World News

A taste of India in the heart of Pakistan

Posted August 8

Karachi isn't a city you'd often see on the silver screen. It isn't "pretty"; descriptions of it usually harp on the doom and gloom of terror, crime and death. It's erratic, sometimes insufferable and often torments those who love it.

But this city, home to almost 27 million people, also has a tenacity said to be representative of Pakistan's stubborn pluck -- the soul of the nation, if you will.

Karachi is also aggressive.

Honking horns are incessant, the haunting call of far-away sirens don't stop and neither does the screech of traffic or the maddening cawing of crows.

Sometimes though, there are spaces of stillness. At dusk, when the day's dust settles, you realize this was once a sleepy port town -- one that 70 years ago exploded into a megalopolis when refugees from all across the Indian subcontinent arrived almost overnight, following the partition of the South Asian subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

People lost their homes and families were ripped apart as India's Muslims flocked to the newly-formed Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction in one of the largest mass migrations in human history.

There aren't many people still alive who remember the seminal and traumatic events of the summer of 1947. There are fewer still who can recall what life was like before they were uprooted from their homes and transplanted to either side of the border.

But there is one place in the heart of Karachi where a little bit of past magic still clings on.

It's a street lined by crumbling British-built yellow limestone buildings, interspersed with gray concrete blocks of mid 20th-century brutalist architecture.

It's officially called Muhammad bin Qasim road, but if you ask for that, you'll most likely be met with blank stares.

Most locals call it Burns Road, named after James Burns, the 18th century British doctor and spy.

The old buildings here still hold secrets of the people who fled Karachi in 1947 -- the unnamed and now-forgotten Sikhs and Hindus of the city.

"The balconies speak volumes," says Marvi Mazhar, a Karachi based urban planner. "In these beautiful lattices you will see Gandhi's face, you will see an 'OM' in Sanskrit, you will see Sikh symbols. In one corner of Burns Road is a Hindu temple that lies empty."

Mazhar calls this part of the city the "living center" of Karachi, but laments that urban movement and the concentration of affluent housing closer to the coast are causing this part of town to gradually decay.

What remains though is Burns Road's food scene.

It's Karachi's most well-known food street. The Burns Road air, especially at night, is thick with smells of barbequed meat and fish; a spicy, pungent and nostril-tickling scent.

Many of the storefront signs that tout the road's gastronomical wonders also pay tribute to Delhi, a city over a thousand kilometers, and two generations, away.

You see, most of the shop owners in Burns Road are the descendants of Partition refugees from Delhi. They call themselves "Delhi Wallahs" or the "Ones of Delhi." Some even claim they are the purveyors of the true taste of Delhi, now lost to even Delhi itself.

Much of the old guard who set up shop here have died out and it is left to their children to continue the tradition of dishing out good food.

Haji Mohammad Yusuf is one of those second-generation storekeepers. He runs the Delhi Rabri House, one of Burns Road's most popular dessert joints. On special occasions -- like Ramadan, the Muslim holy month; Eid al Fitr, the celebration at the month's end; or weddings -- Karachiites make a beeline for his store to stock up on the ubiquitous white and blue boxes of rabri, the South Asian equivalent of clotted cream. Rabri is a sweet dish made from boiling sweetened milk and collecting the layers of cream to create a thick, rich mass.

As his staff ladle out heaping spoonfuls of rabri to waiting customers, Yusuf stands inside his air conditioned tube-lit shop and reminisces about the past.

"My family had a milk shop in Delhi and we sold rabri," he says.

"When we came here, we had nothing and making rabri was what my father knew best. So he set this place up, named it after his hometown and now alhamdullilah, it's still running 70 years later."

Yusuf says that while he is very proudly Pakistani, he does feel a bond with Delhi.

"It's where my family is from. I am from Karachi, I was born here but culturally I am also a Delhi Wallah. There should be better relations with India, they are our neighbors, we have much in common," he said.

"But whatever the case, the rabri you get in my shop is the best in the subcontinent," he laughs.

Close to Delhi Rabri House is Waheed's Nihari, which sells everything from mutton seekh kebabs, to keeri (bits of barbequed cow udders) and of course nihari, considered the dish of Burns Road.

Nihari is made up of choice cuts of beef, bone marrow and spices bubble in massive metal vats for up to six hours to create a thick, savory stew garnished with lemon, roughly cut ginger, garlic and green chilli, and usually eaten with naan, an oven-baked flatbread.

Waheed's calls itself a Delhi "Nihari House" -- the dish itself is said to have been conjured in Delhi during the tail end of the Mughal Empire in the 19th century. Many of the establishments that serve nihari on Burns Road claim to have been preparing this dish for generations, with recipes handed down from father to son.

"We brought our traditions here from Delhi. My parents had to flee their homes. First they went to Lahore, but their Sikh landlord kicked them out in the riots. So they came here to Burns Road and set up shop, and we've been successful ever since," explains Tanveer Ahmed, the shop's owner and the son of Waheed, the store's namesake.

Tanveer and his brother Irfan have relatives still living in Delhi and visited them in 1991, with their father.

"The places my father used to reminisce and talk about were long gone," says Irfan Ahmed. "There had been progress but the old world he and my grandfather used to talk about had vanished."

Now even those sparse familial links to the old city are beginning to fray. The worsening of relations between India and Pakistan means there are no more nostalgia-driven trips to Delhi.

"Sometimes we speak to our cousins on the phone ... but that's about it really," says Ahmed.

Like most refugees, their family traveled to Pakistan by train with only the clothes on their backs, but in Pakistan their lives were good thanks to their family recipe.

"Delhi is where my father and grandfather learned this recipe, but Pakistan is where it helped us get prosperity."

Yet another landmark on Burns Road is a corner shop with a large red earthen pot bearing a sign in Urdu that says "Delhi's famous Pakistani Dahi Barras that make the heart happy."

Dahi Barras are simply puffs of fried ground lentils soaked in sweet yoghurt.

Mohammad Saleem, the owner, explains that his father named it after Delhi "since that's where all the best food was from."

He claims naming establishments after Delhi was a shrewd marketing plan by many of the shopkeepers on Burns Road.

"That's what many of the refugees who had arrived in Pakistan wanted -- decadence and luxury," he said, explaining that right up to the 1960s, Delhi was synonymous with all that was good.

"My father and his family came by train to Pakistan from Delhi, they had nothing, they had been looted, they had nothing but these recipes and memories of their hometown," Saleem said.

His grandfather's family paid a heavy price to reach Pakistan. Only six of his grandfather's 14 brothers that set out to reach Pakistan survived the deadly migration, in which 1 million people were believed to have been killed.

"I have grown up with stories of the trauma of our family's sacrifices," says Saleem. "They spoke of the beauty of Delhi and what was lost but I don't think they regretted coming to Pakistan. We have built a good life here. This is now home."

Time moves on and as Pakistan celebrates its 70th year of independence, these establishments, while still extremely popular, are beginning to fade away and be replaced by fast food joints -- a testament of changing rituals and lifestyles.

But the Delhi Wallahs of Karachi -- many of whom who have never visited Delhi -- still order food from Burns road establishments for special occasions, like the birth of a child or a wedding.

It is tradition, a continuation of taste and the appreciation of the flavors their forefathers cherished so much they brought it with them to be reborn in a newly-formed country.

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