Heritage in Custody: The Case of Pakistan Chowk

By Asad Alvi

The Socio-Cultural History of the Area:

Pakistan Chowk was once called the educational heart of Karachi. If you ask an old Ned-ian, they will testify to this. The area was first utilized for educational purposes by Dayaram Gidumai Shahani, who many have gone on to call, alongside Edulji Dinshaw, as the ‘Father of Education’ in the country. Today, the rich socio-cultural history of Pakistan Chowk, patronized by Gidumai, suffers from historical amnesia. As Akhtar Balouch has written, that the history of Pakistan Chowk’s degradation is also, in many ways, an insight into how Gidumai turns from a “silent servant to a silent suffers.”

In 1880’s, the area was bought by Gidumai and mapped out as an educational center in the city (Khuhro, 1997). It was from here that the Sindh College Association began to operate, and it was here that Gidumai himself laid the foundations of the D.J Science College, of which he became the principal. After Gidumai died, the area was bequeathed to Kewalram Shahani, Gidumai’s son, who became the long-living educational and cultural patron of the area. Under Kewalram, however, the area transcended its mere educational activity to that of tourism, too. The Chowk housed the busiest taxi and Victoria station in the city, which was popularly known as the Purana Tonga Stand, which tourists and locals alike used to visit nearby cafes and restaurants, two of which were the popular Café Saadi, and Kaisar Restaurant. The former served as a public space where students from nearby institutions could interact during lunch breaks, and became an important hub for educational interaction, and the latter became famous for serving the likes of Noor Jehan. Just behind Café Sadi, the Chowk also housed the Bholu Akhada. A muddy wresting arena, the Akhada became the breeding grounds for wrestlers, producing great sportsmen like Bholu Pehelvan and Aslam Pehlevan, who both became world heavyweight champions. On one occasion, the president of Pakistan himself, Khwaja Nazimuddin, travelled to the Chowk in Karachi to watch the match. Pakistan Chowk’s history, thus, is a rare intermingling of education, sports, culture, and metropolitanism. However, while patronizing Pakistan Chowk as a space for tourists and culturalists, Kewalram Shahani also made sure that the activities in the area stayed true to the original spirit of his father: that of education, and perhaps, this is what the Chowk’s defining trait eventually became. The Shahani family were Hindu-Sindhis, and essentially, educationists and writers. Hence, the very pathos embedded in the family’s history made it a cultural imperative that the area be utilized as a hub for the printing press, reason why Arif Hasan calls the area perhaps “the first flourishing printing press of Karachi”. Gidumai had himself translated the likes of Jab Sahib, Bhagwat Gita, and Yoga Darshan, and these books were available in the newly flourishing literary market that founded its basis at Pakistan Chowk. Kewalram, on the other hand, became a philosopher, and wrote a treatise of Sufi philosophy called, “Mana Jo Chabuka” (The Scourges of Heart). The young man quite surprised the literati at the time when he wrote the first feminist novel of the Sindhi language, “Maa aen Dheeya” (Mother and Daughter).

Keeping up to their literary progress, the Shahani family opened up libraries, translation centers, and art schools around the Chowk.

The Saranagati building, the most imposing building around the Chowk, a red sandstone structure, was donated to the British Council and turned into a library, the second floor of which housed an atelier for emerging artists. One building on the corner, which has now been turned into a card printing shop, became the headquarters of the Sindh Sudhar Society, which oversaw the launching, circulation, and distribution of many quarterly publications, such as Ismat and Saraswati, which were made readily available to students living inside the area, mainly at the Meetharam and Sevakunj Hostels.

This brings us to a wholly distinct and important tangent of contribution: the hostel culture for which Pakistan Chowk became a facilitator, where the students of the newly flourishing NED University found home. By this time, the rupture of Partition had occurred, and newly pouring migrants, including students, recognizing Karachi as an important educational front, began to utilize the Pakistan Chowk. Three large hostels were opened: Sevakunj, Mehtaram, and Meetharam, the latter named after Kewalram’s late younger brother. All hostels offered free services and many of their residents were alumni students pursuing jobs, who went on to live there even after graduation. The hostels also housed reading rooms, where students could read dozens of daily newspapers and periodicals.

These experiences have been immortalized by the archival documents at NEDAASC (NED Alumni Association of Southern California, USA), which function mostly as memoirs and testimonies. One such document, penned by then-student Dr. Arshad Mehmood, speaks: “I was in Lahore when I received the telegram, “Come immediately, Vacancy open.” The sender’s address was at Sevakunj Hostel in Pakistan Chowk near NED College in Karachi. I caught the evening train, and made it to Sevakunj in the early afternoon of the next day. A quick shower to wash off the train dust, and I was ready. There was one large room, which housed four students, and the four cots and four desks in that room. Regular meetings and parties were held in the hostel courtyard, where we gathered valuable knowledge and friendships that have lasted a life time.” Such is, then, the cultural importance of these hostels. It is Farooq Soomro who writes: “Intizar Hussain compares old buildings to trees which have their roots deep inside people’s hearts. Everything revolves around such landmarks. And they remain forever in our stories and dreams becoming part of our folklore. Sevakunj is one such building.”

