An understatement. These days Karachi is known for the following things: volatility, violence, chaos, disorder, congestion, unruliness, cacophony, bloodshed, gunpowder, animosity and some similar sounding words. It would not be incorrect to claim that all of these things have had their share in building the city’s reputation in recent times. Make no mistake, Karachi is not what it used to be, and perhaps will never be, let’s say, when Pakistan came into being. So shall we leave it like that? Of course not! Then, what can we do? A difficult question!
It is for the politicians, or whoever calls the shots, to think about ways to mend what can be mended, rectify what can be rectified and check what can be checked. For those who long for the serene cityscape and aesthetically rich architecture that Karachi once boasted can revisit it in bits and pieces. This, if nothing else, will alleviate their pain which they feel when they cast their eyes on the myriads of jerrybuilt apartment blocks and glitzy malls recklessly eclipsing classically built colonial structures. To cut a long story short, let’s visit Qari Sharif Ahmed Street in the heart of a printing press market in Pakistan Chowk.
This is a very special place only if you visit it early in the morning or on a Sunday (strike calls can also help). You just have to come to DJ Science College from the Shaheen Complex roundabout. Stop where the college ends and a compound, where members of the Parsi community live, begins. Look in the opposite direction. The point from where a series of some old, striking buildings starts, you will notice a board on which Qari Sharif Ahmed Street is written. Halt and look at the structure to which the street name is attached like a child clings to its mother.
This building is called Feroz Mansion. It is an unfussy piece of construction and very nice to look at. Yes, as is the case with most of the colonial pieces, it has undergone some changes but its vintage character is pretty much untouched. That is not it. If you want to see some startling examples of architecture depicting the ambience that does not gel with the road you have plied, get into the Qari Street and enter a small gali. Lo and behold, a couple of magical buildings stand silently as if they do not want to be disturbed.
It’s a small stretch of road lined with old as well as contemporary buildings. The mix and match kind of a thing distorts the scene a bit, therefore you have to use your imagination to picture this gali when ‘concrete’ was not in vogue. The first structure in the corner that you see was made in 1939. It’s called Maula Manzil, as can be read on the upper half of the façade.
Maula Manzil is an interesting specimen. The stairway is covered with metal grilles from the outside. Obviously it must have been done to either repair something or for safety purposes. The balconies are nice and are pretty much in shape. The windows, not so much! The top floor has a tin shed, another addition, of course, that has nothing to do with its original blueprint. The building needs cleaning, big time. If that can be done, it will shine like a star in a cloudless sky.
Next to it is a work of concrete, so ignore it. It is the neighbouring building which is the highlight of this area. It is perhaps the oldest of them all and is called Laxmidas. Minus what’s happening around it (and the appendages to it which look like an afterthought of a sinful mind) the structure is a masterpiece. It has classical elements all over it and the stonework is worth marvelling at. The arched entrance too is a sight to behold, but given the condition of the rest of the street, it comes into view like an anachronistic occurrence. All said and done, it is a crackerjack of a structure.
Architect Arif Hasan says: “This area was developed in the late 19th century, in fact before that. Towards the 1870s it became Karachi’s industrial area, although the street is older. There were residential buildings too but gradually it turned into a zone with printing presses and small industries. The storage facilities too were to do with printing presses. In terms of architecture, it kept evolving. Even after partition it changed as the demand for printing-related matters increased. The go-downs that you see here were a result of that and it became a paper market. The entire area is has beautiful buildings.”
A character in Ayn Rand’s novel ‘The Fountainhead’ famously remarks ‘a building must follow its function’. Well, in 21st century Karachi’s context, it’s pretty debatable.