In Photos

Reflections of Bombay across the border: A photographer visits Karachi's iconic Empress Market

The colonial-era structure named after Victoria is startling similar to Crawford Market in India's commercial capital.

A young photographer wrote to me saying that she wanted to see colonial Karachi and was interested in joining me on my trips to the city. I was working on an assignment to document the Empress Market with a couple of architects and so I took her along.

Possibly the easiest destination to show anyone visiting Karachi, we start our journey from the Frere Hall. This photographer is not amused with the idea and tells me that she’s been there many times with her family and knows every possible thing there is to know about the Hall. I ask her if she has been to the wooden platform inside the main hall and seen the famous mural by Sadequain up close; in response, her face lights up with excitement.

We negotiate our way to the top and make a brief stop at the wooden platform to celebrate Sadequain’s genius.

Frere Hall – Sadequain's mural on the ceiling.

I always wondered why an ordinary Karachiwalla should long for colonial structures such as the Empress Market. I could never come up with an extempore answer but the question remained stuck in my head. It was only when I read the prolific Intizar Hussain that I realised that people connect with these buildings because they play a great role in the social scene.

Slowly and gradually, they become a part of our lives, our stories and our folklore; as Intizar sahab puts it, these buildings become trees with their roots within the people. Therefore, a Karachiwalla feels compassion for the Empress Market even if it is named after the queen of a usurper nation.

Empress Market in all its majesty.

All the gates have a Karachi Municipal Corporation seal in the centre.

We step out of our car and meet the architects at the front of the gate. It is still early in the day and shopkeepers are setting up their stalls and opening their shops. We walk through the aisles, taking photos of every nook and cranny. The architects specialise in conservation and have picked up their thesis on the Empress Market. We take special note of all the encroachments which have deformed the original structure of the bazaar. In one of the lanes, we see a grocery store which is closed. There is a board hanging on one of the doors, which reads "Paradise Store". Someone tells me that it is the original Paradise Store, which was later shifted close to Schön Circle in Clifton.

The narrow aisles are stocked with different kinds of merchandise.

The original Paradise Store.

We walk past the vegetable section which is crowded even for an early hour. The architects are interested in documenting the fish and meat section. They tell me that the Empress Market was one of the earliest hyper-marts in the region, with exceptionally well-planned sections consisting of all the basic amenities.We walk towards the end of the vegetable section and turn right towards the fish section. Abandoned a long time ago, I put my head inside a window and see a few drug addicts inside.

The bustle of the vegetable section.

I am hesitant but my entourage does not mind and gets busy taking measurement of the windows.We step out of the fish mart and enter the meat section, which is bustling with activity. Freshly skinned calves are dangling from the chains and butchers are converting them into neatly cut pieces. There are bikes parked inside and a few people are reading the newspaper. They look at our group curiously, and thinking we belong to the media, they start telling us about the issues around the place. I am disinterested and turn to look at the photographer, who is taking photos of the trail of blood flowing from the chains into the drain.

The fish section which has been abandoned and has become home to drug addicts.

We climb the narrow staircase to the clock tower. I am uber excited as I have never been up there. We enter the first floor, which is empty, but gives an aerial view of the Empress Market. A narrow staircase leads us to the clock tower. The ancient machinery stands in the middle with a pipe going out in all four directions. It is not functioning anymore but still looks elegant.Another narrow staircase takes one to the top, where political daredevils have put up flags of their respective parties. The photographer wants to climb it, but the staircase looks shaky and we decide to go back.

The dysfunctional clock.

The photographer looks outside from the main tower.

We say goodbye to the architects and sit back in our car. As I listen to the photographer telling me of her adventures in Rome and Florence, I take a left from Empress Market and immediately get a ticket from the traffic warden. It turns out that the road is one-way and I entered it from the wrong direction. I pledge my ignorance with the warden, while the photographer looks at us with a smirk on her face. She tells me that I am an awful driver and she expects another ticket during our journey.

The churches around Regal Chowk

Intricate glass work.

We make a brief stop at St. Brookes, which is adjacent to the Gulbai Maternity Home. It was set up by an American soldier DO Fox, who accompanied the 56th Regiment of the British soldiers along with other American soldiers in 1873 .It is rather humble in comparison to the mighty S. Andrews opposite the street. The glass and woodwork, however, is as intricate as the one found in other churches around Saddar. The church premises have offices and some residential quarters; the compound is used for hosting events during festivities.

We walk across the road and step inside the mighty walls of St. Andrews. The photographer tells me that she has seen some of the most wonderful churches in Italy, but the context makes Karachi’s churches more intriguing.

St. Andrews is an Anglican church which was built in 1868. It was designed by TG Newnham, who was a resident engineer for the Sindh Railway and was later associated with the Indus Flotilla, a steamship company which was used in conjunction with Sindh Railway to transport goods downstream to the port. My partner tells me that the building is designed in a Gothic style and she has seen a similar style in Scotland. We walk around the building, a few pigeons fly off the arches. We capture the moment instantly. We step inside the church and it takes our breath away.

The arches which are a prominent feature of the church distinguish it from rest of the churches in the city. We walk towards the rostrum to see that there is intricate glass work on either end. The light filters through it and leaves a colorful spectrum on the floor.There are balloons hanging from the pillars, presumably for an event that must have been recently organised. Someone tells me that the wooden musical instrument on the left of the rostrum is one of its kind. Sadly, it has not been functioning for some time now.

Radio Pakistan

Next, we negotiate our way inside the Radio Pakistan building which was home to the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation since 1949. This is where eminent media personalities such as ZA Bukhari worked and laid the basis of a successful entertainment institution.

Radio Pakistan, one of the most iconic buildings of the era.

On October 2007, a fire had broken out on the first floor of the building, possibly due to an electrical short-circuit which burnt down the entire first floor along with archives and equipment of historical significance.We walk aimlessly around the compound, absorbing the surreal scene. In these very studios, some of the most famous music shows and dramas were recorded, which inspired and entertained entire generations of our nation. They stand abandoned today, and perhaps, for a very long time.

Café Mubarak

We take a break and stop at Café Mubarak. The waiter asks us if we want to go to the family section upstairs, but the photographer insists that we sit in the main area. She is amused with the cutlery on display and orders tea. She tells me that she moved to Karachi a few months ago and wishes she could walk its streets freely. The idea of self-restrain is already putting her off. I tell her that I sometimes wish that I was somewhere else reconstructing the city in my imagination without all its imperfections, but it is a good idea to be a little apprehensive while walking its streets. She tells me that I sound old and wise but she does not agree with my assessment.

We finish our tea and step outside to resume our journey. Old and wise, young and reckless, but somehow we were still the same.

All photographs by Farooq Soomro.

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