THE silence is tangible. Graves do not speak. They remain hush-hush and communicate through quietude. Quietude has its own language ? language of unrealised dreams, of a life well-led or of untimely demise. This can be discerned only if you are in a graveyard. Proximity matters. The closer you are, the easier it is to lend ears to graves, particularly if a majority of them are of the men, women and children who were non-natives.
This is Gora Qabristan. It can be roughly translated as White Man’s Graveyard. The natural queiy: why white man’s graveyard? Answer: it was a necropolis where only British army officers and members of their families were laid to rest in the 19th century. With the passage of time, mainly after partition of India, it became known as a cemetery for members of die Christian community, which it always was. In the second decade of the 21st century, Gora Qabristan, if viewed from the outside or from top of the Kala Pul-Sharea Faisal overpass, does not give any clue to its historical worth whatsoever. You have to visit it and see the burial site up close to invoke that spirit… in you.
Gora Qabristan is one of the easiest places to spot. No one can fail to notice it. If you are on Kala Pul and are about to hit Sharea Faisal, you will have no problem in tracing it on your left, right in the corner. Do not be misled by the ongoing repair work on the pavement outside the triangular entrance to the cemetery. It is a routine thing. Also, do not be fooled by the bricks which have replaced the stone used in the making of the entrance. Those who tried to mend it may have had very little idea about the restoration of such an important place. Just walk into the qabristan. It is a unique experience.
The old graves, as is widely reported, are fast deteriorating. In fact some have already disappeared into the ground. And stones used in the construction of a majority of memorials have disintegrated ? as is the case with the one erected in memory of officers of a regiment who ‘died at Karachi between 1863 and 1866’.
Let’s begin from the beginning. Just as you enter the graveyard, immediately look right The wall has two gravestones on it, which, according to the chowkidar, fell off their graves and someone placed them on the wall to preserve them. One reads: ‘Sacred to the Memoiy of Maria Cotton, the Beloved Daughter of Lt-Col and Mrs Cotton of H M 28 Regiment who Departed This Life on the 13th of October 1843, Aged 18 years.’ You immediately have an idea how old this place is.
A walkway in the middle cuts the cemetery into two, on both sides of which there are a number of graves of varying sizes. Since it is a large area, it would not be unwise to stay right, where most old gravesites and memorials provide a link, albeit tenuous, to a certain part of the subcontinent’s past. A little away from the crumbled memorial is the gravesite of a couple: ‘John Charlton Brooks and Isabel Charlotte, 1911, Erected by Their Sorrowing Children.’ The religious symbols which are a part of the small square are very much intact and appeal- to be professionally sculpted. The area around the burial place needs to be cleaned and adjusted.
The one memorial which stands relatively unharmed is some 200 yards into the qabristan. It is worth taking note of for ‘royal’ reasons. It reads: ‘Erected by the Members of the 98th Prince of Wales Regiment in Memoiy of their Comrades Who Died in India, 1880-81-81.’ There are some 50 odd names written on the memorial, five of which are C. Lamb, I Turner, T.F. Marwick, W. Williams and J. Stephenson. If you are entertaining the idea that C. Lamb is the ‘most lovable figure in English literature’, you are wrong. Charles Lamb died much earlier than the construction of this memorial.
Architect and conservationist Yasmeen Lari says: “The graveyard is in terrible condition. Actually it has been affected by flooding and there’s no water drainage system in place. It is a historically important place because the tombstones tell the history of the region, that is how things happened in Karachi. Some have been taken away, some have disappeared. Then there is heaps of garbage. Sites like this graveyard are markers of history. We need to take care of them.
“In the 19th century, the locals had made their graveyards in the old town area which can be seen in the 1874 maps. The British first made a cemetery near a church. After which they acquired this piece of land. It was called Christian Cemetery,” says Mr Lari.
The final words that Prince Hamlet utters before breathing his last, somehow, seem fitting toround off this write-up: “The rest is silence.”
PS: A good part of Gora Qabristan has 19th century graves at a reasonable distance from each other on a relatively soggy piece of land. The text on one reads: ‘In Memory of Matilda, Wife of J. Hogan, Died 25th May, 1868 Aged 22 Years, 4 Months and 26 Days, Also Her Infant Daughter, Eva, Died 14th March, 1868, Aged 4 Months and 24 Days.’ It is hard to ascertain where the daughter’s grave is located.
Article By Mohammad Salman courtesy Daily Dawn