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Karachi, east of the Suez and west of Bangkok, was the most swinging city in the 1960s. Dubai didn’t exist and Singapore was a colonial backwater, while Beirut was the only city with any comparable class. In those days, business entertainment and lifestyles were fun, relaxed and hedonistic.
(1) Golf: Playing golf was not a big thing and was just emerging. Field Marshall Ayub Khan had just taken up golf. Soon, his ministers and federal secretaries followed suit. To be close to the centre of power, the business and corporate class took up golf. It was the best way to get permits and licences.
(2) Hotels and night clubs: The loci of entertainment were the hotels and night clubs. The Intercontinental Hotels (ICH) had set up four properties: Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. The ICH in Karachi had a Meena Bar, where you could while away the hours with your gin and tonic or Tom Collins. The ICH in Lahore had a great bar too. Karachi was dotted with a large number of night clubs, the most famous among them was the La Gourmet at the Palace Hotel. Nawab Akbar Bugti was a big player there. There was the Excelsior at the end of Elphinstone Street and the Lido at the Queens Road. Exotic and erotic dancers would perform, the most famous being Gul Pari who was known to take off everything, even her G-string. An evening’s entertainment would cost Rs 50. If you wanted to take the dancer home, however, you had to cut a separate deal.
Alas, belly dancing is a disappearing art. Only a few belly dancers are left in Egypt and Turkey. Before he was dethroned, Hosni Mubarak should have done something to immortalise this noble profession. Kamal Ata Turk was a great fan of belly dancing (and arak). There was the Speedbird House at the airport. Beach Luxury had a very famous bar and the 007 room, where you could fantasise about being James Bond.
(3) Private clubs: Karachi had three clubs of stature – the Sindh Club, Boat Club and the Gymkhana. Most corporate entertainment was conducted there. The bars were fully stocked with well-trained ‘abdars’ who knew how to mix a martini. Whiskey, gin and beer were the popular tipples. Vodka had not appeared on the scene (vodka became popular after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan). All political, business and social intrigue was manufactured in these clubs. In those days, the Gymkhana was a fairly decent club.
(4) Being the ‘kala sahib’: In the ‘60s, the British colonial influence still prevailed. One of the major activities was being the kala sahib. To succeed, you had to emulate British social habits (not necessarily a bad thing). All the top corporate chieftains and the bureaucrats were kala sahibs. If you were Oxbridge or Ivy League-educated, it helped. Clothes were very English – shirts from Turnbull, suits from Hardy Amies, and shoes from Church. All the great civil servants were trained in the best of British traditions – the naiks and akhunds. One wife of a senior civil servant maintained three teasets: for entertaining seniors, for middlings and one, for the riff raff.
The two emerging classes, the Urdu medium types (UMTs) and the Islamic medium types (IMTs) were not taken seriously and were therefore excluded from most social entertainment.
(5) The corporate crowd: In the ‘60s, the top corporations were ICI, Glaxo, Shell, Lever Brothers, Grindlays, BOC, and their ilk. Working as an executive for one of these companies was a lifetime ticket to success. These companies had their own entertainment agendas, which included sailing, lunches and balls. All companies maintained beach huts at the Hawkesbay or Sandspit and summer cottages at one of the Galis (not Murree, too plebian). Those dwelling were used for family outings and the occasional tryst with your secretary. These corporations encouraged drinking and social mobility. Citibank, once, sacked a manager because he did not drink alcohol.
(6) Girls: Much of the ‘60s revolved around dating. There were girls galore in Karachi. The diplomatic missions provided adequate female company (there were no security restrictions). Most of the secretaries in the corporate world were either Parsi or Anglo Indian. They were all looking for fun. Ampies (Shezan) was a popular hangout for dating couples. Couples could walk along Clifton Beach at 1 a.m. without any fear of intrusion. In fact, one of my friends was juggling five girlfriends at one time. One of the greatest and most successful lovers of Karachi in the ‘60s was Meenu Marker (of the Marker fortune). In spite of my best efforts to be suave and sophisticated, I had only limited success.
(7) Movies and reading: Movies were a big thing. The matinee was great during the weekend, but the biggie was the late show, starting at 9.30 p.m. Everybody, but everybody, went to the movies. The big movie houses (Palace, Rex, Capitol etc.) were social meccas. Much socialising was done during the intermission when chips, sandwiches and soft drinks were served. You had to dress in smart casuals: jeans, joggers and t-shirts were out. Women usually wore jasmine bracelets which were sold outside the theatre. In the dark, holding hands was permissible, even an occasional kiss. If you had more serious intentions, you had to book the box.
Reading was also a big thing. Diplomatic missions had well-stocked learning centres: the USIS (now the American Centre), British Council, Alliance Francaise, etc. They were always full. Many cultural programmes were held there. Bookshops were on almost every corner – Pak American, Kitabistan and many more. Of the foreign magazines, Time was the leader. The Economist, Reader’s Digest and Women’s Own also had a wide circulation. If you were inclined towards the racy stuff, you could procure a Playboy or a Men’s Only for Rs 10.
(8) Lahore: Lahore was the territory of the Saigols, who were fabulously rich. They set the social agenda for Lahore. The young Saigols that I knew were smart, charming and ever-so hospitable. Naseem Saigol would fly to St. Moritz on his private plane for a weekend of skiing. Tariq was a great host in his fabulous house at Lawrence Road. Pakistan’s most memorable advertising campaign was created for Kohinoor Textile Mills: “smart, smarter, smartelle”. Flatties Hotel was full of the hippies on the way to Nepal. A night out with a girl would cost a dinner, rum and Coke – a princely sum of Rs 25.
As I hark back to those days, I am convinced that there was no better developing country than Pakistan. We had everything going for us. Alas, we have squandered our gains.
The writer is the former executive director of the MAP.