Biographical account of Karachi’s former mayor

KARACHI – Nazli Rafat Jamal launched a book on the biographical account of the former mayor of Karachi, HM Habibullah Paracha. Tauqeer Mahajir was the moderator at the launch and the key speakers at the event, which took place at the ethereal backdrop of Mohatta Palace was Javed Jabbar, Hamida Khuro, SR Poonegar and Nazli herself. The book launch event was organised by RAKA whereas the media and PR was handled by Take II.

Before the turn of the century, in the year 1897, Khan Bahadur Habibullah was born to a small time trading family of Mukhad, a village of little consequence along the Indus, bordering the Punjab and North West Frontier Province of British India. Physically strong, ambitious and mature for his years, at the age of 14 he set out on horseback to seek his fortune in the trade of tea and silk.

His maiden journey across the famed Silk Road took him to Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh and Bukhara, where under the care of his paternal uncle, he perfected the art of trading, furthered his education at the Madrassah Ulug Bek and taught himself English and Russian. Those were the days of the Great Game – “that grand contest of imperial competition, espionage and conquest that engaged Britain and Russia until the collapse of their respective Asian empires” when Indian merchants had access to Russia’s backyard, trading freely with Central Asian states without documentation and in return, serving as small-time intelligence agents of the Raj.

It was the year 1915 when the young Habibullah, a chance bystander at the Tashkent Railway Station, watched in awe as the Imperial carriage made a stop. The dazzling pomp surrounding Czar Nicholas II, the Czarina Alexandria, the hemophiliac Czarevich Alexei and his malevolent healer Rasputin, as they emerged for a brief public audience, left a lasting image in his memory.

A couple of years later he was engulfed by mayhem arising from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He experienced the Red terror – his hard-earned gold was seized and what was left of the troubles earned in the trade of tea and silk reduced to naught. In tatters, he swam across the icy Amu Darya to save his life. The costly lessons drawn from the Bukhara debacle were never forgotten. For the rest of his life he learnt to recognise impending changes and was quick to redeem and transfer his assets before they were imperiled.

Winston Churchill so rightly construed, ‘success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts’. Following in the footsteps of fellow traders who had shared his misfortune in Bukhara, Habibullah attempted to build his business anew in Iran and Afghanistan, but failed due to the political instability in the region. Opportunity knocked when a lucky break took him to the Far East. His fortunes swung in Shanghai’s thriving economy. Here, he rubbed shoulders with refugees White Russians, Jews from Germany, and entrepreneurs from around the globe, each individual vying for his share in Shanghai’s prosperity at a time when the rest of the world was grappling with bad times arising from the Great Depression. During the Sino-Japanese conflict he watched aerial dog-fights from his rooftop and was a witness to the eventual occupation of China by Japan.

The quest for expansion ferried Habibullah across the Sea of Japan to the town of Shizuoka, overlooking the scenic Fujiyama. In this tea-growing region of Japan, he taught the Japanese how to process green tea that catered to Indian taste and earned an award for his services in promoting the export of the Japanese product. As bad luck would have it, World War II broke out, and for someone originating from British India, Japan suddenly became an enemy territory. Finding himself in a fix regarding how to explain the Japanese award to the British government back home, he played it safe and destroyed it before evacuating.

Amritsar became the next station in his journey, where he earned himself a name, a title and a fortune, only to be uprooted once again with the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. He migrated to Pakistan.

He settled in the capital Karachi, which received the major influx of refugees from India. Notwithstanding his political agenda, he felt genuine empathy for them having once been in their shoes and worked relentlessly towards their rehabilitation. His services bore fruit when he was elected to the position of Vice Chairman of Karachi Municipal Corporation. In this capacity, he received and hosted dignitaries from all over the world – Queen Elizabeth II, Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Lee Kuan Yew, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Crown Prince Akihito, to name a few.

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