A Taste of India In the Heart of Pakistan

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 8/8/2017, 10:26 a.m.
Karachi isn't a city you'd often see on the silver screen. It isn't "pretty"; descriptions of it usually harp on ...

By Sophia Saifi, CNN

(CNN) -- 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.