book I thought about this curfew. Why not another game of cards? Card players ready and assembled, we got on with the game.  The next thirteen hours were spent in a blur of shuffling, sifting, throwing, gathering, arranging, and re-shuffling of cards. There were coats galore and even a goo-baouny (lit: muck covered 13 straight hands made by the team which did not name the trumps. Out of the tens of thousands of hands I have played in my life, this was only the second I have witnessed). Finally, the memory was complete, the lock down now had the stamp of old days. I realize this is not an occasion to celebrate, neither were the curfews of the 1980s, but with the right people and right activity, even the worst of times can be made bearable, and if we survive this then this is the memory that I will live on, and my children will recall with some warmth.

There are so many things about my childhood memories of my mohalla that entertain me today. One of them is the World Wrestling Federation, or World Wrestling Entertainment as it is known now. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s it was like crack cocaine; I was really hooked on the stuff, and it seemed so was everyone in my age bracket around me.

Coincidentally, this era is also called the golden age of pro wrestling in which colorful characters with interesting names and background stories would keep us buzzed. Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Mr. Perfect, Big Boss Man, Legion of Doom, Demolition, Hart Foundation, Jake the Snake, the Million Dollar Man (a million was a lot of money back then) and many, many more who could cut entertaining promos, take a beating, and be ready for more all in a few hours. Video cassettes of WWF extravaganzas and collections of matches of popular wrestlers would be booked at the corner video store and then watched with family and friends, sometimes even uninvited.

Ali Johar Uncle’s son Mansoor was an aficionado, and the sounds of entry music would float across the wall calling me like a siren. A quick jump over the wall (never the front gate), a quick adaab to the bemused adult hosts, and a beeline for the TV where for the next few hours we would boo the bad guy and cheer for the good one. Title changes would be analyzed and agonized over and sometimes the match would be reenacted on the mattress, complete with body slams and elbow drops. Who could  blame us? The guys with paint, costumes, and muscles to shame a Spartan were much more entertaining than the talking heads that occupy prime time today. Bret Hart was a “hit man”, the Ultimate Warrior could hear voices, the Undertaker obviously buried people, but his manager was called Paul Bearer (get it? pall bearer?) and carried an urn with someone’s ashes. Mr. Perfect was well…perfect and along with wrestling skills could bowl a perfect 300 game, sink baskets like Wilt Chamberlain, hit a baseball like Babe Ruth and most fantastic, throw a football from one side, run across, and catch his own throw in the end zone for a self-created touchdown. Beat that Babar Azam! Relatives would rent these cassettes; I saw several at my Mamu’s home.

One last summer vacation day, when I was more broken up than usual about going back to school, my father, who hated wrestling and never gave up an opportunity to tell us that it is fake, stopped to pick up a copy of Undertakers Gravest Matches, which made us feel slightly better about the impending doom. At home, in school or at events, the merits and demerits of wrestling was a key topic and would often end in a fight which would be resolved at the next viewing. Even NTM/STN/PTN got into the act, showing some of the great matches at 8:00 pm prime time. I remember watching Ultimate Warrior win the intercontinental title from Honky Tonk Man in a few seconds at Sajjad Bhai’s home. I stopped following wrestling in my middle teens.

My favorites were retired or out of the WWF and I didn’t care for the “attitude” era of the mid-‘90s. Plus there were more interesting things than wrestling, nursing teenage crushes was more important than practicing the perfect arm hold. Still, when I am tired and need a quick fix, I watch a match from my childhood days on YouTube and I am transported to my old mohalla when the entry music of a favorite sent us into paroxysms of joy and the world was defined by paint wearing good guys and bad guys.

Another thing that I remember well is cricket. World Cup 1999 arrived in my late teens, an age with infinite possibilities and all the time in the world to achieve them. As Wordsworth said:

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!”

