Spring cleaning this past Sunday morning rendered a very random find: my O Level version of Wren and Martin, in a cabinet full of books desperately needing to be sorted out. Recall that this was the maroon colored English grammar and composition book – found in our school bags, but whose link to Karachi (I’m sure) many of us are completely oblivious to.
I know (for a fact) that one of the two authors, Percival Christopher Wren, was a prolific writer. And one of his books was about a haunted bungalow in India. But what very few of us know about is that this same book also mentions the curse of a Pir on Sudden Death Lodge: located on what eventually became Karachi’s Abdullah Haroon Road. The curse of Sudden Death Lodge is the tale of a Karachi based Pir whose tomb was taken care of by a naked fakir, who sat there – for over 50 years.
Pre 1947 partition, an affluent Parsi merchant decided to erect his bungalow on this same site. The fakir begged the merchant to reconsider his decision that would disturb the Pir’s resting place; unmoved, the merchant proceeded with his plans: determined to raze the tomb and evict the fakir. The fakir cursed the merchant: saying the building would never serve the purpose and died soon after.
Construction work commenced, during which three builders and a chowkidar met mysterious deaths. The day the family moved in after completion of the construction, a nephew fell down the staircase and died on the spot; several days later, their son fell off the railings, ruptured his spleen and died. The third – their grandson, caught a nail in his wrist that got infected and caused death by sepsis. Later, the merchant himself met with a fatal accident. The house was then sold to the Reild family – whose manager suddenly died of cholera. Within a few short weeks and in a bizarre twist of events, Mr Reild slit his wife’s throat in that house before killing himself.
Consequently, the mansion became known as ‘Sudden Death Lodge’ and was razed in 1925. It remained a junkyard until the site was later chosen for Karachi’s new US Embassy. Construction began in September 1957 – but similar events were experienced: the mysterious death of an electrician at work. This was probably the first time in the US State Department’s history that it bowed to superstition – altering the principal architectural design and sparing the exact site of the Pir’s tomb. While there have been no further (known) deaths on and around the said location, it is believed that the curse continues to exist to date – but in subtler ways.
Finding my copy of Wren and Martin reminded me of this little-known folklore linked to Karachi. And this got me thinking, how many urban legends related to Pakistan and our respective cities do we know about? What were some narratives that my own generation grew up with? To find out, I sent a broadcast WhatsApp text to a couple friends and the stories I got back took me back to an era I had literally all but forgotten about.
“Random sawaal. As Pakistanis, what urban legends did you grow up listening to? As an example, the churail at dalmia. Can you give me a couple stories, possibly with a small background?”
I remembered some of the stories that were shared and recalled how creepy each would be, because the narrator would “always” swear that it happened to the friend of her chachi’s niece. Now here’s the thing: If you live anywhere above or around the spectrum of Pakistan’s Generation Z, I am pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. But if there is still anyone wondering what this “friend” went through, please allow me to elaborate.
1- Contracting aids injects itself/Karachi pocketknife massacre
This infamous urban legend dates to 1998 and said that random victims at crowded places would be injected with AIDS/HIV. People were advised to be “fully clothed” – to avoid the special vigilante gang that would stab them with the said virus. People swore their cousin’s friend and chachi’s daughter had seen this happen and that if we didn’t believe it, we should at least watch out for men roaming around with concealed knives used to slash the arm of anyone who dared to show some elbow.
2- Hathora group
Between 1985 and 1987, an enigmatic phenomenon saw an alleged group of terrorists randomly “butchering” Karachiites with a heavy hammer. This was after the Zia-ul-Haq regime and during the era of ethnic strife between Karachi’s Mohajir (majority) and Pashtun (Afghan influx) communities. It was amidst this ethnic turmoil and rapidly increase in miscellaneous crimes that saw the emergence of the so-called ‘Hathora Group’ – mysterious men using hammers to execute planned murders.
There were multiple theories behind this violence.
Several Urdu dailies alleged that the group comprised members of Afghan and Soviet Intelligence agencies / agents who were retaliating Pakistan’s support to local insurgents fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. One English magazine wondered if the group was a disguise for some Karachi based satanic cult who became exceedingly rich overnight (re: drug smuggling) and had formed ‘secret clubs.’
Between 1985 and 1987, an enigmatic phenomenon saw an alleged group of terrorists randomly “butchering” Karachiites with a heavy hammer. This was after the Zia-ul-Haq regime and during the era of ethnic strife between Karachi’s Mohajir (majority) and Pashtun (Afghan influx) communities.
