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Rediscovering Karachi's crumbling heritage with an Iranian wayfarer

Taking a tourist from Tehran, we visited the landmarks of Karachi only to find a disastrous discovery in the end.
Updated 10 Apr, 2015 11:41am

Farooq Soomro

“I'll be in Karachi next month and would be interested in taking a tour of your city. Can you provide details?”

I had not been out in the city for a while but with this modest tour request from Tehran, I found myself out and about in the city on a rainy winter morning.

I told the lady that she was fortunate to experience Karachi on an overcast day in mid-February. She quickly mentioned that for someone who had been raised in London, the definition for good weather differed and often meant a sunny day with clear skies. She had not seen Karachi’s sunny days and neither had I witnessed London’s rainy days so we trusted each other’s judgment and set forth to explore Karachi.

“Do you have any particular landmark in mind?” I asked her.

“It’s up to you but I really want to see Crown Cinema,” after having told me that she had read my piece on it sometime back.

We started our journey from Clifton and drove past Kala Pul. I told her briefly how the bridge along with Clifton bridge divided the city in many ways more than connecting it. She seemed to have an idea about the infamous divide so she nodded knowingly.

Gora Qabristan

We made a brief stop at Gora Qabristan, usually crowded over the weekend, but we were lucky as it was still early in the day.

The entrance of the graveyard was lined with flower vendors selling red rose petals by the bag, one seller stopped us in our tracks and offered to sell a bag to us which we refused, stepping inside the complex. We walked all the way to the back which was much older with graves adorned with statues. I showed her my favourite statue with a broken wing. My guest was amused with the names on the gravestones which were a mix of Christian and Muslim names.

Inside Gora Qabristan.
Inside Gora Qabristan.

Next destination on our itinerary was Karachi’s oldest area, Saddar. We stopped our car in front of Duarte Mansion, a beautiful Goan building on the corner of a street. The front façade still stood firm but the rest of the building seemed to have given up. We walked down the street and made a brief stop at the Tit Bit Book stall where Mr. Salim, the bookshop owner greeted us.

Tit Bit is one of the oldest surviving bookshops in the city and was once famous for its pulp fiction with the students of nearby colleges. The change in the landscape of Saddar has affected the bookshop drastically and lack of customers has compromised the sales of Mr. Salim’s book collection. We stepped out and walked past the Parsi fire temple. She told me that she had been to many Zoroastrian temples in Tehran and joked that she could possibly qualify for a Parsi and gain access inside the temple.

Katrak Parsi Colony

Parsi Colony on MA Jinnah Road.
Parsi Colony on MA Jinnah Road.
Beautiful houses in the colony.
Beautiful houses in the colony.
One of the houses in Katrak Parsi Colony.
One of the houses in Katrak Parsi Colony.

We then headed towards Parsi Colony on MA Jinnah road and drove past Nishat and Capri cinemas. The former had been burnt, crumbled and shut! I told her how cinemas had faced the brunt of protesters over time in Karachi. The streets leading to Parsi Colony had been blocked by containers in order to protect the neighbourhood from frequent protests and rallies taking place on the main road which I felt was a reasonable move.

The low walls and beautifully caressed plantation in the Parsi Colony give a sense of freedom which we are not acquainted with anymore.
The low walls and beautifully caressed plantation in the Parsi Colony give a sense of freedom which we are not acquainted with anymore.
Parsi Colony has one of the oldest pre-partition houses.
Parsi Colony has one of the oldest pre-partition houses.
The Bhedwar Library in Katrak Parsi Colony.
The Bhedwar Library in Katrak Parsi Colony.

A friend of mine lives very close to the Parsi Colony. The street leading to his home was blocked too so we took a detour driving past Nishtar Park which had turned into a cricket field on a Saturday morning. While we waited for my friend to arrive we noticed a plaque installed on the wall commemorating the deed of purchase of a house by a philanthropist for Shikarpuri Panchayat.

Later my friend told me that it was a dharamshala which was vacated by the time their family arrived in Karachi from Delhi. A beautiful house next door was being demolished. Possibly the whole street was full of such aesthetically pleasing houses once but now had given way to soulless concrete apartments or equally appalling double story houses.

