Karachi: Anchors to the Past
*published in Reimagining Karachi Volume II Memories book (SEED Ventures)
I landed in Karachi on a January night in 2001, flying in on a deserted AeroAsia flight from London. The city, lit like a swarm of fireflies upon sight, would morph into tanned, dust-covered buildings by dawn.
Back then, the sprawling metropolis had already experienced much bloodshed and political violence. At the time I was working for a now-defunct TV production house, producing an arts and culture show. Every single cameraman, editor and director would tell me a story of witnessing a compatriot fall before their eyes. But instead of a jaded city, I found each Karachiite I met to be kinder and more resilient and more filled with patriotic love than the next. Instead of wallowing in the past, they forged on and chose to create beauty. Stories of their city their constant beating heart.
It has been over a decade since I was last in Pakistan. What my memory recalls is not a city that many see as rife with hostilities. Rather, I recollect sensory souvenirs of Karachi and its people. Fond ones…of the Karachiites who opened their homes to me, the innumerable amount of lamb biryani they fed me during my stay and riding a camel that felt like I was sitting atop the never-ending sea swells on Clifton Beach. When I think of Karachi, I think of the earth. For it is a megalopolis dressed in neutral tones, filled with low lying architectural treasures and inhabited by endearingly humble and steadfastly enduring people.
Many Karachiites are unaware of the hidden architectural gems peppered around their city's residential areas. My director wanted to raise awareness for the arts and culture which, in his eyes, create the vital pulse of his city. He wanted to highlight both the city's local talent as well as the personality of Karachi, which is synonymous with its glorious architectural facades.
Unlike most tourists, my time in Karachi was not spent in museums or the city's international hotels. I became acquainted instead with stately residences of the affluent neighbourhoods. Being in the media, our team gained access to a variety of pre-partisan and classic European style homes in the city's elite quarters of Saddar Town and the Defence Housing Authority, where we discussed interior design, interviewed artists, architects and local designers, and dressed models in traditional garments. The resplendent colours of their shalwar kameez, vibrant as the nation's countryside and those ubiquitous jingle trucks, draped around the faded stateliness of Karachi's colonial period.
The famed Merewether Clock Tower, Flagstaff House and the sloping domes of the Mazar-e-Quaid as well as the neo-classical and neo-renaissance architecture of Karachi's other cultural gems, were absent from my list of sights. Yet it did not matter that I did not physically see these monuments. I was still able to appreciate their splendour through the stories told by my Karachiite friends who carry with them a love of their history and culture.
Old structures hold ghosts and stories, memories of pain and pleasure. Touch a historic edifice, however ramshackled it may be, and feel it breathe stories into you. Like touching a 1000-year-old yew tree that has seen centuries pass by as fast as seasons, a heritage building holds memories, is alive and bound to send shivers of the past down your spine. It was our ancestor's blood, sweat and tears that raised these sites from the ground. We need to honour the memory of buildings in their dotage and care for them as we would our elderly.
I can draw many parallels between Karachi and my hometown of Jakarta. Holding the title of being the most populous city, albeit in different contexts, is just one of them. If Karachi is anything like my hometown of Jakarta, I expect the cityscape would have changed at a staggering pace to make way for the intense population growth of its middle class. Meanwhile, the preservation effort of heritage sites struggles to be acknowledged by the government and the masses in both cities.
We watch as the ill-maintained facades, once distinguished, crumble, following the fate of the European colonies that once resided there. They sit like pauses and commas between glinting new infrastructures built to accommodate unprecedented growth. For this fast paced world, such discontinuations of the modern norm are often scraped and demolished to make way for parking lots or commercial buildings. We are swiftly becoming nondescript cityscapes filled with hotels and apartments and malls to cater to our contemporary needs. Little gems of our past grow dim if left without care. But we need those pauses and commas to allow citizens breathing space. For a chance to remember where we came from and what we continue to stand for.
In countries, like Pakistan, that were beseiged by foreign settlers and political conflict, heritage buildings may hold the sting and sorrow of colonialization and combat. But it also carries with it a city's sense of identity and character. In times of war, enemies destroy cultural artefacts because they hold the identity of a nation within them. This is what we must strive to protect, whether in war or peace.
Restoration and conservation of these architectural riches, I believe, is the responsibility of the individual. We first have to care on a personal level before we can bring it to the masses and incite a change to save the very thing that makes our cities the singular creatures they are. A sense of ownership is needed. Heritage structures should neither be destroyed nor placed on a public pedestal. Once they were homes and places of work and leisure. Therefore, they should be revitalized to continue being living and breathing public spaces. To provide the next generation of Karachiites with anchors to their past and pockets of pauses.