The said magazine claimed that this cult indulged in ‘curious rituals’, dressed in long white cloaks at some (unnamed) deserted beach in Karachi in ‘the dead of the night.’ Another newspaper said the Hathora Group was a ‘death squad’ formed to cleanse the city of addicts, beggars, runaways and the homeless. Whilst no arrests were ever made, the mystery of the Hathora group remains unsolved to date.
3- The haunted Devil Point of Karachi
This story has to do with voodoo and ghost shenanigans that were apparently a regular occurrence at the Devil’s Point in Karachi. The story goes like this: somebody sitting “on the sea”, reading the Quran backwards. Considering there were several versions of this story, some people say it was a chair and others said that it was a surfboard made of human skulls, upon which the person was perched. Nobody who claimed to have seen this person ever actually approached and spoke to them or even tried to stop them.
4- The ghost of Karsaaz
Every true Karachiite, will have heard the story of the Karsaaz Churail (at least) once in their lifetimes – if not more. Interestingly, there are multiple stories attached to the Karsaaz ghost – mostly people claiming that they’ve experienced paranormal sightings in the area, including children hanging from the window of empty houses. The real attraction of the Karsaaz road will, however, always be the Karsaaz bride.
Back in the 60’s a bride’s groom died on Dalmia Road, at the point that connects Karsaaz with Jauhar. Heartbroken, the bride passed away, immediately thereafter. They were on their way home from their wedding. It is said that the bride’s home was a (nearby) graveyard and that she still roams the area where her husband allegedly died – making the spot perpetually haunted.
Legend holds that if a traveler crosses her on Dalmia Road, she causes them to stop – appearing as a beautiful woman dressed in bridal red. She waves as if she needs a ride – but as you look at this beauty, maggots are seen on her face. People have also claimed that they have been chased by her screaming; but one thing everyone agrees on is that after dark, nobody should travel on Dalmia Road alone – because the bride still awaits her groom.
Another version of the Karsaaz ghost includes a reference to her house that is infamously known as Laal Kothi. This ghost was apparently a cabaret dancer back in the 60s who was raped and left to die in the area that we now know as Karsaaz. But to date, she continues to appear on the road – asking people to help her get back home: Laal Kothi. She reportedly makes her benefactor wait, so that she can bring money – but never comes out. So, when people eventually ring the doorbell to the house, asking about the girl – they are received by her elderly father, who will always say that she died a long time back.
5- The legend of Pichal Peri
Chanting Pichal Peri (translated: back footed) gets the said creature to make an actual, physical appearance. This demonic witch apparently takes on two forms. According to the more common version, she appears as a beautiful woman who targets vulnerable men; she is completely disguised – except for her feet, which point backwards. But in her true form, she is long faced and scary eyed – with dirty fingers, hunchback, messy hair and bloody clothes – having the said backward pointing feet. According to this version, Pichal Peri kills people by ingesting their blood or ripping out vital organs from their bodies.
These were a few of the more known stories that friends shared. Other tales included the elevators at (both) Finlay and SLICO Building 1 being haunted, the churail who sat ahead of the ANZ Grindlay’s Branch at I. I. Chundrigar Road in Karachi and the girl who had had ghostly admirers – during the 1947 partition. One friend mentioned his classmate who got electrocuted and died in college – following which, it was said that his soul continued to roam around the college campus.
Thing is, ghost stories are more than just random folklore in Pakistan – where legend somehow holds gospel truth to the masses. Everyone knows that one person who has a tale or two to tell and all of them know somebody who has personally experienced the said story. Interestingly, we’ve heard it all – stories featuring the churail, the haunted house and the resident jinns and bhoots, told to them by the neighborhood aunty or an elderly family member.
As Pakistanis, our world today is scary. We’ve been experiencing recessionary trends for several years now, inflation is at an all-time high, fuel costs exceed a hundred rupees per liter, air pollution levels are choking locals and Covid is seemingly unending. But we really can’t escape it, can we? This is because despite the combined impact of all of this, we know that life goes on. And, in all honesty, nothing is scarier than the stories we grew up with – things that happened to the friend of the narrators’ chachi’s niece. This friend lived a beautiful life till they found death in every situation – but somehow lived to tell their tale and endure yet another fantastically horrific incident.
So, to the “She Whom I Have Never Seen”, I truly salute you. Your adventures in life make us wring our hands over today’s poverty dynamics, water stress and environmental degradation. You, my friend, are a legend.