A plaque reading Shikarpuri Panchayat.
A plaque reading Shikarpuri Panchayat.
A demolished house in Parsi Colony.
A demolished house in Parsi Colony.
Parsi Colony
Parsi Colony

We took a tour of the beautifully decorated house of my friend. The high ceiling and airy windows ensured wind circulation in the house and therefore no air conditioning was required. The old Belgian tiles with colorful patterns were a treat for eyes.

The interior of a house in Parsi Colony.
The interior of a house in Parsi Colony.
The Parsi Colony seemed to be stuck in a different time period away from trouble brewing neighbourhoods.
The Parsi Colony seemed to be stuck in a different time period away from trouble brewing neighbourhoods.
A foundation plague of the Katrak Parsi Colony.
A foundation plague of the Katrak Parsi Colony.

We went for a stroll in the Parsi Colony afterwards. It was raining and chilly. A motor training school instructor was teaching a rookie how to drive an old Toyota corolla in the streets which were empty otherwise. The Colony seemed to be stuck in a different time period away from trouble brewing neighborhoods. The low walls and beautifully caressed plantation gave a sense of freedom which we are not acquainted with anymore. We walked leisurely on its streets which was a rarity in its own in this city.

Meanwhile, the lady shared stories of how her family in Karachi did not allow her to walk in Clifton Block two to run some errands. She told me that Tehran had some restrictions for women but they could walk freely anywhere.

Karachi Goan Association Cricket ground

The Karachi Goan Association Cricket ground has been one of the earliest cricket grounds in the city and has been host to many domestic matches.
The Karachi Goan Association Cricket ground has been one of the earliest cricket grounds in the city and has been host to many domestic matches.
KGA cricket ground
KGA cricket ground

My friend decided to join us on our city exploration and we drove out of the colony making a brief stop at the Karachi Goan Association Cricket ground. We were told that all matches for the day were canceled due to unexpected rain. The KGA ground had been one of the earliest cricket grounds in the city and has been host to many domestic matches. A small but aesthetically pleasing pavilion was built on one corner of the ground where people could play badminton and tennis also. A concrete jungle has sprawled around the ground. There were kites flying low near the pavilion as someone threw garbage from the apartments behind it.

Cricket score board.
Cricket score board.
A small but aesthetically pleasing pavilion was built on one corner of the ground where people could play badminton and tennis also.
A small but aesthetically pleasing pavilion was built on one corner of the ground where people could play badminton and tennis also.

Khaliq Dina Hall

The site where the epic court case was conducted in which the British tried to convict Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar for impunity as a backlash for his Khilafat Movement.
The site where the epic court case was conducted in which the British tried to convict Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar for impunity as a backlash for his Khilafat Movement.

We hit the road again and made our next stop at Khaliq Dina Hall which was commissioned by Khaliq Dina, a Khoja philanthropist and businessman. The very site was scene of an epic court case in which the British tried to convict Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar for impunity as a backlash for his Khilafat Movement.

The entrance to the main hall was closed but the library on one side of the hall was opened where a lone man was scribbling something in his journal. The lady went through the bookshelves trying to get an insight into the reading habits of Karachiites. We walked around the glorious edifice of architecture which was testimony to an era when construction was an aesthetical undertaking also.

Khaliq Dina Hall
Khaliq Dina Hall
Khaliq Dina Hall
Khaliq Dina Hall
Khaliq Dina Hall
Khaliq Dina Hall

Lady Dufferin Hospital

Lady Dufferin hospital building.
Lady Dufferin hospital building.
Stairs leading to the first floor inside Lady Dufferin hospital.
Stairs leading to the first floor inside Lady Dufferin hospital.
The exterior of the hospital.
The exterior of the hospital.

Our next stop was Lady Dufferin Hospital. OPD was closed on Saturdays therefore we did not face any issue in finding parking inside its compound. A lot of new compounds have been added to the complex but the original ‘Edulji Dinshaw Building’ remained the most eye-catching. It was constructed with the help of generous donations from many philanthropists including Mr. Edulji Dinshaw.