Memories of youth are usually sharp and flawless and the ‘99 World Cup stands out like no other. Instead of gathering at different commercial spots to watch matches on large screens, we would troop into each other’s homes for cricket and get tea and pakoras in the bargain. For weeks, it seemed the entire mohalla was one vast cricket stadium. We would play cricket on the roads until start of play and I can recall with lucidity the matches I saw at relatives’ or neighbors’ homes.

Pakistan’s opening match was against the West Indies and our play was interrupted by a cousin announcing that Shoaib Akhtar’s first ball had gone for a six. In fact, it was a top edge and only increased our awe for Pakistan’s latest speed merchant. Glenn McGrath’s demolition of India in a must win game was witnessed at an aunt’s who lived two streets down and Shane Warne’s magical spell against South Africa in the semi-final was cheered on at another cousin’s home. Pakistan’s depressing slide against Venkatesh Prasad spoilt an otherwise perfect family barbeque and Neil Johnson’s all round performance against Australia was celebrated with biryani at an aunt’s, known for her mastery of the dish.

There would be screenings but only by happenstance and courtesy of a small TV and a considerate host. The Pakistan-Australia group match was seen at a family function with only one TV to satiate the guests, and dinner was delayed until we closed out the game. The antenna was precariously balanced and the host’s son spent most of the event twisting and turning the dials for uninterrupted play. Dodgy antennas were one thing, but our ire was reserved for KESC. With generators a luxury and summer load shedding a common theme rendering the TV useless, the best friend a cricket tragic could have was the trusty radio with its colorful commentary.

Pakistan’s famous victories would be celebrated with oodles of ice cream and sweetmeats, the fusillade of gun fire that marks them now was still an unknown phenomenon. After the semi-final victory over New Zealand, we begged an indulgent uncle to take us for ice cream to the nearest Snoopy’s ice cream parlor and the whole way was serenaded by honks of passing cars and impromptu singing sessions of Dil Dil Pakistan. So much has changed since then and with it how we interact with cricket. Homes are secure forts, neighborhoods no more a backdrop for a vibrant community. There is much razzmatazz, but the comradeship is missing. It wasn’t cricket. It was my neighborhood, my mohalla.

The familial feel of the mohalla even permeated to the merchants operating in the area. Take Ishaq Bhai, the laundry king. He set up his shop, Gulistan Drycleaners in my old mohalla back in 1972. For more than 47 years Ishaq Bhai has been cleaning, starching, and ironing the clothes and curtains of everyone around him. He knows exactly the right amount of starch your Aligarh cut pajama needs and will treat your Lucknawi kurta with the requisite love and care. No one can press a sherwani like he can. But Ishaq Bhai is no mere dhobi. A key part of an erudite mohalla that was home to artists, poets, and writers, he fits right in and can hold an academic discourse on everyone from Iqbal to Ibne Insha. When not working, he’s buried in the newspaper or a dog eared book which he refuses to throw away as he treasures books. We used to play cricket right next to his establishment and in his younger days he was a frightfully fast bowler, bowling off a short run-up and in the words of Jeff Thompson, “Just shuffle in … and go WHANG!” Ishaq Bhai is now semi-retired. His son is an electrical engineer and works in a telecom company.

Ishaq Bhai, a textile guru, prolific cricketer, and romantic poet who knows the exact amount of starch each of his decades’ old customers like. Block 13, FB Area. 2022

Every time I visit my old mohalla I go to see him. We discuss the old days when a mohalla meant something, when neighbors were family and landing at their homes at dinner time to eat the nihari you smelled from your window was perfectly acceptable. There is something about old mohallas and the people in them that inspires me. They are places where the cosmetics guy will refuse to sell the Chinese brand to you even if it costs his livelihood because he knows your tastes and the fruitwala will keep a choice pomegranate aside for you since he knows you like the big red ones. There is a whole cast of interesting characters, each with a story. I hope Ishaq Bhai carries on, I am already looking to his golden jubilee in the place where I grew up but left.

