THE colour black symbolises many things, one of which is grief. In Greek mythology, the adjective ?Stygian? is used to describe darkness. It is one of the rivers of Hades across which the shades of the departed are ferried. Darkness makes you yearn for light. However, it may not necessarily imply a position of weakness.
You would never have expected that one day visiting a certain part of Empress Market would make you sad and pensive. Life has a strange habit of springing up surprises that are not always palatable.
This is first week of April. The sun is shining with all its furious might. Empress Market looks like a deformed entity from within.There is soot all around. The solid as rock Gothic interior of the thoughtfully constructed building now has a gloomy touch to it.The colour black has overshadowed the sheen of the lovely and hard-wearing Gizri stone in one corner of the building. When humans are hit by a fire, they are admitted to burns? centres. Stones resign to their fate.
On March 26 a treacherous fire broke out in Empress Market. Dozens of shops were charred. They were blackened like a starless night. Several others got damaged beyond recognition. For a pretty long time the fire raged with infer nal ferocity and no one came to fight it. As reported in this newspaper, not until a hotel owner alerted the Saddar Fire Station to the incident that the authorities concerned budged from their cushy seats. The destruction lasted for many hours, and when the fire was finally extinguished, an important page of our history book had already been ripped out.The most affected part of the market is said to be the area from where grocery was bought. Now cement blocks are being piled up to rebuild, not in the hope for the Sphinx to rise from the ashes, but to reset the wheels of business into motion.
How did it happen? It is yet to be ascertained. Initially the city government?s relevant department conjectured it was a short circuit that wreaked havoc on the historic building. If that?s the case, then finger-pointing won?t yield anything. A traders? association had a different opinion. According to them, it was an arson attack meant to soften up the shopkeepers so that they become compliant with the demands of extortionists and others mafias operating in the area. If that?s true, then they should know they haven?t just committed a punishable crime, they?ve made history their enemy which will only harm them.
Architect and conservationist Yasmeen Lari has written a well-researched book, Karachi ? During the Raj. According to the information provided in the book, at the fag end of the 19th century seven marketplaces were erected in Karachi. Empress Market, built in 1889, named to commemorate Queen Victoria, was one of them. The width of its galleries is 46 feet which enabled it to house 280 shops and stalls. Constructed around a courtyard (not a regular sight in those days), it?s architected as a symmetrical structure, and boy did they do a good job or what! Made in domestic Gothic style, the single-storey stonework is austere in form but has a neck-cricking 140-foot-high central tower. The balcony projections are well supported by carved column capitals and carved stone brackets. A.J. Attfield, a British company, completed the foundation of the building while two Indian contractors ? Mahoomed Niwan and Dulloo Khejo ? were roped in to make the market?s superstructure. Local craftsmen were involved for the carving bit of the construction, and they did not disappoint.
Yasmeen Lari says: ?All the heritage buildings, including Empress Market, are strongly built. As far as the stone of the structure is concerned, it is by and large in good condition. Yes certain parts have deteriorated and some have been affected, but usually Gizri stone is pretty durable. I see no reason why we can?t fix that up. Evidence is there that roof can be reconstruc ted. If the walls are alright then there should be no problem.? ?Empress Market has contrib uted a lot to the economy of Karachi. Nobody can dispute that. I think anyone who has lived in the city has gone to this market. Problems have always been there. There are a few original stall-keepers, but some others have been allowed to set up shop here because of which it has suffered. You can see that the steps (when you enter the building) have gone. There are maintenance niggles and there?s so much traffic around. One structural issue is the tower.
Though it hasn?t been affected by the fire, it has been in a precarious state for some time. The roof is highly damaged. It can be restored without any problem, so we should be concentrating on it. All these historic buildings can be restored, since there?s evidence to do so. As for how the fire erupted, I suspect it was done willfully. We cannot allow people to destroy our buildings.? Spare a thought for James Strachan, the designer of Empress Market (and many other fabulous stone-made structures in Karachi). How would he have felt if he?d seen bricks of cement (stacked up against a black backdrop) being made part of his blueprint that originally had nothing but Gizri stone put together with architectural finesse?