Parsis Reminisce about Karachi of yore

Karachi’s finest mayor: it’s not who you think

By Sabeen Jamil

If there is anyone who can comment on the administration of Karachi in its early days, it is the elderly members of the Zoroastrian, or Parsi, community. These senior citizens have weathered Karachi’s many governments from the very beginning, and nearly each one of them agrees that Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, Karachi’s first mayor in 1933, was the best administrator the city ever had.

“Karachi was a clean and good city to live in,” recalled 88-year-old Soona Dhatigra. “There was no overflowing sewage or noise pollution.”

Dhatigra was referring specifically to Saddar Town, her neighborhood for more than eight decades. By all accounts, it is a very different place to the one under the Mehta administration. Today, Saddar Town is among the busiest and noisiest neighbourhoods in Karachi, and has a sewerage system that floods the roads after heavy rains.

There is so much noise pollution in the city now, that sitting in the infirmary at Parsi General Hospital, it is difficult to hear what Boman Rustam Irani has to say as he tells The News of times when Karachi never ran short of food supplies. “Pushcarts on the roads would be full of flour sacks,” said Irani. “City administrators made sure that food items were available and affordable at consistent prices, even during World War I.”

Irani was only 12 when Mehta was mayor of Karachi, but he can remember well what the city was like then. “The (now defunct) Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) would wash the streets and sweepers would wipe them clean afterwards. Mehta was a great mayor.”

This is not a singular memory. All those who lived during the Mehta administration remember that Karachi used to be clean and disciplined, but it all started to unravel soon afterwards. “After the partition, people started breaching rules and regulations,” noted 68-year-old Shahnaz Setna. “Karachi lost its character. With time, both the people and the city changed, and none of the city’s administrators that followed could prevent it.”

According to Setna, this failure on the part of the authorities affected women the most. “During my time, women could travel all over Karachi on a tram without fearing being mugged, which has become the norm on public transport now,” she said. “We could socialise at cafes for hours without worrying about being assaulted on the way home.”

Setna stressed that administrators of today need to ensure the safe commuting of women, but acknowledged that they face additional problems Mehta did not have to deal with. “The present mayor in Karachi has to put up with enough traffic and rogue elements in society. Karachi’s high population and the problems that arise because of it make handling the city a very difficult job. Still, they should try to improve the situation.”

However, regardless of how vastly different the city has become from how they remember it, elderly Parsis still profess a deep love for the city. “We have spent our whole lives here. We will love the city no matter how much it changes.”