Sevakunj has a strong presence and character: it is decorated with a minimal but elegant façade. Inside, there is a small courtyard, reminiscent of a Persian sahn, in which students would accumulate in the evening and discuss education in a communal whole. The main architectural feature of the verandah is its arcading of exquisite motifs, often incorporated in buildings at the time; however, an unusual feature are gable frontages, possibly due to the influence of the recently completed Viceregal Lodge at Simla, considered to be a “free interpretation of the Elizabethan or English Renaissance.” (Davis, 1985: 117) Meethram is more intricate, the front façade comprising of detailed window-work, and a gallery. The neo-classical style of the hostel is not surprising; at the time many other native patrons and affluent philanthropists considered Renaissance and Palladian Architectural expression as the most befitting, which conveyed their enlightenment disposition and civilizational progress, which kept up with the cultural spirit of Pakistan Chowk. (Lari, 2000).

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Precisely who designed these hostels has fallen into historical obscurity, but Lari contends that it may very well have been Strachan, who designed other buildings in the vicinity, and that Meethram’s neo-classical accuracy could only have been devised by a mastermind such as Strachan himself (Ibid). Lari and Davis both point out to an important fact: that the very architecture of the buildings surrounding the Chowk echoes its socio-cultural pathos. Architecture, then, becomes a way to sustain culture – stamp the architecture down, and the culture will go with it too.

Field Notes: Pakistan Chowk Today Problems, Complaints, and Reminiscences
If the urban theorist Jane Jacobs is right, that “the history of a space is also the history of the people who inhabit it”, then the history of Pakistan Chowk’s degradation is also an analysis of the ethnography of its residents. Hence, my field notes were not merely passive observations, but also conversations with people I encountered at the Chowk. Thus, problems, complaints, and reminiscences:

  1. It is the broken staircase I notice first. There is practically no way to climb to the space of the chowk itself – it can be quite high for the elderly who may face difficulty reaching it. Hence, its accessibility is limited to people who are physically strong to jump. Someone like my grandmother cannot reach the Chowk.
  2.  A broken balustrade/grill. It disappears halfway into the air, and does not line the complete parameter of the Chowk. A nearby shopkeeper tells me that there was an original balustrade, only obstructed by stairways on both ends of the chowk, hence giving the area a genuinely neat look, something that has been replaced by a more precarious look now.
  3.  Garbage and Waste: The chowk is surrounded with trenches, waste and garbage disposal, some of which has been set to fire, and there is a cloud of gray smoke emanating from one side. It is difficult to breathe. I manage to locate the area’s oldest occupant, Arshad Abdul Latif, who runs the Pakistan Tailors in the area, which opened in 1955. Originally a migrant, Arshad has seen the spacial features of the Chowk change over the last period of 50 years. He recounts that the last appraisal of garbage waste in the area was done by municipal authorities in 1989, under Benazir Bhutto’s government. There has been none since.
  4. Political Vandalism: On either sides of the structure of the Chowk itself, are political posters and graffiti, the messages often bordering on intolerance and threatening tones. One, for example, reads: “Bund kamron ki siasat nahi chalegi.” (The politics behind closed doors won’t work!”). This, in essence, defies the diverse and tolerant historical nature of the area. Another graffiti reads: ‘Perfume Chowk.” This popular phrase has an interesting history. An eastern perfume pushcart started painting the phrase across the city to promote his business. Realizing how much his business had prospered due to this activity, local bhatta-khors decided to hijack the slogan and use it to for bhatta activity across the city, where the collected bhatta was accumulated at a Chowk in Gulistan-e-Johar that was infamously named, Perfume Chowk. This is an important observation for me. The imposition of Perfume Chowk (which stands for corruption) onto the structure of Pakistan Chowk (which stands for growth), operating vis-a-vis the wordplay on Chowk, is what the revolutionary Julio Martinez called ‘symbolic dislocation.’
  5. The Peepal Tree: There is a massive peepal tree at the center of the roundabout, which serves as a giant shade, that can be utilized in very interesting and creative ways. Right now, it serves as a shade/resting place for beggars/fakirs and people working at nearby car repair shops. Usually, men in greasy clothes are sleeping underneath the tree on an ordinary afternoon; you can notice their sacks and bags hanging from the branches of the tree; a mirror hangs loose with a broken toothbrush attached to it; these bags contain rotten food for days – some bags are torn and the food is spilled everywhere, leading to an unbearable stench – there are flies all around them, and their pillows and clothes bundled together, lined against the body of the trunk. The description is not meant to demonize these subjects along the lines of classicism; it is to show that these factors genuinely accentuate an atmosphere of decay in the area, and lend the area a generally dirty look. When I ask one fakir who lets him use this place, he tells he pays a regular sum of money to the police-man in the area. If an important part of heritage preservation is also bioecological concern, then this peepal tree must remain clean, and these people should be relocated to other spaces for their afternoon naps – the political implications of this should be considered first.
  6. Benches: Abdul Latif also recounts how in the earlier years, while there were no benches, residents of the area would bring mats and chadors with them in the evening and play ludo and taash. Evening leisure activities around the Chowk are now almost non-existent.
  7. Tonga Stand/Fountain: There is a dry fountain. This, however, was not used for drinking purposes as much, but for mere decorational ones. A prime use of the fountain, however, was for Tonga-walas. Imam Buksh, who watched his father drive a horse carriage, the ‘Victoria’ around the Chowk, and who now spends his time commuting children from school to homes, recounts an interesting story. When his father died some decades earlier, Imam Buksh inherited the family’s only horse. The horse, too, died after a few years. Imam tells: “Horses also need gallons of water, especially in this Karachi heat. The fountain water was used by all tonga-walas for their horses. Unfortunately now, it does not work. The public tap, at the Purana Tonga Stand, also gives no water”. The Purana Tonga Stand also had tethering spots where tonga-walas could chain their horses and carriage, but this spot has been erased. Many like Imam live in the fear of their horses and Victorias disappearing in the night.

