Frere and two cities by the sea
Bombay and Karachi are more than just sub-continental sisters bonded by architectural and socio-cultural similarities. A certain British administrator connects them as well
At the outset, I'd like to state that I have never visited Karachi. It's on my bucket list though. Yes, I suspect this admission might invite eye rolls from some of you. Fed partially by writings by authors from across the border, and interactions with some of them at literary festivals, I have attempted to build an image of this city by the sea, emerging from its colonial hangover, just like Bombay, and trying to strike a balance between the modern and the traditional.
"Karachi is a lot like Bombay; especially when I see parts of Colaba and walk past Fort's Gothic buildings," revealed award-winning author Kamila Shamsie, during one such conversation towards the end of an interview on the sidelines of Jaipur's literary mela several years ago. Shamsie went on to share a few more details about its people, food and chaotic yet infectious vibe that was tough to abandon. Countless Google searches later, the city's sights and sounds intrigued me further. Since then, my antenna would go up each time I heard of or read about goings-on, especially around its architectural and historic influences.
More recently, this came to the fore when I learnt about rumblings over the decision to gate Frere Hall, one of Karachi's most favourite public spaces. Google baba to the rescue again, and I learnt that the main building was named after Sir Bartle Frere, who was the Chief Commissioner of Sindh in 1851, before he became Governor of Bombay. When he passed away, this Gothic structure that houses a library, was renamed after this visionary. Frere Hall is not just a bricks-and-mortar site, I figured. It's an open space, pretty much like our Shivaji Park or Oval Maidan with the impressive hall watching over its people and the vast green patch, like a benevolent, loving older brother. A video to highlight the unique character and value of it being an open, free space gave me a glimpse of its nostalgia, as men, women and children relaxed on its premises. It seemed to be a leisure-time favourite across social strata. Some research threw up the fact that like-minded groups from the city were up in arms against a decision by its mayor and a trust commissioned by him made up of a handful of architects and planners. They planned to gate the space, as well as introduce new cosmetic elements within it. If this plan were to be implemented, it would mean the end of many people's livelihoods and freedom to move within the space. This, the opposing groups felt, was unnecessary, and uncalled for, since everything with the space and its environs was about freedom.
I jogged my memory to Frere's philosophy. The far-sighted administrator, who became Governor in 1862, realised the futility of the Fort walls when the population within its fortifications began to increase, and thus suffocate existence. In a masterstroke, he tore it down to free up space and ensure the city really came into its own instead of being a gated community meant for a few. One of his lasting legacies is Flora Fountain that he had commissioned. In fact, the landmark was originally known as Frere Fountain in his honour.
Frere had created an impact across the border as well. Records will reveal how he promoted Sindhi as a language, and was a strong propagator of secular and fair governance in the Sindh.
A march to condemn the decision was supposed to have taken place in Karachi over the weekend. Using social media, citizens were made aware that it was important to show up, to save this space. My thoughts shifted to Esplanade Mansion, and the long, slow fight to save it from being demolished. Will Bombay, too, continue to show its spirit to protect its prized, albeit abused, landmark from being permanently phased out?
It will be interesting to see how two cities, united by Sir Bartle Frere's vision, remain steadfast in their focus despite having to swim against the tide.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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