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Begum Gali

March 02, 2013

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.

mohammad.salman@dawn.com