Let’s face it: Karachi has lost its cosmopolitan spirit. If you are an optimist, you could rephrase the observation by saying that Karachi has lost its cosmopolitan spirit to a large extent. Many ethnic, linguistic and religious communities to date live in the city though those who are categorised as ‘minority’ are increasingly fading into insignificance.
The fact is that the all-encompassing character and unbiased moral fibre that were once the hallmark of the city have all but vanished into thin air. This can be ascribed to many factors, or to none. The debate, perhaps, now sounds an exercise in futility. The only thing that can still be done is to recount a glorious phase in Karachi’s recent history by visiting two buildings that are a perfect indicator of how things have gone awry over the years.
Akbar Road in the old Ratan Talao vicinity is one of the most famous auto markets in Karachi. You can buy brand new and a little used motorbikes for reasonable prices here. Reasonable? Well the idea is that you can haggle with salesmen like you do in a cloth market. There is a constant hubbub of buyers and sellers the sound of which often renders inaudible the wails and moans of two pre-independence buildings.
Let’s begin the journey from Burnes Road. My word, what an array of beautiful but shabbily maintained structures! Keep moving, cross the Urdu Bazaar intersection and head towards Regal Chowk. Stop two streets before reaching the chowk and feel the hustle and bustle of Akbar Road. Do not make the mistake of moving into the street looking at a motorcycle whose fuel tank is still wrapped in plastic sheets because then you will be hounded by many a salesman. Stay there. The building right in the corner on Frere Road is ready to narrate a tale.
The building does not have a classical feel to it. It is pre-partition nonetheless and screams for attention. The upper floors are in a terrible state with broken windows and cracked walls clearly suggesting that it has not had interaction with any human being for a decent stretch of time. On the top of the building the missing letters of, apparently, its name gives the impression as if someone is trying to play crossword puzzle in a rather clumsy manner, and with limited means.
The entrance from the main road has 1938 inscribed on it. It would not have been difficult anyhow to determine its age. It is not a stone-made work of architecture and is a reminder of the architectural shift that was taking place in the fourth decade of the 20th century. What is beyond doubt is the idea that if it had not been left alone and if it had been taken care of the way it merited, it would have been something special to feast your eyes on.
On the parallel street, the next corner building has similar architectural attributes with the only difference that its façade facing Frere Road has semicircular balconies. It too was built in 1938 and the crossword on top of it is less puzzling. The letters that can be read are S.N. and S.H. If there is any consolation, it can be said that it is slightly less damaged than the structure mentioned before it.
The 20-something Noman lives in this neighbourhood. The young man teaches at a local college. When he reminisces about the old times, it is not just the buildings whose spiritual demise he laments, but something else as well. “I remember there were some Iranian families who used to live in the first building. They were an educated lot. I was a kid back then, and I don’t know
why they started to leave the city. Almost all of them migrated to Australia.
“Do you notice these gaps between these structures? They had a purpose. In case of emergency, that is if fire broke out etc, you could use these spaces to escape. But now people have begun filling them with different types of construction. We’ve complained to the department concerned many times, to no avail. They are a powerful mafia.”
The young man believes that the missing letters of the second structure actually were part of the word ‘Sunshine’. So, of the two buildings discussed, the latter was called Sunshine.
Architect Noman Ahmed says: “If there is a defect in concrete structures, it can be rectified through reinforcement. For these
buildings, you have to first see whether the reinforcement (of material) used in them is intact. Then they can be repaired and restored by using masonry and plaster. As for the Iranians, there was a time when they used to come here as traders.
They were involved in clearing and forwarding businesses and stayed in these areas.”
It would be unwise to expect that Karachi could become the same as it used to be, let’s say, four decades back. Physically, it is impossible. But there is no harm in hoping for a revival of the spirit that once made the city stand out among the rest of the coastal towns in the subcontinent. Remember that profound line from Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea: ‘It is silly not to hope’.