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Keeping track of history

May 09, 2010


APART from a halted train, there are two dogs on the platform one emaciated and black as night, the other tawny and reasonably well-fed. They freely roam around the City Station premises, occasionally having a quick kip near the ticket counter, oblivious to the arriving and departing passengers. As if it is not enough to create an odd scene, a semi-lunatic (who knows if he's completely off his rocker!) barges into the hall greeting whoever he sees in a shrilly, high-pitched sound. “Salam saab, koi khidmat, salam saab, Huq, Huq... salam saab...” A character and surroundings that Manto would've liked to write about.

The queues for ticket acquisition at the City railway station, formerly McLeod station, are not as long as you see at its Cantt counterpart, but the architecture of the two blocks where its offices are located, joined by a two-storey pedestrian bridge, is a bit more noticeable than that of the Cantt railway station. The stone of the divisional office (DO) structure looks cleaner, yellowish-brown, whereas the one thronged by passengers, called the Station building by its staff, has been painted white and appears to be in need of tidying up. Also because the canines could do with some other shelter!

Today's City Station, as it is commonly known in Karachi, covers a vast region. Off I. I. Chundrigar Road, it forms an intriguing zone if you consider the 19th century Wallace Bridge facing the DO block — that leads you from I. I. Chundrigar Road to the City Railway Colony — a part of it. The bridge cannot be taken as a separate piece. It completes an intriguing overhead shot of the whole area. There are tiny garages (and a couple of offices) filling up the arches under the overpass where Railway officers now park their cars.

It is a task to find or stumble upon commemorative plaques indicating the time these facilities were made, but one placed on a divisional office wall may suffice. “The foundation stone of this building was laid by Lt Col R. E Gordon M.C.R.E, Divl Supt N.W.R on 30th Sept 1935 Hormusji & Daruvala Contractors.” Not a great deal of information is available on the date of construction of the station building, what can be said about it though is that it looks more aged than the structure facing it. The white choona must come off it and it should at least be sandblasted like the one inaugurated by Lt-Col Gordon.

There are a few fascinating things in and around the City Station that can turn even the staunchest of past-hater into a history-lover.

Object 1 an elevator. It's an amazing transport vehicle. Who hasn't seen in old black and white photographs or movies, a lift with a metal grille in front? It's the same and exists from the time the DO block was built. It can lift between floors the weight of not more than three persons, and if you're one of the three going up or coming down enjoy reading 'Marryat & Scott Ltd London' and 'F & L Osler Ltd Engineer New Delhi' written on it. The Burma teak is also intact.

Object 2 an oil tank. Across the rail track, a couple of hundred yards away from the station building is a beautiful, sturdy stone structure that was once functional when coal was used for making the engines chug through. If you talk to railway engineers, they'll tell you it's a remarkable piece of architecture built in a cylindrical shape, which appears to be simple in design but needed special skills to be constructed. The railway authorities will do themselves the world of good if they can work towards making this and the two water tanks (one of them is underground) next to it into proper heritage sites.

Object 3 a crane made in 1909. The crane, which can be seen standing on the sick line is in a pretty good condition and still does a good job of lifting or off-loading the heavy (repairable) train wheels.

These are some of the things that depict the times when the British were doing wonders with the technology then in vogue, making Karachi as contemporary as it was possible.

Charles Napier knew that Karachi had the potential for becoming a seaport. In 1855 commissioner of Sindh Bartle Frere recommended Charles Napier's idea to the government and suggested a railway from Karachi to Kotri, steam navigation up the Indus, the Sutlej and the Jhelum to Multan. This led to a series of surveys and in January 1859 the first portion of the line was laid that connected Keamari to the railway workshops that turned from the line where today City Station stands, crossing the creek near the Boat House. On May 13, 1861 the first line was opened for public traffic between Karachi and Kotri. Wallace Bridge may have been constructed after the arrival of the railways in the city.

Architect and conservationist Aneela Naeem says, “Originally known as the McLeod station, the city station complex comprises several building blocks, including the station house and the warehouses. A map (1869-70) of the area indicates that initially a much smaller structure on the east of the present building served the purpose. It was during the 1880s that further constructions took place and the present building was added to the site much later.”

“The City Station today has two main blocks. The style of construction and architectural detailing reflects the fact that the block on the back is a later addition, having simple features but built of stone. The building facing Wallace Road is the original one built in 1935 with yellow Gizri stone, having more ornate architectural details, including arched verandahs, portico, decorative parapets, pilasters and roundels. The semicircular arches on the ground floor verandah are pronounced by use of bossed stone detailing on voussoirs. The roundels used in between these arches have a four-leafed clover motif. The building in its current state is marred by haphazard alterations that disturb its layout and appearance,” says Ms Naeem.

A maal gaari (freight train) has just appeared from under the bridge. It's difficult to know about the goods it's carrying. What can't be argued is that it had offloaded the baggage of history a long time ago.