While doing some archival research recently, I came across a lot of Ardeshir Cowasjee’s old columns. Cowasjee was one of Karachi’s finest advocates, someone who cared about things like a building creeping onto the road, and the height of a building, and preserving the city’s skyline. I laughed out loud at some of the brilliant lines – has anyone coined anything better since the Jadoogar of Jeddah? There were columns dedicated to the tick-tock details of letters written to government officials and public interest litigation, all so that the city could be liveable.
I think about this a lot now. I think about what it means to live in Karachi, why nothing seems to even elicit mild disapproval, not even a reaction, as if the city’s destruction is just background noise, why the very simple act of taking things to court, to put them on paper, has become so difficult.
I have been thinking about all of this far more since I read this:
The Frere Hall park is one of my favorite places in Karachi. It is beautiful and open. It has no boundary walls or tickets. (A true wonder of Karachi is having to pay for entry to parks.) It is where the amazing book fair takes place every Sunday. It is a place where you can rest and walk around and have a cup of chai and sit under a tree or in the grass. It is a place where you can take a ride around the park in a Victorian carriage. It is quiet and peaceful.
For many years, Frere Hall’s park was abandoned and inaccessible. Before 2001, the park would be packed with people. After 2001, the park was essentially inaccessible because public transport was barred from the road (the US Consulate was right across the street.)
For those of you who may follow me on Twitter, I posted a few weeks ago about this plan after I read about it in Dawn. While I was working on this post today I saw that Marvi Mazhar has an Instagram post on this, raising a hugely important point about the restoration of the building.
I didn’t follow this story from the start, but this is the timeline as I understand it now: The Karachi mayor signed an MoU with a group that calls itself the ‘Guardians Trust’. This trust – which includes some of the regular figures of Karachi elite [full list in the gallery below] – has somehow taken on the mandate to “restore” Frere Hall. The trust will manage the park for five years, according to Dawn.
While this bureaucratic wrangling continues (or does it?), the Guardians Trust announced their plan for Frere Hall last month. Dawn’s reporting from the event had statements like this:
- There will be adequate parking and with time there will even be underground parking. There will be four clearly designated entryway gates to the facility.
- Mr Jilani said the Frere Hall library will be moved to the left side, to a much bigger space which will be a conditioned space. Its size will be doubled. Then there will be an amphitheatre, a souvenir shop and a cafe.
- A visitors’ centre on the ground floor is also planned, which will serve as the first interface for the tourists to the city. The bandstand, along with the fountains, will be restored. There will be several features to the gardens at the centre of which will be Jinnah Square. Cars will not be allowed to enter the central space.
- Acknowledging a member of the board Ghazi Salahuddin’s thoughts that the hall was once associated with the city’s intelligentsia and public where book fairs happened, where people got together for exchange of ideas, Mr Jilani said stalls will be put together keeping all those things in mind.
[NOTE: THERE IS A BOOK FAIR THAT TAKES PLACE EVERY SUNDAY.]
I believe it is our right as citizens of Karachi to ask what is being done with Frere Hall. I have very rarely exercised this right because I’ve always thought of myself as a journalist, not a resident, and because I could always get answers to things I was curious about through my work. I have also very rarely cared about something to the extent that it impacts my life — almost everything in Karachi does, but I am very good at disassociating myself from it.
But something has shifted in the way I think. I do not wish to become an activist, but I care very deeply about this park. I do not claim to have gone there as a child. I do not have any claim, perhaps even now, as an adult. But I have a right to know things as a resident. (Related: I recently watched this interview with Fran Lebowitz where she was asked whether artists have responsibilities: Fran says artists don’t have responsibilities, citizens do. That part of the conversation is really interesting for those of you who may struggle with this divide.)
I wrote to the Guardians Trust – their email is listed on a sign at Frere Hall – to ask for a copy of the plan, and I said I was writing as a resident of Karachi. They were quick to reply – they said they would have a site up and running in a fortnight that would feature the plan. (frerehallguardians.com) When the site wasn’t up in two weeks, I emailed again to follow up and was told I could get a physical copy of the plan, which I picked up from their offices last week.
Here is the booklet. This is not available anywhere online, or at Frere Hall, or any public place.
The language makes it seem that this is a done deal – that the “restoration” and “renovation” of Free Hall has commenced. (The only new things I have seen in Frere Hall recently are the addition of some lights – though I don’t know when these were put up, since I relocated to Karachi earlier this year – two sign boards by the Frere Hall Guardians Trust, and some benches.)
Now back to the “plan”:
Firstly, the library. What does it matter if the library is “functionally inappropriate and very small for being meaningful?” Meaningful to who? And for what? Why can the library not be cleaned, reorganised and made functional in its current space?
(If anyone is looking for a worthy cause, please turn your attention to the Liaquat National Library where archival material is literally in shreds.)
The ‘south-western end' is proposed to be “rejuvenated” by an “authentic restoration of the old Eduljee Dinshaw fountain and re-introducing the Band-stand.”
What purpose does the band stand serve in the year 2019?
I have read through this booklet several times. Their ‘plans’ include:
Creating a “pedestrianized and vehicle free” area called Jinnah Square, which would be home to a “very modern state of the art sunken library.”
It’ll also have an “impressive water feature with lots of trees and shaded pathways.”
Turning the existing library into a cultural centre
(There are existing libraries that could probably use some of this “modern state of the art” magic.)
Then they point out the “utter neglect” and “disuse” of the Hall. (If people couldn’t visit for years, how could they have used it?) This utter neglect is thanks to the government and whoever was in charge of “restoring” and “rejuvenating” the building in the past during which a weather vane was stolen.
The 16-page booklet then goes on to say that they “seek saviours of our future.” In exchange for a contribution, their names will be marked on a “Great Wall of Giving” and one can do dedications on lamp posts, benches and trees.
This publication contains no other details: how will this be funded, the qualifications of anyone involved to undertake this project, the legalities of a “trust” taking over a park, and whether any of the individuals involved has spent more than five minutes in the park [without being there for a ticketed/invite-only event] in the last 5 years.
The larger issue I have about the “rejuvenation”, “restoration”, “revival” and “intervention” of and in public spaces in Karachi is: who are you “rejuvenating” this for, and why? These spaces are already “revived” – they are alive and people visit and relax and sleep in its gardens and play in the empty fountain and take six million selfies against the backdrop of the facade. So who is this being restored for? Do the people who use this park, who work in this park, and to whom this park is an open, non-ticketed, not-cordoned-off space get to decide whether they would like to see it “rejuvenated” and in what form? (I have not yet heard of anyone being consulted.) Maybe we need a public space to do so… perhaps, say, a park?
I have a lot of questions. This booklet does not answer anything.
Here are some photos of this park – “revived” without fanfare and a booklet and a press conference.
This last photo is a view of rush hour in Karachi from the park. This is one of the few — perhaps only? - parks that do not have boundary walls, where you can see the city go by. Boundary walls coming up around Frere Hall will mark the end of a truly public place.
This is not to say that I think Frere Hall should be left as it is: the gallery needs work, and there should be architectural repairs. But when that does happen, can we also have some answers about the architectural repairs of the past and the weather vane being stolen? Can we hear from the people who signed on to do this work in the past? Or the people who presided over the park being used as a rental ground? Why does the park – finally alive, finally open to people – now need to be a construction site again? Why does Karachi need a band stand in 2019? The people of Karachi – those who actually use this park, not those who visited one time for Karachi Eat – should not be shut out, again, from the one park that is accessible and beautiful and alive.
And what of artists?
It is, as Cowasjee once wrote, “another wonderful wonder of wondrous Pakistan.”