Another Bombay in Karachi

Published January 27, 2013

The talk about Karachi and Bombay (now Mumbai) being twin cities has gained momentum in recent years, primarily because of the visiting Indian delegations (and their Pakistani counterparts’ trips to India) of writers, intellectuals and anthropologists who see the two metropolises as similar in their societal and, to a certain extent, physical composition. Both are coastal towns, have the presence of assorted ethnic groups, have a common colonial past and both are commercial hubs of their respective countries. This may or may not be arguable. What is beyond suspicion is that before partition the name ‘Bombay’ had a major role to play in Karachi’s commercial configuration, perhaps because back then the region was part of the Bombay Presidency.

Let’s recall how many times the word Bombay features on the cityscape. There is a famous Bombay bazaar right in the heart of vintage Karachi (already covered in these pages). Yes, the area behind Memon Masjid on M.A. Jinnah Road (formerly Bunder Road) which boasts a large number of lovely colonial buildings. It is one of the oldest bazaars in the city and thankfully a majority of its streets and names of the structures have not been changed.

Then there is a Bombay hotel near Cantt Railway Station. Add to it a couple of more restaurants and a building that goes by the same name. But there is another Bombay hotel which is perhaps more conspicuously located than the above-mentioned pieces of construction, and for some inexplicable reason has escaped history and architecture lovers’ eyes. It is on I.I. Chundrigar Road (formerly McLeod Road) and anyone who plies the thoroughfare cannot miss it. Strangely, the structure is under-discussed and has been left to its own devices.

It is as easy as pie to spot Bombay hotel. You just have to reach the Shaheen Complex intersection and hit McLeod Road. The second building on your left is the work of architecture, the focus of this week’s write-up. Actually it is heart-wrenching to call it a piece of construction because looking at it in its present shape might make you wonder as to why we, as a nation, are so impervious to, or do not give two hoots about, history. But first, let’s talk about the building neighbouring Bombay hotel because it is a little older and is architecturally more interesting to marvel at.

The building is called State View, according to a man who runs one of the oldest restaurants on I.I. Chundrigar Road on the ground floor of this structure, frequented by bankers, mediamen, advertising personnel, etc. The man says his family has owned the eatery since the early 1930s, which goes to show how aged it is. It surely does look so. Though its architectural attributes are not as distinguishable as you would like them to be, you can figure out the little decorative elements around the pilasters. A close look will reveal without excessive signage and with a great deal of restoration it can be a pretty dazzling sight.

Bombay hotel is next to State View building. In terms of age, the hotel is definitely younger than its neighbour but ironically it cuts a lot more desolate picture. The gaping holes in the windows, the locked grilles on entranceways, the cracked walls, the shattered woodwork (in some cases glasswork) and the overall deserted feel has put more years on the structure.

Apparently the building has been in this state for many a year, and there may be some valid reasons for it. In the eyes of a history lover, it has that vibe which signifies historicity of some kind but you cannot put your finger on it. A thirty-something man sitting in the corner of Bombay hotel does not buy the notion that it has any historic worth. The most significant event that he is aware of is that Z.A. Bhutto once dined here. It is difficult to corroborate that.

Architect Noman Ahmed says: “When the trading links between Karachi and Bombay intensified in the first half of the 20th century, a great many traders used ‘Bombay’ as brand image. This nomenclature was used in whatever trading that used to take place. It gave a boost to their businesses. Those who would come to Karachi often stayed at such hotels or inns because it had become a trend.

“Bombay was a multicultural and multiethnic city. It had, and still has, a lot of communities. The Gurjaratis who were involved in trading came to Karachi earlier compared to some other ethnic groups. Then there was a decent presence of Borha and Ismaili communities which helped in using this nomenclature.”

Multiculturalism has a nice ring to it. It is to do with the positivity associated with ethnic diversity. There are many views on multiculturalism. One of which is: “Keep your language. Love it sounds, its modulation, its rhythm. But try to march together with men of different languages, remote from your own, who wish like you for a more just and human world.”

A noble thought, indeed!

mohammad.salman@dawn.com

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