Death of a Tradition

Cafe Baldia then and now

Habib Khan, Quetta: The renowned Balochi writer Munir Badini, in his book titled “Shal ae gulen bazar” vividly describes the beauty of Quetta’s bazaar in the 1960s and the 70s. A significant part of this beauty was attributed to the ambience in the cafes located on or around the Jinnah Road. Cafes such as Dawn, Firdousi, Farah, Regal, Liberty, Metropole, Stanley, Souza’s, and Baldia were all situated in this area, where one could engage in heated discussions over a cup of hot tea, debating the volatile issues of the time. These discussions spanned from the dismantling of the One Unit to the 1970 elections, the separation of East Pakistan and emergence of Bangladesh, the formation of the NAP government, its subsequent dismissal, and the military operation in Balochistan in 1973.

It was not uncommon to spot popular political leaders on the street or inside the cafes, with notable figures like Samad Khan Achakzai, Akbar Khan Bugti, Khair Bukhsh Marri, Gul Khan Naseer, Abdul Wahid Kurd, Hashim Khan Ghilzai, and Zammarud Hussain frequently seen in the locality.

No matter how good or bad the political situation of the time was, during the football season the discussions in the Cafes shifted exclusively toward football, focusing on the performance of the favorite teams and the famous players–a clear indication of the immense love the people of Quetta and Balochistan had for football.

I left Quetta in 1974 to study Engineering in Karachi, and then spent years pursuing my career, away from Quetta, until I returned in 2007 to join Merck, where I spent my last almost ten years of service. By the time I retired in late 2016, Baldia was the only remaining cafe still in business, with all the others having been converted into banks or shoe shops.

Since February 2017, a group of friends and I have been gathering at Cafe Baldia, attempting the impossible task of recreating the atmosphere of the fifty years ago.”

Times change, and with it, culture and traditions change.

This, time we found two types of customers in Baldia Cafe. One type consist of clients who, as the cafe is located opposite to the district courts, spend their waiting time. Occasionally, disputes spill into the cafe, resulting in damage to the crockery and the furniture, which is why one is not supposed to object to the tea served in a yellow cup with a blue saucer!

The other type, a minority, are nostalgic visitors like me. One notable example is a senior solo visitor who comes dressed in a three-piece suit, takes his tea, watches the clock strike 1, and quietly leaves without uttering a word to anyone.

However, when we gathered after the last Eid, we found the cafe’s gates closed, and they remain shut to this day, indicating that the last surviving cafe has also succumbed.

Nevertheless, the people who earned their livelihood from the cafe, a waiter and a shoe polish wala, can still be seen waiting in front of the closed entrance, hoping against hope that the cafe will reopen its doors once again.

I took a few pics last week, which shows a sad story of the Cafe Baldia of the last 60 years, and of the weeds that have grown beyond closed gates in the place where once people used to enjoy refreshments under the umbrellas, on lush green lawns.

The scene can be best described by distorting a Ghalib’s verse:

اگا ہے ہوٹل میں ہر سو سبزہ ویرانے تماشا کر

مدار اب کھودنے پر گھاس کے ہے تیرے ویٹر کا