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Begum Gali

Published Mar 02, 2013 07:22pm


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A view of Ramdas Building in Begum Gali.

Apparently she had not achieved any feats in life, yet there is a street named after her, unofficially. Let’s put it this way: there is a street in Karachi that she is known by. It’s called Begum Gali.

No one knows her real name. No one knows her full name. No one knows why the whole street on which she lived in an apartment, sorry flat, with her husband was dedicated to her by those living in the neighbourhood. So let’s cut to the chase. If you are on a little food street off I.I. Chundrigar Road (formerly McLeod Road) smack opposite where a famous media group’s offices are located, you will find yourself in Begum Gali.

Begum Gali is a moniker of sorts. The original name of this particular stretch of road is Ramchand Street. Obviously it is an area set up decades before partition, primarily occupied by members of the Hindu community. After Pakistan’s inception a decent number of migrants settled here one of which was the begum. So who was she? Again, very difficult to determine. The reason for this is that when you ask the younger lot in the vicinity about her they turn her into the protagonist of a humour-laden story. “She used to beat her hubby up,” says a paan-wallah. He is kidding, obviously.

What the senior lot tells you has some semblance of truth in it, though that too cannot be corroborated because the begum’s character has not been documented. “She was the chachi (uncle’s wife) of a film actor. She and her husband lived in a flat for a long time. She was a caring woman. The entire muhalla respected her,” says a 60-something man who lives in a pre-partition structure called Haji Sattar Haji Mohammad building on Khushhaal Das Street parallel to Begum Gali.

A young man, who has been selling mouth-watering kathiavari chhoole on a pushcart for two decades, endorses that. “Yes, she was related to the actor. But there were other women too, who used to wear stylish burqas, because of which the road was called Begum Gali.” Let’s not push the issue any further.

The gali (street) these days has transformed into a food centre. The entire I.I. Chundrigar Road is flanked by myriads of workplaces and this part, which begins from the Shaheen Complex traffic intersection, is no exception. Here you can have the relatively pricey Chinese food as well as the less heavy-on-the-pocket haleem, pakorey and biryani. By the way, you will not encounter old colonial buildings immediately, that is, if you have stepped into the street from I.I. Chundrigar Road. You need to move further into the street to feast your eyes on pre-independence structures.

The street for the most part has lost its yesteryear charm. Today it looks just as contemporary as any other bazaar in the city crammed with people. Only towards the end of the stretch (which intersects Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Road) you will get to see a few old, heavily tampered works of architecture. Right in the corner is Ramdas building constructed in 1936. Imagine how old Begum Gali is.

The structure opposite Ramdas building is of the same age, except the shop on its ground floor cuts a modern picture. Its name too has a contemporary ring to it. In order to have a comprehensive view of the area it would be a good idea to hop across into the next gali, Khushhaal Das Street, to see what dust-laden gems this part of the city contains.

There are a few colonial pieces on this street which are less affected by ‘merging’ and ‘additions’. The good thing about them is that even a fleeting glance will reveal that they belong to a different timeline. One of them has already been mentioned: Haji Sattar Haji Mohammad building. Residents insist it has always been referred to as that, and there was no previous name of the structure. Believe them. They know it all.

A little away from the Haji Sattar piece is Haque Mansion. This one too is of almost the same age. It would be safe to infer that whatever pre-partition examples of architecture you witness in Begum Gali and on Khushhaal Das Street date back to the 1930s or 1940s. They do not have classical elements such as big arched entrances, windows or delicate cornices etc, and fall more into that category of the building design which was in vogue in the 1940s.

Architect Arif Hasan says: “I cannot tell you in detail about this area but as far as I remember, there had always been two-storey buildings here which had the character that you associate with the 1920s and 1930s. There were both concrete and stone made structures.”

Now back to Begum Gali: in a manner of speaking, it is good that not much is known about the begum. As they say, heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter.


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Comments (10) Closed

qasim Mar 03, 2013 02:00pm
And the users can always choose to not read it.
S. A. M. Mar 03, 2013 08:27pm
Its a nice piece. A good description. We could feel that we are watching Begum Gali with our eyes. Living in the old city has its troubles but for the most part it really is very convenient. When my elders came to Pakistan they got a an apartment (claimed one) on the main Elphinstone St (now called Zaib un nissa Rd) behind Fashion Arcade. Everything was so close. Behind was Victoria and Zainab Market was just round the corner. St Joseph's Cathedral, and the other best schools St Pat's St Thoms's St Pauls's St Jospeh's they were all ata walkable distance. Empress Market was in easy reach all the main buses still pass through Saddar. The taste of Zahis Nehari and Ghaseeta Khan's haleem can never be forgotten. Then there was the Pereira bakery. Life was so comfortable. We used to celebrate Christmas etc with christians Nowrooz with the Zorastrians Diwali etc with our Hindu freinds. Life was about fun. alas those days are gone. Studying acc0unts at Sir Caggy's is something that always gives me edge over others. Alas the good old days are gone forever.
amin ganchi Mar 03, 2013 05:08pm
there is nothing wrong to know the past and present around your surrounding,specially for those people who live abroad who still cherished those good memories,I used to live in kharadher not far from this place.
Abdullah Hussain Mar 03, 2013 11:58am
Beautifully written useless article. The readers deserve a better deal for their time than the story of Begum Gali
Kamran Mar 03, 2013 12:58pm
Its a well written beautiful article, giving a great perspective of how things are connected to the past. well done
Muzaffar Qureshi Mar 03, 2013 12:47pm
what is wrong about knowing the city you live in. I don't understand the criticism.
Ray Mar 03, 2013 04:28pm
Must you post a pathetic comment!
Khan Mar 03, 2013 03:49pm
Why is it bothering the writer so much?
TKhan Mar 03, 2013 03:32pm
Karachi is full of nicely architectured buildings that were built before partition of Hindustan. These buildings showed owners prides; and even after partition those few owners who left behind used to decorate their balconies with adorable seasonal flowers and colors. However, that didn't last too long; as the new occupiers came and had to protect their faith & observe Pardah (even when they were on 4th floor); hence, they covered these balconies with jute curtains, eyesore wood structures and in some case simply bed sheets. These buildings in most cases were 2 or 3 stories, however, the new landlords in cahoot with corrupt KMC employees added one or two more stories thus defacing the complete facades of the buildings. I vividly remember an episode near Rainbow Hotel Building opposite Ritz Cinema on Bunder Road; this Gujrati/Parsi family that remained behind, had a beautiful 3rd floor balcony adorned with beautiful seasonal flowers. One day the lady was lightly watering and nurturing the followers; the shop keepers on the street started shouting at her to stop throwing her polluted (NaPaak) water on them. Well it didn't take very long for them to move out and soon after that the balcony was converted to Islam. Brand new Jute Curtains!
Agha Ata (USA) Mar 03, 2013 02:16pm
Could you please send me the address of the young man who sells mouth-watering kathiavari chhoole? I miss them so much in the USA. :)