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Memoirs of the city

April 03, 2012

The almost hidden spiral staircase inside the main market. -Photo by author.

Last weekend when I found out about The School of Writing (TSW) and their workshop ‘Memoirs of a City: Creating a Travelogue’, I was ecstatic and keen to sign-up. Being on a Sunday, my only day off, I initially contemplated. But when it was ascertained that we would be visiting the Empress Market, one of Karachi’s oldest bazaars, and the Frere Hall, I instantly got myself registered. It had been a while since I set out on foot, capturing the city in frames. I was itching to do it again.

To be honest, apart from its legendary origin from the British Raj, I really didn’t know much about Empress Market. My association to this grand bazaar was solely for its culinary value. But last Sunday had been my real supermarket experience in Karachi, after a very long time.

That morning, we all met at the TSW office. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a group of good 12 to 15 talented adults. Before we set out we were explained the purpose of the workshop – to be able to isolate our senses and extract beyond the obvious.

But once in the market place, all our senses were assaulted all at once and to be able to concentrate on each sense individually was quite a challenge.

Once we overcame dodging herds of shoppers, the overpowering smell of garbage and the pervasive sound of traffic, we slowly began to follow the exercise. What lay beyond these rusted Victorian walls, was a true adventure to disrobe.

As we gathered around the main entrance, a gentleman sitting right under the tower wasn’t too pleased with us blocking the entrance and was in fact quite aggressive when he repeatedly told us to hurry up and clear the way. It was quite evident that most of the shopkeepers who had spent most of their lives cloistered within the walls of this old structure, had self-appointed themselves to be responsible for the caretaking of the market. They had spent most of their lives there, taking care of their family owned businesses and had now come to the point of becoming leaders of the pack.

Everyone wants to look good. -Photo by author.

As we moved along inside the market, the conversation I overheard was more amusing than the intricate lanes along the aging concrete. A man selling rat poison chanted “Yeh choohay maarnay ki dawaii le lo, yeh choohoon ko tarpa tarpa ke maray ga.” (Buy this rat poison; it will slowly torture the rats to death). One of our facilitators called out to the man “Why do you want them to be in agony?” He instantly replied, “Why, if you had rats in your house, wouldn’t you want them to die in agony?”

The glorious heaps of dried spices. -Photo by author.

The conversation faded as I entered the spices section and was taken over by the overwhelming aroma of turmeric. The vibrant radiance brimming through the orange awnings, gave the entire spice market a welcoming glow; complimenting the colors of the glorious heaps of spices.

A complete reversal of senses occurred as I entered the meat area. And as if the stench was not enough, I was petrified when a butcher flipped open a goat brain, fishing out the cerebellum he graciously offered it to me to photograph, as if serving a tray full of bakery items.

An old ceiling fan, groaned nosily within the aging concrete walls. -Photo by author.

And what market is complete without its group of cheeky boys? While making our way back to our bus, we passed a small store selling a variety of masks. Two young boys, of about eight to 10 years old, stood behind the counter and greeted us as we moved along. One of them held out his hand to shake with one of our group members. As soon as their hands touched, our group member jumped back, pulling his hand away, startled. Apparently he’d fallen for the old trick these boys play. They wear a ring, which when touched, transmits electric current!

A lonely Mr. Claus hangs from a string, outside the market. -Photo by author.

At the end of our hour-long tour in the midday heat, we were tired and very tempted by the tea and flaky parathas from one of the stalls outside. But since the school didn’t want to take the responsibility of anyone falling sick with the food from these unsanitary eateries, we were told to eat at our own risk. Hence, everyone was cautious and gladly decided instead to have lunch later provided at the school.

Frere Hall was a complete transformation in terms of the ambiance. Unlike Empress Market, Frere Hall is well preserved and has a serene atmosphere. It was quite something to walk down its lush green gardens breathing in the compelling smell of old books.

Sadequain’s last masterpiece on the Frere Hall art gallery ceiling. -Photo by author.

Of course, Sadequain’s last masterpiece is without doubt a breathtaking mural and the most fascinating piece of art in the gallery. But while most people would choose to visit the gallery for a view of this ceiling, I was drawn by the calming view from the balcony instead. There is this sudden change in the air as you step out on it, almost instantly soothing, and perfect to relax in one of those old chairs outside, probably even with a good book from the book bazaar downstairs.

The wooden door of the balcony, just outside the gallery. -Photo by author.

It is surprising that in both these places we were overwhelmed with so much, yet we focused on something so small.

For an amateur photographer like myself, isolating the senses wasn’t a new exercise, but combining that sensation as a group of people was equally good and in some ways even better, the journey became therapeutic somehow. It was also fascinating to see how each of us noticed something different, which makes us realise how different we are as individuals.

Sunday Book Bazaar at the Frere Hall in full swing. -Photo by author.

For anyone who not only needs company while out photographing, but is also keen on learning and exploring the real flavor of Karachi, outside of the headlines, this is definitely the best way to spend your Sunday.

The writer is a New Media Design Manager at