By Wayne Croning
Located along the backwaters of Sandspit, Karachi; the Island of Shamspir is a heavily populated fishing hamlet, larger than Baba or Bhit Island that are located in the Kaemari harbour area. It is an isolated island with no roads connecting to it, no running water, no electricity. (have things changed? maybe …) People on the island live a poor and simple life.
In the mid 1970’s we (my late friend David’s family and my family) got to know some of the local fishermen that lived on the island. It began one hot summer’s weekend when both our families decided to spend a weekend at Sandspit. This time we had not pre-booked any beach hut, and by the time we got to the beach, it was getting dark and no watchmen were around. So decided to squat in the driveway of a grey concrete hut that faced the Sandspit backwaters. We lit a small wood fire and spread some durrees (rough carpeting) on the sand.
A cool ocean breeze began blowing from the South. The sound of waves crashing on the shore, added to the calm and serenity I always feel when near the sea. In the distance I could see the blinking lights of Kaemari harbour, and out to sea, the lights of anchored ships also blinked back at us. Those far off ships were probably waiting for clearance to enter the harbour area.
As we sat around enjoying the warmth of the wood fire, a man approached us from the Sandspit road; he wore a white, loose fitting shalwar kameez and as he approached, we thought he was going to tell us to leave; instead, he came up and shook hands with the men, using both his hands and drawing them to his chest each time he did.
“My name is Fakir Mohammad; but my friends call me ‘Fakira’. Are you looking for a hut”? He asked uncle D.“Yes we are; but no one was around so we decided to stay right here on the beach” Uncle replied.
“If you like, I can rent out that wooden hut”. Fakira added, pointing to a small wooden beach hut with a covered and enclosed verandah, but it was on the other side of the beach facing the back- waters and mangrove forested area.
“That’s fine, we will take it” said Uncle D; and after settling on a very reasonable price for
the weekend; Fakira took us over to the hut, unlocking the side entrance. We began moving our stuff into the hut and were soon settled in. David and I lit the two kerosene lanterns and soon the little hut was illuminated by the soft glow of the two lanterns, casting shadows on the wooden walls. The whole hut was constructed of wide wooden boards, with gaps in between that let in cool, fresh sea breeze. The roof was corrugate d tin, rusting in places. It had three windows in the large room where we made our beds and eating arrangements. The covered veranda we used to
store extra beddings and blankets.
That night, after settling in the hut, we made our way back to the beach and our campfire; Fakira stayed with us most of the night. He worked for the KPT and was basically a ‘Chowkidar’ or security guard for a number of the beach huts. He told us stories all night; of growing up, ghosts and life on the nearby Island of Shamspir, where he lived.
We soon got to know that he was related to Ali, a long acquaintance of Uncle D. Many years ago Ali had saved a man from drowning at Sandspit. This is when uncle D and his family got to know the burly fisherman/KPT worker. It was almost midnight when Fakira bid us a good night and got into his little wooden boat, paddling his way back to the island. In the dim moonlight, we caught a glimpse of him, white kameez still visible from where we stood. He had promised to bring Ali back with him in the
We got back in the hut; David and I snuck out for our stroll along the beach (a smoke of course). All we had were two packs of bidis (ugh, yes, Babu Bidi) and some stolen Hylites from Uncle D. Hylite was a lot better than Babu Bidi, and David’s brother smoked Woodbine (not the best kind of ciggy) and his mother smoked Peela Hathi (lol) filterless and two big ughs for this. Uncle D was always puzzled as to how his
cigarette stock kept depleting.
“What!! I was sure I had a full pack last night!” we heard him complain in the morning.
David, his sister E and myself soon went off for our early morning walk. This time to the wooden pier, where David pulled out a Hylite and lit up. Taking a few puffs, he handed it to me; I took a few puffs and then E took it out of my hand and began smoking herself. After our smoke we walked back to the hut and saw a boat approaching us from the island. We soon saw it was Fakira, with another man and two small children. They all got off as soon as the boat was beached.
“This is Ali.” said Fakira, introducing the big barrel-chested man. Ali was tall,dark and muscular. I could guess he was around 40 years old, and the two young boys were his sons, maybe around 8-10 years old.
We escorted them to the hut and soon had a pot of tea going. Uncle D recognized Ali from years ago and they began a long conversation. Uncle D’s Urdu was terrible, but he spent about an hour chit chatting with the two men. Ali suggested that we move into the concrete grey hut, almost directly across the wooden one and it was on the main beach that faced the sea. We were more than happy to make the move. The grey hut had two large rooms, a washroom, kitchen and a large elevated front porch. No extra charge! Later that morning we got the water camel (bistri?) man to fill the overhead water tank. Now we had running water!!
We spent the whole day in and out of the water. Wave jumping, belly surfing, fishing, building sand castles…but the sun does set too soon, so the evenings were spent in the hut or walking on the beach. Ali took his sons back to the island; Fakira stayed up with us most of the night. He told us more stories out on the porch, his shalwar at times filling with the strong offshore wind, causing them to billow like a small parachute. Tomorrow was to be our last night, so he invited us over to his home on the island for dinner. We could not turn it down.
Next day was spent very much the same, swimming, smoking, swimming, walking on the beach. By sunset Fakira turned up at the hut. He had brought over a larger boat this time. We all got in and David and I found an extra pair of oars and helped paddle the boat to the island. We tied up at the South East end of the island and it was a short 5 minute walk to his home. We passed a broken down yellow building, that he told us used to be the local school, past some derelict fishing trawlers that were beached on the mud, their huge hulls now broken and bleached grey by the sun.
We entered Fakira’s home from a small front porch where some fishing nets lay hanging on the walls (for repair). We entered a large room with carpeting, where we all sat down. Two bright petrol lanterns hung from the beams casting enough light all around. Fakira’s wife came in, a shy young lady in colourful shalwar kameez. She smiled, but did not say much. Soon we were being served the most incredible meal ever. Shredded crab meat cooked/fried in delicious spices; fried fish, yogurt, rice and curry, and the greatest tasting chapatti (flat bread) made with whole wheat flour. To wash this down, there was water, juice (Rooh Afza) and tea for the grown-ups.
We talked of life on the island. I had already taken mental notes: There was a large pier fronting the island and a number of washrooms lined this wooden structure. There was no running water, no electricity. Water for drinking and cooking had to be fetched by boat from a public tap. I had observed the day before that boats would paddle over to a public tap, situated not too far from the wooden hut. Jerry cans were filled one by one, taken back to each boat and then rowed back to the island. This could take a whole day, depending on the line up. Basically, they lived a hard and simple life here. To make ends meet, they would rent out huts (owned by rich city folk), and I am guessing would have to pay the owners a percentage. They would fish, chicken farm, and on occasion do the odd smuggling.
Anyway, back to our dinner: We thanked Fakira and his wife and soon we were back on the boat, paddling back to our hut. Over the years we got to know not only Fakira and Ali, but other people of the island. They became like our family and after a few visits would refuse to take any money to rent their hut. There were times when we stayed at that wooden hut for a month. ..(school summer vacations.)
Ali died many years ago; Fakira is still alive but getting on in age. I did actually get to speak with him a year ago and gave him an update on David’s family (David passed away in 2012; Uncle D passed away about a year ago). I also know there was a group of doctors (Rotary club) that have gone to the island and helped treat and innoculate children against disease. I do hope and pray for their welfare; they are good simple people, may they all be blessed.
Thanks for reading!
(Photo is of Fakira on Shamspir Island)