A tapestry of time unfolds as I try to recall the first instance of stepping onto a ghora gari (horse-drawn carriage) at age four or maybe even younger.
My maternal and paternal grandparents would often treat me like royalty on our short trips around the city aboard this royal-esque ride: oftentimes, making it to Saddar’s Jehangir Park, the good ol’ Frere Hall and Clifton’s Jehangir Kothari Parade among a few of the many landmarks of Karachi in the early 1990s.
Fast forward to the recent era and I can’t remember the last time I sat in a horse-drawn carriage. Bikes, cars, rickshaws and buses have invaded the city streets rather rapidly in the last 25 years.
During one of the errand running strolls around my neighbourhood, I spotted a tall, bearded ghora gari wala named Nabi Amaan. That’s when the thought of getting to know him and his work occurred to me, and I decided to tell his story for the world to read. This is how it begins.
Nabi Amaan’s day starts before dawn. He wakes up for Fajr prayer, enjoys a simple breakfast – biscuits with tea on a regular day and occasionally treats himself to a ghee-dripping paratha. He then heads out to make a living while braving Karachi’s scorching hot weather. After working tirelessly round the clock, Nabi Amaan heads back home around midnight, watches his kids sleep peacefully and devours dinner with his wife, only to continue with the same routine the next day. This is what the life of a coachman is in Pakistan’s bustling megacity.
Forty-eight-year-old Nabi Amaan hails from the Swabi district located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of the country and drives a horse-drawn carriage – what he refers to as his Victoria – to make ends meet. Having lived in Karachi ever since childhood, Nabi Amaan calls this jungle of concrete his home. He was a teenager when he first took over the reins of his maternal uncle’s carriage, but says it was “just for fun”. Little did he know that he’ll be driving the Victoria for the rest of his life.
“During my teenage years, I was fascinated with the Victoria that my uncle drove around Karachi. I used to spend the whole day with him and his carriage,” Nabi Amaan responds when asked how he grew fond of driving a carriage.
From making turns on streets to adjusting the horse’s speed on the road to communicating with the horse to perfectly training it… his uncle taught him everything. He finally started working as a proficient Victoria driver in 1982 and never looked back again.
On a sweltering morning in Karachi’s Frere Hall, he tells me, “During the 1980s, Karachi was very peaceful. Both locals, including the crème de la crème of the city, and foreigners used Victoria regularly. People visiting from all over the world would enjoy a ride on a horse-drawn carriage. There was no fear at all. But after the deadly 9/11 attacks and the beginning of War on Terror, the law and order situation of Pakistan worsened and foreigners stopped visiting”, which eventually had an adverse impact on the livelihood of his peers and him.
A majority of Karachiites now use cars, bikes, rickshaws, buses or app-based ride-hailing services to commute; while foreigners only ever step out of their hotels if they are travelling in their bullet-proof vehicles with beefed-up security around them.
The 48-year-old also talks about the drastic decline in the number of carriages. “There was a time when at least 2,000 to 2,500 horse carriages would roam across Karachi, now we hardly have 15 to 20 left in total. There is also just one mechanic left who charges a lot for the repair. God forbid, if he falls ill or passes away, our work will come to a halt.”
I hopped onto Nabi Amaan’s carriage for a ride around town and chat with him simultaneously. We talk about the declining number of passengers, “We await regular passengers at the stand, but hardly find two or three throughout the day. Other than that, we provide pick and drop service for school-going children of both, morning and afternoon shifts at different schools, particularly in Saddar,” he says and adds, “Our charges – varying from Rs100 to Rs500 – depend on the distance of one’s commute. For pick and drop, we do not charge more than Rs600 per month. Our monthly earnings are largely dependent on it and help us take something back home.”
Nabi Amaan’s horse, Raju, has been pulling his carriage for the past five years. “Raju’s daily expenses amount to Rs400, which largely comprise the feed. On days he isn’t well, I take him to a vet in Bakra Peeri, who checks and vaccinates, if need be. There are government vets near Radio Pakistan but since they do not pay enough attention, I take him to a private vet,” says Nabi Amaan, who adores the horse as if it was his own child.
As a father of four – three sons and one daughter — Nabi Amaan says he would never want his children to take over the carriage’s reins from him, for it has made him learn life lessons the hard way. “I want them to be educated and share their knowledge with others, as it is the best way to serve humanity and live a rewarding life.”
Every morning, Nabi Amaan arrives at one of the city’s oldest ghora gari stands located at Mir Karam Ali Talpur Road — near Saddar’s Masjid-e-Kasaban and residential compound Misquita Blocks — and leaves for home around 10 o’clock at night.
Talking about his regular customers, Nabi Amaan says, “Earlier, I would have a lot of passengers from Saddar. In Clifton, there are a few people who still want to take a ghora gari ride. But most prefer the fast life of bikes, cars and other vehicles, which is fair enough, for the life of this city is moving rapidly with every passing day,” yet the charm of the Victoria still attracts those who have a thing for culture, heritage and history of the city.