December 17, 2015

A lament for Pakistan's VCR age

Remembering Pakistan Sports in Karachi, a one-time haven for cricket nostalgists

Videotapes and chill: in the '90s, watching videos of old matches was a legit pastime in Pakistan © Getty Images

It stands in the proverbial heart of Karachi, near the mausoleum of the nation's founder and next to a market named for a queen whose empire spanned the globe. Outside its entrance is the omnipresent police van, or "mobile", manned by cops scanning the area for any teenagers emerging from the building with "objectionable materials". The building itself is what we Pakistanis call a shopping plaza, a relic of the era before air-conditioned-malls era.

Inside it, the tightly packed shops are a cacophony of chattering salesmen and garish film posters, flowing from one to the other, connected by a labyrinth of dark, narrow, paan-stained alleys. It would be easy to get lost, but I find myself being guided by muscle memory, knowing by instinct which path to take. But when I reach the spot my body insists is the right place, there is nothing to see - the shop isn't there. Panicking more than I had expected to, I frantically start asking the people around me for information. An old man in bifocal glasses confirms my rising fears - the owner has packed away his stuff and left the country. Pakistan Sports was no more.

For those of us from a certain generation, the seemingly generic title Pakistan Sports will forever be a watermark on the corner of the screen in the thousands of sports videos we watched on tape. I spent almost every summer vacation in my youth saving up my money from Eid before making the trip to the shop and blowing all the cash on tapes of cricket matches, and the odd wrestling and football video. Hours were spent going through thick registers that catalogued all the wares in the shop.

In many ways, Rainbow Centre - the shopping plaza described at the start - was a physical version of a service like Netflix today. The sprawling area of Saddar in Karachi is home to scores of specialised markets, many wholesale, and the beloved Rainbow Centre was the haven for videocassettes. While VCR culture was a global phenomenon, it was particularly rooted in Pakistan. The collapse of the film industry in the early '80s was coupled with profound political changes that greatly restricted cultural boundaries and public spaces.

A part of me laments the changes brought about by technology. What really hurts is that the tradition and dedication shown by the anonymous people at Pakistan Sports has withered away without finding a successor

The VCR, home to smuggled Bollywood and Hollywood films, was a window to the outside world. Many homes would have the whole joint family and the neighbours and their servants over to watch films together. I was once told that by the late '90s Pakistan was second only to the US in terms of number of video rental stores, and this was without any national-level chains. Almost each of these shops was run by young residents of the area.

While videocassettes were created with films in mind, cricket matches were a far tougher beast, and it was here that Pakistan Sports found its niche. Each match had to be caught live on TV and recorded off it. While packaged highlights became common in the '90s and presumably made the lives of these archivists easier, matches from before that era had tapes with random snatches of play, often missing out important events and eventually running out of space for most of them.

A video I bought of the 1979 Australia v Pakistan match in Melbourne must have been transferred several times, across several formats, before it got to the digital form I viewed, and the effects of that journey showed on its warped sound and faded out video. The narrative is similarly disjointed - there are almost no highlights of Sarfraz Nawaz's magical spell from the match, but there's almost ten minutes of the incident when Javed Miandad ran out Rodney Hogg from short leg.

The sprawling bazaar at Saddar in Karachi, where Pakistan Sports once stood © AFP

The advent of CDs, and later DVDs, provided a brief golden era for Rainbow Centre before the bust. Both recording and distribution became much cheaper, and all of a sudden consumers seemed to have access to the entire world's catalogue of entertainment. Of course, writing this in the internet era really undermines the wonder that accompanied such a change at the time, simply because the internet revolutionised the scale of access. But somewhere in the course of that revolution, much of the past was left behind.

Pakistani TV channels don't seem to have much interest in sports archiving, and the only old match that one can reliably find is the 1992 World Cup final. Despite decades of great games and cricket's popularity, many generations have never quite seen their team's finest moments. For a few years, YouTube provided a window (and the love shown for "Robelinda" is testament to its power). But the spectre of copyright protection has been chipping away at that resource, and in any case YouTube is now banned in Pakistan.

When Pakistan Sports shut down, the owner handed over several hundred DVDs of the more iconic content to the man with the bifocal glasses, who stores them in a dusty cabinet and makes copies on request.

A part of me laments the changes (the eras of VCRs, communal viewings, etc) brought about by technology, but those I can get over. What really hurts is that the tradition and dedication shown by the anonymous people at Pakistan Sports has withered away without finding a successor. Given how central cricket is to Pakistani life and culture, it feels as if all those glorious memories lie trapped and rotting in that cabinet.

As I wrote this post, I came across news of Daesh blowing up ruins of thousand-year-old civilisations, and it reminded me that nothing lasts forever. It is the way of the world for things to fall apart or be actively destroyed. Even if Pakistan Sports had graduated into a digital business or opened a channel or found some other way to reinvent itself, it would have eventually come to an end. As will this very sport, and the country that loves it. But just because things end, and just because end is inevitable, it doesn't mean we can't lament those endings and feel the pain of what has been lost. And to console myself, I am reminded of a verse by Meer Dard which a dear friend and mentor often quotes from:

"Dard-e-dil ke vastay paida kia insaan ko
Varna ta'aat ke liye kuchh kam na thay karr-o-bayan"

"Humanity was ordained but for the grief of the heart
For else rhetoric and ritual were enough to suffice the need for worship"

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal