Twice a day between 4 am to 9 am and 6 pm to 9 pm, it becomes difficult to find a table at Haji sahib’s Malbari Café in Lyari; according to a regular customer, people start lining up outside the cafe an hour before Fajr for a bite of the cafe’s famous goli paratha and daal makhni.
“It’s a great start to the day,” says Sultan Mandhro, who frequents the pre-Partition café also known as the Joona Masjid Hotel, located in the Ali Mohammad Mohalla of Lyari.
“The café was established by Abdul Qadir’s (Chota Haji) grandfather, Haji sahib, a few years before 1947 and has survived not just Partition but the Lyari gang warfare as well,” adds his friend Salman.
This particular neighbourhood, explains Mr Mandhro, till a few years ago was a no-go area and home to alleged gang warfare leader, Ghaffar Zikri. From 2008 till 2013, the mohalla was under the gangster’s control while he headed the Arshad Pappu gang and later joined forces with another alleged gang leader, Baba Ladla (against leader of the now banned People’s Amn Committee, Uzair Baloch, who is currently in judicial custody).
Baba Ladla and Arshad Pappu became casualties of the gang warfare and consequent operations carried out by the Rangers and police.
In the last couple of years, security forces have carried out several raids and search operations in Lyari as part of the Karachi operation to put an end to the gang warfare. Since 2013, they have arrested many suspected gangsters, drug dealers and target killers; they have also seized several weapons, including SMGs, rocket launchers, hand grenades and AK-47s.
According to a police officer, the situation is now under control after a major operation and encounter in 2015 which left two men dead in the Ali Mohammad/Baghdadi area.
Talking to Dawn, the officer adds that 2016 has witnessed no encounters or operations in the area. “He [Ghaffar Zikri] doesn’t live here anymore,” says a customer while sipping a cup of samovar chai. He claims to know a man who used to profess that as a youth, Zikri used to buy two samosas from him every morning.
“The samosa vendor was surprised and found it hard to believe that this gangster used to come to him every day like clockwork because he claimed that samosas were important for his morning constitutional.”
After placing an order for a package of four goli parathas, I take a seat with the owner and a few regulars at the café to learn more about the food.
The popular goli or choori paratha is a common feature at Malbari cafés in the subcontinent; the word goli was added for local flavour. Mr Mandhro explains that “the goli or bullet is actually a tikya (bar) of butter which is slid inside before the paratha is shredded.”
“A Malbari café is part of a chain of Gujrati restaurants, like the Irani cafés that used to be popular in Karachi and Bombay once upon a time,” he says.
“The food here is clean and tastes just like ghar ka khana,” chimes in another customer, seated with his son.
The paratha package costs Rs45 while a double paratha is for around Rs15. Other specialties include daal makhni, keema, different kinds of chai, and aiwan or rocket mawa (confection of milk, butter and sugar). The café is also known to store imported products such as cookies, candies, malt drinks, and honey, among others.
The café employs a small staff — two men outside, two inside, with the owner and his assistant seated at the counter.
Salman explains that the café is open for business every day from 4 am to midnight “just like it was when the British were here”.
“We tweeted about this a few days ago and got an amazing response from people who used to live here and have settled abroad,” he says, adding that many even asked them to share photos of the local delicacies.
According to Chota Haji, when his grandfather moved to Karachi a few years before Partition, the café was just a shanty: “When I used to come here with my grandfather and father, we could see the seaside from where I am standing right now,” he reminisces.
“It was a poor man’s neighbourhood then and still is. There were no buildings or homes around when we started out,” he adds.
Recalling Partition, Chota Haji remembers losing customers and business being bad for a while, but “we survived”.
Discussing the gang warfare, however, brings back many bad memories for him, reminding him of the time two of his waiters were injured in firing.
“Sometimes we were forced to shut down due to the firing outside,” he recalls, adding that the gang war made it difficult to run a business as many residents and regular customers decided to move away.
“Things are looking better now,” he says, while signalling for a package of parathas to be sent to a table in the corner. “Everything seems to have calmed down.”
Originally published in Dawn, September 16th, 2016