NOBODY knows who Vishwanath Patel was. Nobody seems to care. Why would anybody care? It’s 2011 and Karachi already has too much on its plate. According to one account, it’s been a little more than six decades since Dr Vishwanath Patel migrated to India, independent India, from Karachi after selling off his property to a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community. He may not be alive. However, he could be some Mr Patel about whom very little is known.
The only thing that’s as certain as death and taxes is that there’s a road hi Karachi which is called Vishwanath Patel Road in the area bang opposite the Radio Pakistan building, off M.A. Jinnah Road (formerly Bunder Road). And there are some dam good colonial buildings here whose steadfast presence should be commemorated. The trick is to reach the street adjacent to the Radio Pakistan offices hopping over the wide and drawn-out Bunder Road. No one can overlook an enormous old building, Saira Mansion, at the corner covering an area till the lane parallel to Bunder Road, that is, Vishwanath Patel Road.
The mansion may not have been named Saira at the time of its construction, for it’s a known fact that a majority of the buildings made of stone in the former half of the 20th century were either made or were commissioned to be made by well-off members of the Hindu community.
Saira Mansion is a lovely building, with nice-looking semicircular openings and spacious balconies. Ironically, if you visit it on a Sunday, the first thing that you’ll notice about it is the machines that supply water to the many flats in the mansion tightly placed right next to the three of four entrances. Their drone is so loud and distracting that it almost drowns out Saira Mansion’s beauty. Before you check out Patel Road, the yellow structure opposite Saira Mansion will beckon your attention. It’s Aurganzeb Market, not a very old piece ? old enough to take note of. It’s an auto market and is in a terrible state.
The yellow choona on the walls gives it an awful look. It is as big a building as Saira Mansion with different architectural characteristics. Vishwanath Patel Road brims with life.
Despite the overwhelming presence of new concrete monsters, the oldies (parallel to Saira Mansion or on the other side of Patel Road) are worth marvelling at. Hajra Bai building is one of them, followed by Mukhi Mansion. These beauties were built before partition and still have the same old charm about them. You step out of your comfort zone and get close to them, not for a moment will you feel that you’re living in the 21st century. Much to the chagrin of many, they are in dire need of cleaning and scrubbing, if not restoration.
Walk along Mukhi Mansion towards Bunder Road and discover something which is uniquely pre-independence. There’s a shop facing Bunder Road the giant board on whose facade says A.M. Sodawaterwala. The very word ‘sodawa-ter’ conjures many an image and brings back a number of memories, including those of black and white Indian and Pakistani films.
By the way, Mukhi Mansion (the name was told to this writer by a resident, so let’s stick to it) is a mind-blowing work of art. It has lovely three-piece windows with smallish balconies. The trees shading the ground and first floors of the structure add a delightf ul touch to the picture. It seems that the trees too are just as aged. The second portion of the building, which stretches to the next lane, however, doesn’t appear to be originally part of the mansion. All said and done, it’s a cracker jack of a building. Get back to Patel Road.
Here history is waiting for you to shake your hand. There’s a structure called Inqalab (they don’t use a second name, like mansion, manzil or mahal, for it). A few yards ahead of it is the famous Maulvi Musafirkhana. Then on the right of Inqalab are Haideri Manzil and Shaheen Compound, all colonial constructions. A middle-aged man, Khalid, who is an auto mechanic, still fondly remembers when tilings were not as uncertain in this part of the city as they are these days. He says: “In 1947 a lot of migrants were given shelter in the Maulvi Masafirkhana. Those were good times. The place where I’m sitting right now (a concrete apartment block) used to be a Christian cemetery.
There were shacks all over here. We would sleep in open spaces without any fear. All has changed. Now we try and go back home as soon as we’re done with our work.” Architect Noman Ahmed says, “The buildings on Patel Road lie in the Ranchhor Line Quarter and boast a diverse colonial heritage. They have different typologies. This means there are institutional structures, residential-cum-commercial buildings and purely commercial ones. The Musafirkhana has fine visual quality; sadly it is partially demolished and faces a high degree threat.
Saira Mansion is on one edge of the road. It has fine architectural details which include balconies, mouldings and carvings on balustrades. Most of these buildings had Hindu owners. I’m not sure but some suggest the Musafirkhana was once a dharamasha-la. I should mention Bhagwandas building as well. All of these buildings are interconnected and constitute the fagade of the whole street.” Visiting Patel Road can be a tad confusing experience. You feel as if something’s gone terribly wrong with the area. Still, going away from it is not an easy option. Then Henry Kissinger whispers in your ears, “If you don’t know where you’re going, eveiy road will get you nowhere.”