A guard was trying to catch-up on his last night’s sleep but became attentive when he saw us coming in. He asked us to get permission from the administrator to take a tour of upstairs. The administrator was very kind and he allowed us to visit the first floor and the rest of the hospital. First floor has been closed and used for storage. There were books lying in one corner which were possibly given to the patients in the Maternity ward.

Lady Dufferin hospital.
Lady Dufferin hospital.
Lady Dufferin hospital.
Lady Dufferin hospital.
Lady Dufferin hospital.
Lady Dufferin hospital.

Christ Church

Christ Church is the earliest Protestant Church in the city.
Christ Church is the earliest Protestant Church in the city.
Christ Church
Christ Church

We then drove to Christ Church which was the earliest Protestant Church in the city. Very few amendments had been done to the church and the façade and wooden installments are more than 150 years old by now. The church committee had managed Christ Mission School (CMS) before its nationalisation which was alma mater to Jinnah, Javed Miandad, Mushtaq Muhammad and many other notables.

We left our muddy shoes at the wooden gates and walked in. The priest told us that the painted glass at the back was sent directly from Italy. There was a person sitting on the piano working out a melody. I was told that he had played along the legendary Benjamin Sisters. The priest showed us the book of Urdu hymns which they recited during Sunday sermons and on special occasions such as weddings. When we were leaving, he asked to bow our heads and prayed for us. His voice echoed through the walls while we listened to him silently with gratitude. It was a beautiful moment.

Painted glass from Italy.
Painted glass from Italy.
Working on a melody.
Working on a melody.
One of the Urdu hymns.
One of the Urdu hymns.

City's first drainage system

Karachi's first drainage system was designed by James Strachan who is famously known for designing Merewether Tower, Denso Hall and DJ Science College among others
Karachi's first drainage system was designed by James Strachan who is famously known for designing Merewether Tower, Denso Hall and DJ Science College among others
Drainage system
Drainage system

The next stop on our agenda was a site at which first drainage system for Karachi was installed. It was designed by James Strachan who is famously known for designing Merewether Tower, Denso Hall and DJ Science College among others.

The site had been abandoned and was a strange setting of decaying heavy machinery and crisscross tunnels where steam was generated to propel heavy wheels which processed the sewerage water out of the neighbourhood. Now few cows and donkeys were found to be relaxing on a lazy afternoon. A tall chimney released the hot steam from the tunnels in the air. We crouched inside the chimney to look at the light coming from the small opening. We walked through the tunnels and climbed its roof which had broken down at few places.

Drainage system
Drainage system
Drainage system
Drainage system

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat

We still had crown cinema in mind but we decided to make a stop at Dhobhi Ghat. We drove through narrow roads which led up to the Dhobhi Ghat in Garden area. The lady spotted a man with facial mask and eyes closed sitting outside a barber shop. She had been doing a thesis on masculinity among Tehrani men and probably drew some insights about Karachi men there.

We parked our car on the front of Dhobhi Ghat. Due to the rainy weather it was not as vibrant but we found quite a few interesting people there as expected. They told us that how their business has been affected due to the construction of the Lyari Expressway after which they struggled to make both ends meet. We walked aimlessly striking a conversation here and there. A couple of kids followed us and requested to take a photo with the lady to which she happily obliged.

Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat
Dhobi Ghat

The discovery at Crown cinema

We hit the road again and drove through Lyari Expressway and turned left on Mauripur road. We drove slowly to not miss the Crown Cinema. Halfway down on Mauripur road, I sensed that something was wrong. I told my entourage that it was right there and we had probably missed it. We stopped our car and stepped out. There I noticed the blue painted walls which set the perimeter of the Cinema but the façade was nowhere to be seen.

Crown cinema
Crown cinema
The remains of Crown cinema.
The remains of Crown cinema.

We continued walking to the gate nevertheless. There it was, in crumbles, reduced to a heap of bricks. The chowkidar told us that it had been demolished few months back. He also said there was no business and few NGOs had approached the owner to save the historical cinema but to no luck. We stood there confused and helpless. It felt as if someone dear had passed away suddenly. The lady had been in Karachi for few days only but had seen enough of it already to understand the suffering. We sat back in car with a heavy heart, listening to local radio as none of us spoke.