In the wee hours (by weekend standards) of slumberous Sundays, Prince Baboo takes to the streets of Saddar. Resplendent in his red coat, fancifully adorned with eagles and butterflies, flower vines and peacocks, he cuts an impressive figure in the deserted downtown. His entourage admires him alone, until the city begins to stir and the flashy flurry of the Prince attracts the eye of the onlooker. Unperturbed, the Prince and his entourage continue on their weekly pilgrimage, paying their respects at the neighbourhood’s masjids, mandirs and markets alike.
Over the weeks, Prince Baboo has slowly become known as his more popular alias, the Super Karachi Express (now redubbed as the Super Savari Express) . With all the paraphernalia of a W-21, this singular bus takes its passengers – a growing horde of about half a hundred – down the unbeaten paths of Saddar, paths unfamiliar to Karachi’s middle and upper classes who are consciously aware of their bubble but refuse to burst out of it. We reminisce about the good old days when the Beatles once walked down our streets, but have forgotten Karachi’s present vibrant identity as a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic metropolis. Co-founders Atif bin Arif (the Managing Director of travel agency Gulliver’s Travels) and Dr. Bilal (a pediatrician in the making) floated the idea of being a tourist in our own city, and found many takers. Instep also took the Super Savari Express for a journey of rediscovering the city.
Parked on a trash-strewn Saddar street, the Super Savari Express was surrounded at 7:45am last Sunday. There were investment bankers and lawyers, PhD students and more doctors in the making, born-and-bred Karachiites and folks new-in-town, mostly adults and an infant. It was Super Savari Express’s biggest group so far, which piled into its spick and span, blue-bathed floral interior. The more adventurous lot swung from the bus’s step to its ladder and climbed up to the top to sit tight and clutch onto the railings, but not for dear life, thanks to the trusty driver’s sound sense of driving decorum. Ducking under tree branches and evading electrical wires, it’s truly the way to experience Karachi on a ‘Karachi ishtyle’ bus. But the physically unfit are forewarned of the back aches that will linger for the next couple of days (Inside tip: ask about the duration of the next ride to make sure the climb is worth it; no one wants to hop off a bus top they climbed a minute-and-a-half ago!) For the faint of heart, the plasticky blue seats inside will do, and you can peep from the tassled flowery curtains to get a glimpse of early morning Saddar when all the hustle bustle isn’t obscuring it.
For the Super Savari Express mastermind, however, it was a photography competition that alerted him to the existence of Saddar’s architectural gems. “Recently, Wikipedia had a Wiki Loves Monuments Pakistan photography competition, which listed around 400 heritage sites,” Bilal told Instep as he chatted with the group during the pitstop at the beautiful Sohbraj Terrace, “So I started walking around, trying to find all of these places and got a lot of information in the process. When I started posting the images on Instagram, I started getting comments like ‘Why don’t you take us there?’ That’s where it all started from.”
We are joined on our journey, not just by the co-founders Atif and Bilal (who is our tour guide), but also their sprightly sidekick Huzaifa, as well as a beefy security guard and conductors who help the klutzier of us cross the road. Our first stop is Zebunissa Street, well known and much frequented, but as with all things common, we ignore many of its salient characteristics. For starters, who was Zebunissa Street named after?
Further on, we learn about the bloody history of the Empress Market. About the irony of the rundown Katchi Memon Masjid from 1893 and the pristine Holy Trinity Cathedral from 1844. About the real owners of the age-old buildings of Saddar, still awe-inspiring in their decrepit state. About philanthropic relics like the Eduljee Dinshaw Dispensary that continue their service over a century after their institution. And about the neat mosaic of Memons, Parsis, Bohris and Catholics, living side and side in peaceful harmony.
“The idea is to show an alternate side of Karachi, beyond the high-end restaurants and the shopping centers and VIP protocols, and highlight the mosaic of cultures that exist in harmony on a daily basis in our own cities, which we tend to overlook,” Atif had said at the beginning of the Super Savari Express tour.
Part of our ignorance of the cultural mosaic is the withdrawal of the ethnic minorities from the limelight. Karachi’s largest atishgah (Parsi fire temple) is the single most beautiful building in its environs, and our group peeked through the peach metal bars of its gate to catch glimpses of its distinctive symbol, the angel Faravahar (the Parsi equivalent of the Muslim crescent or Christian cross), and its architecture, decked with horses and flowers, inspired by the Iran’s ancient city, Persepolis. And we found that the astonishing co-existence of a Sikh gurdwara and a Hindu temple side by side with a shared parade ground for festivals after we went through the arch of the Swami Narayan Hindu Complex, which conceals them from view. The enclave once served as a shelter for Hindu refugees during the violence of the Partition. Long persecuted for their faith, Karachi’s minorities have taken to a reclusive existence.
“We claim ourselves to be Tom Cruise,” exclaimed Atif while taking a breather at the Tahiri Masjid, one of the most breathtaking sights of the tour. “We’ve done the impossible. You go to a church to ask for permission to bring a group, they say no. You go to a Bohri jamaatkhana, they say no. You go to a fire temple, and they say no. Everyone has safety and security threats. They said, ‘We are minority; there are only so many of us left. You’ll have us disappear.’ I said, ‘We want to show everyone the little few of you that remain; we want to show that you are just as much a part of our country.’ We sat down with their Board of Directors and pleaded. Slowly, they agreed. We began to bring groups of ten, then twenty. We used to go inside the Parsi fire temple, but not anymore…”
Launched in December 2014, the Super Savari Express has already expanded its reach beyond Karachi’s Saddar-wide bus tour. A sister W-21 is already operating along the untrodden paths of Lahore and another is due to start in Islamabad soon. The Super Savari Express also takes culinary adventurists on a food tour through Karachi, tasting the signature dishes of the city by the sea. And they have just introduced a limited time offer of moonlit tonga rides for couples. ““Karachi could actually use some love, apart from all the negativity we see in the media. We try to show a little bit of the city’s positive side,” Bilal had said. This is a team full of ideas, aiming to rebrand Karachi as the happening and diverse city that it deserves to be known as. And we can’t wait to see what else this fantastic team has up their sleeve!
Things to know about taking the Super Savari Express
- Ladies, carry a dupatta, stole or shawl to cover your heads when visiting places of worship.
- Wear comfortable shoes for walking and ladder climbing, especially those you can slip on and off easily. Shoes are frequently removed before visiting places of worship, and it’s quite a hassle to do laces and straps every time.
- This one’s a no-brainer for a short trip, but we’ll emphasise that you travel light. SKE provides snacks, in addition to breakfast at the Jehangir Restaurant, during the trip, so there’s no need to pack those. You want to be mobile while walking or climbing on the bus and there are no extra seats for baggage in this packed bus.
- Keep a bag for books! The book shop next to the Jehangir Restaurant sells book at throwaway prices.