There is so much else I remember from those days, but one episode really stands out and deserves special mention. My mohalla had a steady pulse, but in October 1988 things were about to get very exciting. Unknown to anyone, events were taking place that would bring Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous man in the world, to the mohalla. We all loved him, some for his sporting prowess, but many because he was one of us, a Muslim who had given up the world title for his beliefs. Back when he was ostracized for being a draft dodger, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had invited him to live in Pakistan where he would be welcomed with open arms. PTV live broadcasted his 1974 fight against George Foreman, a historic moment for the station which didn’t usually do satellite transmissions. The match started at 4:00 am and hundreds of thousands cheered when he knocked out Foreman in the eighth round. And now the world’s most famous man was coming to the mohalla.

The reason for this momentous happening was because of a gym: Haji Club. In 1972 Haji Abdur Rehman opened a gym at the corner of Block 13, right next to the water pump station just off the Shahrah-e-Pakistan road. Haji Rehman had been active in wrestling pre-partition and had trained the likes of Gama Pahalwan. He believed that young Muslims should stay strong and pious, fighting off forces both the physical and incorporeal. When he came to Pakistan, he opened a training center in Pakistan Chowk where local wrestlers would train. His services for wrestling were recognized when the state and President Ayub Khan awarded him the Tamgha-e-Khidmat. Soon after, he decided that mere mass and a large body is not enough. He was inspired by Anotonio Inoki and extolled his charges to get a muscular physique like his. To enable this, he bought four thousand square yards of land and opened Haji Club. The Club was initially free of charge so that people would join and then a monthly fee of Rs3 was introduced. Soon it became a mecca for aspiring bodybuilders all around Karachi. According to Abdur Rehman, the son of Haji Rehman, by the 80s Haji Club had grown to become the largest gym in the country.

Muhammad Ali Ali being garlanded at Haji Club by his adoring fans. Haji Club. 1988

That is when the Mr. Asia Competition 1983-84 took place at Karachi’s Taj Mahal Hotel. The chief guest was Ahmet Enünlü, the world champion Turkish bodybuilder, who in 1979 had won the overall amateur Mr. Universe title of the National Amateur Bodybuilders’ Association. The general secretary of the International Body Building Association was also in attendance, and both went on a tour to inspect the local gyms. Seeing the overall size and number of machines both declared Haji Club as the largest in Asia and the label has stuck to this day. Word about Haji Club’s pre-eminence reached Muhammad Ali through a person named Naseem Usmani who invited him for a visit, an invitation he immediately accepted. Usmani was active in sporting circles and when Ali visited Pakistan, Usmani was part of the hosting party along with local boxing promoter Salim Sadiq. Seeing Ali’s enthusiasm, Sadiq called Haji Rehman and told him that they would arrive in two hours. Mohammad Akhtar, Haji Rehman’s son-in-law recalls it well.

“We were completely taken back,” he said. “The evening karate classes had started when Haji Sahab announced the news to the people present. We scrambled to get things ready, and, in the meantime, he told all the karate students to receive the car at Karimabad and personally escort it here. When his car came, they started jogging alongside it and also guiding traffic. It started off with an entourage of a hundred or so, but you can imagine the spectacle, a car surrounded by men in karate uniform running alongside a car. Soon word spread and the crowd around his car grew to thousands.”

Meanwhile, there was ordered pandemonium in the neighborhood. Haji Rehman’s team was busy arranging chairs and mikes, but the residents were getting wild with excitement. Muhammad Ali is coming! That was the refrain on everyone’s lips and the news spread far and fast. There was no social media or pervasive media coverage but from house to house, person to person, using telephone or just yelling, the visit was being broadcasted to everyone. The mosque’s muezzin announced it from minarets and kids ran screaming “Ali aaya!” in the streets. Women were lined up on roofs and elderly men were climbing the club walls to catch a glimpse. In my own home Abba left dinner abruptly and grabbing us kids he made his way to the club which was just around the bend from my house.

