Text & Visuals | Khadija Raza Baig
Kharadar and Mithadar are part of the original core of Karachi known as the ‘Old Quarters’ dating back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Kharadar (brackish gate) and Mithadar (sweet gate) were settlements named after the two gates of Karachi. Both enjoy a strategic location between important roads, business centers and beautiful landmarks. Kharadar is encircled by Mithadar, M.A. Jinnah Road, (this artery connects it to the Quaid’s Mazar and Amil Colony on the opposite end) Bolton Market, Lea Market, Lyari, KPT Building, Customs House, Jaffer Fadoo Hospital and Dispensary, Katrak Mansion, Machi Market and the Ismaili Jamat Khana. Mereweather Tower stands guard on the south east entrance and guides you to I.I. Chundrigar and the Stock Exchange Building. Kharadar can be accessed through many roads like Bagh-e-Zehra Street, Paria Street, Rampart Row to name a few; the narrow lanes inside are host to some busy markets like Bombay Bazar and Kaghzi Bazar.
The area’s dynamics made it one of the most sought after areas for housing and business. People of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have expected it to age like fine wine. Instead, it went through putrefaction and is now considered to be one of the most notorious localities in the city.
What went wrong? Reminisces a gentleman I walked around with during my visit. “My ancestors were landowners from Sindh who settled here in the 1800’s. Many Hindus (the Baniyas) also moved in from the interior in search of more business, the very wealthy ones made their houses in Amil Colony. We grew up in the Kharadar of the 1930’s and lived there till the 1970’s amid much interfaith harmony. Everyone would participate in all festivals, which were plenty. Despite the narrow lanes, dark alleys and dead ends, the place was impeccably clean.” The residents of the area came from the Gujarati, Sindhi and Katchi speaking communities and took ownership of the neighbourhood. The Hindus pitched in with their share. Everyone worked towards the cleanliness and garbage disposal of the streets. Each new building would be a wonder, coming up at speed and adorning the skyline in harmony with the older ones. There was no clash in architecture. The concept of communal living gained popularity and apartment buildings soon became the modern thing. People took pride in cleaning the areas outside their buildings. The road network was effective and efficient. The roads had interesting English names. My friends and I would chant them as a game. Now, they have been replaced by new names – Rampart Row now Adamjee Dawood Road, Newnham Road now Fakhre Matri Road and Embankment Road now Nawab Mahabat Khanji Road. Though street vendors lined the streets, there was no shameless encroachment or unpleasant graffiti of any kind.
The elites had their own bungalows in both colonial and subcontinent styles. There was a distinct class difference. The architectural style of the houses would disclose what side the owners were on. A new car or motorbike would stir up excitement in the entire neighbourhood for days. “You know these chai shai places you have today? We had a qahwa khana on Atmaram Street which would come alive at night with hustle bustle, music, merry laughter and story- telling. There was enough sustenance to keep everyone full and happy. (Chuckles) Of course we had our share of dramas…. broken hearts, unrequited love, family fireworks and the likes, but most of it would end well. We had fewer “degrees” and more upbringing.”
Kharadar lived through the World Wars and Partition. Those are stories I keep for another time, he soberly states.
Then things began to change. The more astute folk saw it coming much earlier and began moving towards “Hawa Bunder” – Clifton. Adjoining areas like Civil Lines and Abdullah Haroon Road were already elite neighbourhoods where old families of Karachi had sprawling houses. The first movers sold their houses to developers at excellent prices. Heritage was of no value to the developers and classical buildings became catchpenny, structures were sold and brought down brutally. Cubbyhole apartment buildings were the talk of the day. The surviving buildings began to fall prey to neglect and mismanagement. Rickshaws, motorcycles and suzukis made their entrances as the discordant yet more favoured mode of transport. By the 1980’s there was no doubt that the new moneyed, pan-spitting mindset had come to stay. It changed everything – mindsets, lifestyle, architecture and skylines. Pagdi system prevailed. Organised living became chaotic and haphazard. Sectarian schisms emerged and widened. Territories began getting marked, some spots afire with religious sentiments during certain months of the year. Tawdry, claustrophobic commercial high-rise structures disfigured the skyline. Traffic jams and street congestion increased. Roads and lanes were a free dumping ground for all kinds of garbage. The gentry vanished. You can see for yourself what it is now. A newly razed building always makes me think of a broken tooth waiting to be replaced by a golden tooth…totally out of place; extremely vulgar. The occupants of the old buildings neither have any connection with the architecture nor the interest to look after it. I know and love Kharadar for what it was. My son has seen the end of it, and often accompanies me here. For my grandson it is ‘a foul-smelling, dirty area’ that he cannot accept as part of his Karachi. And you know the travesty? It is one of the most affluent localities with the most disrespect and least amount of compassion for architecture and planning. How can this not be ruinous?”
The plight of this part of Karachi’s old quarters is indeed deplorable. Buildings like Wazir Mansion, the Ismaili Jamatkhana, KPT Building, Khoja Masjid, Ashiqali Lalan Building, Bara Imambargah, Chota Imambargah, Chagla Musafir Khana, Ghulam Hussain Khaliqdina Girls School, Hussainia Iranian Imambargah, Jaffer Fadoo Hospital and Dispensary, Machi Miani Market, Katrak Mansion, Cloth Market and Rehmatullah Building (the first modern apartment building of the late 70’s/early 80’s) are reminders of Kharadar’s glory. As architect Arif Hasan says: “To address the point as to what worth these buildings have, well, they have a historical value. If we lose them, we will lose an important part of our history. They represent a certain period of Karachi’s development. We can’t ignore the significance of that period.”