A Pedestrian’s Saddar

On February 3, 1839, the HMS Wellesley bombarded the Fort of Manora. In the space of three hours the western arm of the fort was destroyed, and Karachi was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Four days later, on February 7, 1839, Hassil Bin Butcha Khan, soobadar of the Fort of Manora, on behalf of his military chief, and Synah Khan on behalf of the civil administration of the Talpur government in Karachi, signed the agreement for the surrender of the town to Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland, Commander-in-Chief of her Brittanic Majesty’s naval forces in the East Indies.

Under the terms of the surrender document, the British were to control Manora and had a right to station troops on the Karachi mainland as well. The civil administration of the city, however, was to remain in Talpur hands.

The first British camp was set up in the plain between the old city and an ancient garden on its outskirts, known as Rambagh. This garden was sacred to the Hindus because Ram Chandar and his wife Sita, during their years of exile, had spent a night here, on their way to perform their famous pilgrimage at Hinglaj. This garden is now known as Arambagh, and houses an important mosque, while the camp area subsequently came to be known as the Serai Quarter.

Shortly after the setting up of the military camp, Saddar Bazar, known administratively as Saddar Quarter, was laid out to serve the British cantonment. The British forced the Mirs to exempt all goods sold in the bazar from transit duty, so as to encourage traders to open shops in Saddar. Though the Talpur government had to give in to British pressure on the question of transit duty, it effectively discouraged the locals from setting up trade or commerce in Saddar. So it was only after the British annexation of Sind in 1843 that Saddar became a viable commercial area where European ladies could shop in a not too unfamiliar environment and purchase “the latest things from home, weather fashions, in dress, Easter eggs or Christmas Cards, the newest sources, the most novel condiments and the best of Wines.” However, it was not until the late 1920s that Saddar became a competitor to the old town’s well entrenched business interests.

As Karachi grew, Saddar became the centre of the city, and by the 1940s boasted cinemas, restaurants, bars, billiard-rooms and bookshops, in addition to markets, churches, community halls and libraries. Its architecture, built of Gizri stone, was human in scale, in the Gothic and Renaissance revival styles. The masons who worked on Saddar’s buildings were from neighbouring Rajasthan.

After partition Saddar continued to be the cultural and social centre of the new capital. The wives of government officials and foreign diplomats went shopping for their provisions at Empress Market, and the Saddar tea houses and bookshops were the haunts of students, intellectuals and politicians. Paper flowers and Chinese lanterns were sold at the corner of what were then Clark Street and Somerset Street, and real flowers in the stone arcade of the Bliss and Co. building, now replaced by a shopping plaza. Dye ran down the kerbs of Bohra Street, and Mochi Gali smelt of leather and chemicals.

At the junction of Preedy Street and Victoria Road is the Portview building. On its first floor was the India Coffee House. Till 1960, when it was closed down, it was the centre of political and intellectual debate. Many of the city’s leading professionals and politicians frequented it, some of them as students, and in the Ayub era, student and trade union leaders such as Ali Mukhtar Rizvi and Aziz Ahmed Khan were arrested from here. Today the premises that housed it are a go down for sanitary ware.

In the neighbourhood of the India Coffee House were Frederick’s Cafeteria and Cafe George, with their marble-topped tables and coloured tiled floors. They were frequented among others by Arab traders and students, who are today important persons in the Gulf States and among the richest men in the world.

Many of the Saddar bookshops have survived, but their physical and social environment has changed. Pak-American has had a facelift and lost its character. Thomas and Thomas has been suffocated with hawkers and pollution from the Regal bus stop, and the ‘regulars’ from the “Saddar Quarters’ coffee houses are no longer its customers. But Kitab Mahal, where every Urdu publication was available, has died with the demolishing of the Capitol Cinema building. The Gizri stone Tuscan pilasters and entablature that formed its facade have been replaced by the glass and concrete of Gul Centre.

Cafe de Khan was situated where the Mehboob Market building stands today. It was a single-storey structure, and in its garden the discussions begun earlier in the day at the coffee houses and would be terminated over kababs and parathas. For the less affluent, there was the possibility of having Ghasita Khan’s haleem at Empress Market.

Saddar also had a large number of bars and billiard rooms. The Ritz bar, opposite Paradise Cinema, was among the sophisticated ones. It had figured glass partitions with teak wood frames and a zinc-covered counter. Occasionally Indian film songs were played by the management, reducing some customers to tears. The old Toddy Shop at Empress Market, the U bar opposite Jehangir Park and the Winners Bar on the “trampatta”, were more proletarian in character. With Islamisation the bars have naturally disappeared, and only one billiard room, near the Lucky Star restaurant, survives. The toughs who managed these institutions were a special breed of men, and both they and their customers used a language and mode of expression typical of the port cities of India, which in Pakistan is now heard only in Indian movies.

Going to the cinema was an important social event in Karachi, and Saddar had two of the most important cinema houses in the city. Both Capitol and Paradise, with their low profiles which merged with the architectural scale of the other buildings, have now disappeared. In their heyday the best imported films were screened there and film festivals arranged regularly. During the interval one always encountered friends in the cinema cafe and had a cup of tea with them. Choc bars with a touch of ‘kewra’ in them were the Capitol’s speciality. After the show one would stop by at K wality for an ice cream or at Pioneer for a falooda. Chaat could be had at the ‘khokhas’ opposite Abdul Khaliqs.

On the edge of the Quarter there were some important and active institutions. The Karachi Goan Association Hall on Raja Ghazanfar Ali Road, and the Sohrab Katrak Hall were frequently used for cultural activities and for celebrations marking the Christian and Parsi Festivals. Similarly, at the Parsi Gymkhana and the Karachi Goan Gymkhana, sports were held regularly and daily cricket practice organised. The pavilions of these gymkhanas are exquisite buildings. The one at the Goan Gymkhana is made of steel, with art nouveau decorations reminiscent of the street furniture of the Paris of the twenties. All these buildings are in a bad state of repair and will soon disappear.

Saddar was also a residential area. Above the shops were apartments and in the side lanes rows of three-storey houses with wrought iron or wooden lattice-work balconies. The eastern end of the Quarter was inhabited by the Goan community and in the evening small groups of young men and women would gather at the street corners to talk, and children would play in the open spaces. Old people would sit in their doorways and watch the world go by. In the Supariwala building compound, opposite the CIA office near St. Patrick’s Cathedral, things are still the same. The Goan Club on the trampatta, however, has been replaced by a motorcycle shop.

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