IT is 9am when I approach Bhabhra Bazaar, a winding street in the shadows of the famous Lal Haveli of Sheikh Rashid in Rawalpindi.
People have queued up at the halwa puri and naan chholay shops, but the jewellery market is still closed. I ask a young man sporting a French-cut beard and gel-spiked hair, “Where’s the Soojhan Singh Haveli?”
He doesn’t know.
Around fifty yards on, I put the same question to a middle-aged man.
“Go back some fifty yards, there’s the Lajawab Dahi Bhallay shop. Park there and go into the street near this shop. It’s too narrow to take your car.”
In that five-foot-wide, paved alley, a crazy mesh of electricity wires hangs overhead. Below, tangles of water and gas pipes, a mess of cigarette butts and dark spots of paan pichkari welcome me. Water gushes out from the open sewage lines. Eventually, the street passes through the porch of the Soojhan Singh Haveli.
Two huge carved wooden doors still manage to present the grandeur of the past, giving an inkling that this was once the plushest palace in the Potohar region. But the walls beyond have given in to the excesses of greed and development.
Sardar Soojhan Singh, the richest trader of Rawalpindi in the 19th century, owned 40 per cent of the city’s property. He developed parks and fountains for the general public, and built this family residence in 1893.
Near the thickly carved main gate of the haveli, a plaque on the wall reads: ‘Fatima Jinnah Women University (FJWU), Soojhan Singh campus’.
The wooden terrace of the four-storey red-brick building has long since broken. The still gracefully arched windows and doors above the terrace are falling apart. In the outer courtyard, dozens of water pipes snake into a well covered with a huge iron cover.
I start noting the numbers on the white pieces of paper pasted on several parts of the building. They are evidence of an assessment, recently carried out. A man in a faded off-white shalwar kameez approaches.
“The government has abandoned this historic asset,” says 40-year-old Mohammed Waseem, a resident of the area. “Nobody is taking care of it.”
Five cement chairs carrying the logo of a soft drink company adorn the locked front door. On the left, another door sports an iron sheet in a wooden frame. When I knock, a security guard comes out rubbing away the sleep from his eyes. Inside, four beds have been placed in a room for the staff of the National College of Arts (NCA), which has undertaken to conserve the place.
In the vast courtyard in the centre, sunshine covers what’s left of the building. The wooden ceiling of the outer terrace area has been blackened and burnt.
“Around 40 Kashmiri families settled here after Partition,” says Waseem. “They used to cook food here. The ceiling has been singed because of the stoves.”
Across the courtyard, a large lounge with brick flooring and a fireplace shows signs of having been the main ‘guest room’ for decades. But upstairs, the magnificent wooden ceiling carved with flowers is still intact. Swallows now nest here.
“The government has no plans to conserve or refurbish this building,” says Waseem. “[MNA] Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has got funds worth millions of rupees for renovating this building, but has not done anything.”
At 10:30am, Sheikh Rashid is savouring a siri paaye breakfast at his Lal Haveli office.
“Soojhan Singh Haveli has never been a priority for any government,” he tells me. “I tried my best to get a grant of Rs50 million from the Shaukat Aziz government but it did not release a penny despite making an announcement. We also requested Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan to set up a college here. I lost many votes because of this haveli. People want to occupy it and I have had it vacated several times. Now the NCA wants to conserve this place; let’s see what happens.”
“We have completed the infrastructure assessment of this haveli,” says G.M. Baloch, the NCA engineer who oversaw the assessment. “After structural stabilisation and weather enveloping, the building will be stable. The whole process will cost about Rs15million.”
But Nadeem Omer Tarar, director of the NCA Rawalpindi, says they have yet to chalk out a plan to seek funds for renovation.
“In the first phase, we made assessments,” he tells me. “We will establish a field school here for the students of traditional building skills with the help of the Boston Architecture College. Then we plan to conserve this building and we will approach the BAC and the US embassy for financial assistance.”
“We needed an old building for our field school so we signed a three-year agreement with the FJWU,” he adds. “We also intend to establish a museum there.”
Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2014