Meet Karachi’s ‘Zuleika Dobson’ – Samaa Digital


European rowing crew in Karachi c. 1880s. Photo: @Pakistan_Parast

What a picture! Clearly visible in the background is the Boat House, built on the creek at Karachi in 1881 when the Karachi rowing club was founded. The photograph is probably taken from the wooden jetty that was Napier Mole. Four men sit in their wooden boat (known as a “clinker”) and their coxswain is a young woman, who steers the boat. 

Karachi seems to have been unique in having a rowing club under the Raj, although there was apparently a rowing club in Poona and Rangoon. Bombay lacked a river and creek and was too exposed to the sea, although they had (and still have) a Yacht club; Kolkata’s Hoogly river and the ports were too commercial and heavy with industry. I don’t think the British had a boathouse on the Ravi, and in any case life in the barracks of the north was much more formal.

But this was Karachi. It was not a city designed to have a political bone in its body. It was a city of commerce and trade, fine buildings and education, tongas and picnic excursions, sea breezes and pleasure. Temperatures in the early twentieth century rarely rose higher than 29 degrees centigrade in May and June and in January and the winter months they are often recorded at 18 degrees. From the mid-nineteenth century the British had attempted to pull Karachi back from its Arabian peninsular trade connections and anchor it firmly as a subcontinental, an Indian city.

By the end of the nineteenth century Karachi had a population of 150,000 and was well connected to the great cities of India. The Sindh railway opened in 1861, a spate of Indo-Saracen-Victorian Gothic building produced Frere Hall, Merewether Tower, Empress Market. The city’s water supply and underground drainage were pristine and efficient and built using Bombay expertise, with pumping houses and land reclamation schemes to manage the mangrove swamps. Idyllic suburban bungalows with sloping roofs and verdant gardens were beginning to spring up. In 1914 electricity arrived in the city. In 1918 Karachi airfield received its first airplane.

It also seems to have been a city of immense freedoms. The young woman who was acting as coxswain here (‘swain’ is a medieval English word, meaning young man) is breaking convention. She would never be allowed to cox a boat back in England. In 1911 the writer Max Beerbohm published his novel Zuleika Dobson about a famous beauty and the rowing regatta week at Oxford University. And here she is, almost come to life, in her Edwardian boater hat that places the photograph somewhere between 1908 and 1912, steering the boat and giving commands to the men.

The Karachi Rowing Club says that from its records boats were built locally from the 1880s, but that they were too heavy for racing and so boats were brought in from England. The Club describes them as “clinkers”, the old name for rowing boats before fibre-glass shells came into use in the 1970s. The racing boats that carried one or two rowers were “sculls”, this picture shows a coxed four boat. The maximum length was coxed eights.

Full disclosure: as a university student I loved to go out rowing in an eight. I was quite a lazy person, so a sport where you could sit down and be on the river was ideal. My college had never had a women’s eight, and so we formed one. The men grudgingly said for training we could have the heavy clinker. Once we had learnt to row we forced them to let us have one of their fibre-glass racers. We trained several times a week, often at 6am when the river was at its most beautiful and then took part in the university “bumps” races.

There is a magical time, as all rowers know, when the boat isn’t rocking about but the rowers are balanced in the boat and their rowing is co-ordinated. The rowing movement is as finely tuned as dance: sitting forward and with two hands the rowers pull their oars (or blades) through the water. The end of the oar comes back right into your chest, at which point with a flick of the wrists you twist the blade out of the water (it leaves drips on the surface of the river) reset it and move forward again for the next stroke. It is a circular, balletic movement. When the oar leaves the water it leaves a “puddle” where it comes out. The rowing propels the boat and if you are doing it right the rower in the seat in front of you will put the next rowing stroke in the puddle your blade has left.

Today the men of Karachi Rowing Club compete on the international rowing circuit. The British brought rowing to Karachi. It is also a brilliant sport for women. I wonder if, having broken one convention in allowing a woman to cox the boat, the Rowing Club allowed women to row in their own boat. Probably not. It was the end of the twentieth century before women were allowed into eights racing boats in Britain. I hope, if they haven’t already, the Karachi Rowing Club will encourage them to row as equals in eights racing boats now.

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