Heritage in Custody: A Precarious Future
While my field notes provide a more nostalgic account of cultural decay embedded in the minds of Pakistan Chowk residents, there have been other structural, political, and tangible problems that the Chowk has faced over the last several years, and ongoing tribulations continue to affect the area, a phenomenon that one newspaper report went on to call ‘Heritage in Custody’. The phenomenon of urban decay at Pakistan Chowk has manifested itself in many ways, two of which have generated much concern from residents of the area:

I. The Conversion of Mitharam Hostel into a sub-jail:
Last year, the government decided to convert Mitharam Hostel at Pakistan Chowk into a sub-jail. The proposal was approved by the Sindh chief minister, on the request of the Rangers DG, Major General Bilal Akbar. The latter had asked the provincial government to allocate a facility to detain suspects, especially those being interrogated by the Rangers under the 90-day preventive detention in accordance with the Anti-Terrorism Act. The CM House spokesperson noted they had sent a summary of approval to the home department. The historic hostel has already been under the use of Sindh Rangers since the last several years, serving as barracks. The Sindh government’s decision to convert the Mitharam Hostel, an historic edifice with magnificent architecture, into a sub-jail has drawn severe criticism from conservationists who demand the government to take back the decision and set up the jail outside city limits, for the hostel is among the over 1,000 buildings declared protected under the Sindh Heritage Protection Act.

Yasmeen Lari noted in a newspaper report: “Jails should be kept away from populated areas because of security hazards. While one had been hearing of government plans to relocate outside the city the Central Prison, which was out of the city limits when it was constructed but over years came to be surrounded by residential areas, the government’s plan to set up a new jail in the midst of Pakistan Chowk is incomprehensible. Soon the Rangers would want to fortify the Mitharam Hostel. The building was designed as a hostel and not as a jail by renowned architect James Strachan who was associated with the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and had to his credit many other beautiful edifices like the Empress Market. By converting the hostel into a jail, the government is completely changing the character of the historic edifice.”
Hameed Akhund, former secretary of Sindh culture department, in the same report, noted: “Pakistan Chowk is an education related area and buildings in the vicinity should not be converted into a jail. Located in the middle of thickly populated area, the building would expose the locality to violence and threats of terrorist attacks after it had been converted into a jail.”

II. The Green-Line Metro:
The prime minister announced earlier this year that the Green Line will be extended all the way to the CDB area. The project, worth Rs16 billion, is being funded by the federal government. Sualeh Ahmed Faruqui, chief of Karachi Infrastructure Development Company Limited (KIDCL), responsible for the building and execution of the Green Line BRT project, is of the opinion that they have to take the project to its logical end, which is Tower. He said if they turned the Green Line back right from Urdu Bazaar, the purpose of the project would not be fulfilled. This makes it essential for a new route to be devised, says Dr Muhammad Tahir Soomro, EA consultant and former director of Karachi’s mass transit cell. The Green Line is now expected to enter the Saddar area from Kutchery Road all the way to Pakistan Chowk and then through Court Road, touching Sharah-e-Liaquat, and entering MA Jinnah Road.

Courtesy: Green-Line Corridor Plan, Official Website of Green-Line

Courtesy: Green-Line Corridor Plan, Official Website of Green-Line

With this route plan, EA consultants believe the volume of passengers will increase by around 0.2 million people, which will reduce the cost of the government’s subsidy. This route, however, does not sit well with Ashar Lodhi, an operational consultant for both Green and Blue lines, who argues that the Green Line would require additional bus-stop stations to be constructed across the areas it passes through, many of which are mixed-traffic areas with historical roundabouts where street-interaction is an important aspect of one’s lifestyle. To counter this, and make the project ‘city and culture friendly’, the KIDCL has invited not only urban planners on board, but also cultural theorists, academia, and civil society members, to provide their input on the plan, and devise ways in which this project does not subsume the culture of the Chowk. The marriage between cultural and civil society actors with developmental authorities, has, however, never been successful. It is only a matter of time which will reveal how this collaboration turns out, and whether, if the Green Line Metro is to cut through the Pakistan Chowk, will take into account its rich socio-cultural and historical significance.