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Sugar and stone

April 02, 2011

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It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one's bath like a lump of sugar – Pablo Picasso Back in the day when sugar was not a pricey commodity, Karachi was a priceless gem. The idea of creating space(s) for buildings and people had a correlation with the aesthetic appeal of the city. Those who have lived in Karachi all their lives, particularly those who had the pleasure of being part of it before partition, will endorse this observation. One prime example can be of Queen's and Talpur roads and the magnificent structures, albeit not in a big number, that once stood there at a careful distance from each other. Talpur Road was the place where sugar godowns were located. It is no more specifically 'Shakar Godam' as the chowkidars call it even today, but has still, somehow, retained the aura that sets it apart from the rest, or most parts, of modern-day Karachi.

Reaching the Shakar Godam area won't be fun if you bypass I.I. Chundrigar Road (formerly McLeod Road). Turn left from the National Bank head office. Brace yourself for being pleasantly surprised. Look to your right. There's a lovely and expansive building with big, arched entrances (and openings) that cannot be missed. It's Old Reiley Building. It must've been Reiley Building when it was erected in 1920. It has aged, gracefully at that. By the way, the fried fish, soaked in vinegar and rolled in coriander, available on a pushcart on a pavement outside the structure is to-die-for.

Don't turn back from this spot to where you've come. There's a railway track at the end of Reiley Building. It's a historical sight unto itself. It's a great idea to be on shanks' pony, so head towards the track. The world of Talpur Road is about to unfold.

There are a handful of stone-made buildings on both sides of Talpur Raod, but my word, are they a treat to look at or what! To your left is Dawood Compound, whose sizable portal-like gate may not be in use the way it must've been in the days gone by, it can to date make the viewer want to experience the wonders of a time machine.

Opposite it is Meher Sons Building. Again, it's a large structure, nicely maintained, having decorative elements with offices on its ground floor exuding contemporaneity yet not affecting the authentic charm of the edifice. It's a handsome work of construction that seemed to have endured the vagaries of time with dignity. What augments its lure is the calm and noise-free atmosphere on Talpur Road since it's really away from the hubbub and cacophony of the city centre's main roads. The occasional hoot of the train engine isn't awfully disturbing. It is a part of this zone's historic 'feel'.

At the end of it all is Ocean Centre (could be its maiden name, could be not), which appears to be a later construction, yet gels well with the other stone-structures in its neighbour. Wait. Walk backwards a little and stroll into a gali between these buildings. The journey will take a new turn.

It's a small street that's called Miskeen Gali, named after a spiritual leader whose family still lives in the area. Let's keep that story for some other time. What's extraordinary about this part of the locality is the huge godowns whose boundary walls are made of stone. Perhaps there is less official activity these days, which may or may not be wrong. The important thing is that they look good and make for a scenic view the like of which would be hard to find in Karachi.

Architect Arif Hasan says: “The American Civil War lasted for six years, because of which European mills stopped receiving cotton from America. Sindh Cotton replaced it. This was backed by the railways in Karachi and it became an exporter of wheat and cotton. The boom encouraged foreign companies to open their offices in the city. As a result, warehouses were constructed. All of the cotton and wheat used to go through the port. Talpur Road and Miskeen Gali were situated near the railway station. Also, round about the same time the Suez Canal was opened because of which Karachi became the first port of call for ships coming from Europe. Earlier they used to go straight to Bombay.”

“In 1860 or 1870 sugarcane was introduced into the region, and we became exporters of sugar as well. Cotton and wheat were still our main exports. It was a one-way thing. Sugar used to arrive and the wagons would go back without anything loaded on them.”

“Architecturally, the buildings in this area were austere. They were functional buildings, and no great attempt was made to embellish them. Since they were stone structures they looked nice. As for Reiley Building, if you read the book Karachi Through A Hundred Years, which is about the history of the chamber of commerce, you'll know Reiley was one of the many companies. I'm not sure what business it did. The building is of hybrid nature with Renaissance revivalist embellishments,” says Mr Hasan.

A passenger train has halted in front of the phatak. There's been some technical problem. After a few minutes it resumes its journey, puffing up plumes of dust that shroud the walls made of stone along the track.

mohammad.salman@dawn.com