Around 8:00pm, Ali’s car was seen, and the crowd erupted. If it wasn’t for the bodybuilders who were doing crowd control the car would have been swamped. It was eventually led from the back gate into the open space where karate classes were held. After a quick tour and some speeches, he was led to the mike. Akhtar remembers his speech well, “He said you are strong but real strength comes from Allah. I called myself greatest but only Allah is greatest. Trust only him and you will get even stronger.”

After a quick tour and some speeches, he was led to the mike. Everyone wanted to touch him and get a picture taken even though getting close to him was a herculean task. One man was in a hospital nearby. He was a heart patient but when he got to know that Ali was there, he begged his doctor to release him. The doctor finally agreed, and he literally ran over, risking his life. When Ali found out he specially called him and hugged him, but also told him not to take such risks. He bore the crush of people with grace.

Ali speaks to the crowd, many didn't understand a word of English but cheered wildly nonetheless. Haji Club. 1988

After two hours Ali said goodbye. The crowd loathed to let him go, roads had to be cleared for him to leave. As he waved goodbye from the car some people started running alongside trying to catch the last moments with him. One enthusiast ran all the way to Liaqatabad, some five km till the car stopped and Ali formally requested leave. As for me, I didn’t get the chance to personally meet him, the crowd was far too thick. I remember crying but my father consoled me that I should be happy just to be in his vicinity. The Greatest had come to my mohalla, and his memory would live on forever. That was enough, he told me. He was right.

As I grew up things started changing. People started moving out to other parts of the city or left the country. My family was among those who moved out and never again would there be another collection of kin and kindred souls in the city. I suppose this breakdown represents the overall decline in interpersonal relations in Karachi. When someone would ask for the location of someone’s house, the person asked would know the person’s location, his children’s names, and what his favorite food was. Other parts of the city were different; before Google maps I remember spending an hour looking for a house in DHA. Eventually it was the house next to that of the person I had asked. The house was missing an address plate and the person did not know the name of his neighbor of 14 years. Today, my old mohalla does not exist in the communal sense. In spatial terms it exists, but the physicality of it was never the defining feature. The mohalla is fast becoming a neighborhood.

Cover Image Title: In the mohalla everything is a communal event, specially wedding ratjagahs which go on all night, 2022. Image courtesy: Haider Ali

Image courtesy and copyright: Sibtain Naqvi & Haider Ali Naqvi

Sibtain Naqvi is an independent researcher and author. He focuses on institutional and cultural history and is a frequent contributor to Pakistan’s English newspapers. Naqvi’s research has been presented in Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, and other international institutions. His essays have been published by Oxford University Press in Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade. He has been heavily cited in Through the Eyes of Tiger Cubs: Views of Asia’s Next Generation published by Time Magazine, Asia Business Council, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore. Naqvi has curated several art exhibitions including the showing of the largest single private collection of Sadequain paintings which was titled “Sadequain in Intimate Moments”. Naqvi has authored Unravelling Gordian Knots: The Works and Worlds of Dr. Ishrat Husain, Chronicling Excellence: A History of IBA, Cobwebbed World of Sadequain: A Retrospective, Ghalib: Call of Angel, Sadequain: Drawings 1970, Surah-e-Rehman: Calligraphy and Rubaiyaat-e-Kuliyaat-Sadequain (The Complete Quatrains of Sadequain).

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Comments (2)

  • A very catchy and endearing writeup. The whole article revolves around Mohalla starting from Amroha to Karachi. It is story of almost every one now grown-up and heading towards age wise maturity. It reminds me a saying by Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi who once said.:
    جیسے جیسے حافظہ کمزور ھوتا جاتا ھے ماضی خوبصورت نظر آنا شروع ھو جاتا ھے
    But quoting Yousufi doesn’t mean at all to under estimate your writing. It is really impressive and believe me had I the same skill of writing like yours, I would have akso written an identical article about my mohalla and my childhood and boyhood of Quetta knowing the fact that past is a place of reference not residence.

    Syed Abid Rizvi
    • An absolute delight to read such beautiful memories of your beloved Mohalla. Thank you for sharing!


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