Hall for people who remember the days gone by
By Rumana Husain
Should we be celebrating easy access to the majestic Frere Hall in Karachi once again, or is it a bit early to do so?
According to a report that appeared in this paper last month (Future of Frere Hall hangs in balance, dated Feb 14, 2011) things are still unclear: “although the US Consulate in Karachi is being shifted to a new location at Mai Kolachi by the end of this month, the future of the historic Frere Hall hangs in the balance as security officials are still not sure whether they would be able to permanently open Abdullah Haroon Road to the public.”
What is the connection between the relocation of the US Consulate and the reopening of the Frere Hall, a person who is not from Karachi may wonder. Rewind to a fateful morning in June, 2002, (quite vivid in my memory as I was inside the US Consulate at the time to get a visa) when a powerful car bomb exploded outside the Consulate. Immediately across it, and adjacent to the Sindh Club, the Frere Hall also bore the brunt as a result of the bomb in which twelve people were killed and several got injured.
The place was declared off-limits to the hundreds of visitors who used to throng it, and access to the park all around the building was almost impossible ever since. All literary, cultural and recreational activities, including a regular book bazaar that was held here, came to an abrupt halt, except for a few and far-between activities, mainly exhibitions. Public buses had been barred from passing on either side of the Frere Hall: Abdullah Haroon Road and Fatima Jinnah Road. It was a pity, as Frere Hall -- a major landmark in this chaotic metropolis that has swollen out of all proportions -- had served as an orderly and peaceful hub for many of Karachi’s socio-cultural activities.
I re-visited the two-storey Frere Hall building just a few days back. The presence of several Rangers at the front entrance of the park, who were sitting inside their armoured vehicle, prompted me to go up to them and ask why they were there now when those who were being protected across the road had moved to a new location. They simply shrugged their shoulders and smiled, “For no apparent reason, but just like that!”
The public library on the ground floor of the building, the Liaquat National Library, appears to be stuck in a time-warp. There are no funds available to refurbish and brighten it up, and the damp, mouldy and mildew-ridden air about it is hardly welcoming. The library is neither too spacious nor too cramped, and it has some solid old furniture. It houses thousands of books including rare and hand-written manuscripts, newspapers, dictionaries, etc. But before one enters the library, however, it is amusing and at the same time sad to see a plaque on the entrance wall announcing its name and some other details. Although written in Urdu, the few words written in English are incorrect.
The first room is a Reading Room, which has two large tables where two or three people were browsing through the day’s newspapers. The librarian is a polite and helpful lady who seems ready for new challenges provided she is given the opportunity. She informs us that some of the rare manuscripts that had been infested with termites were treated over a decade ago, but no maintenance has been carried out after that.
The upper floor of the building is called Gallery Sadequain, named after one of Pakistan’s brightest stars, the famous artist Sadequain. A renowned and prolific muralist, he began to paint a mural on the ceiling of the cavernous hall of the building in 1986. But Sadequain passed away on February 10, 1987, leaving the work unfinished. Titled “Arz-o-Samawat” (Earth and the Heavens) this mural is significant not only because it is the last piece of work by Sadequain but also because he dedicated it to the citizens of Karachi to cherish. Sadly, they were unable to do for the past so many years.
Designed by architect Colonel Clair Wilkins and inaugurated in 1865, the buff-coloured stone of the building was quarried from Gizri hills. The architect also made use of limestone and red stone, making it such an attractive piece of architecture. The building was named after Sir Bartlet Frere, who was elevated to the Viceroy’s Council a few years before that. Located in the prestigious Civil Lines Quarter, it had initially served as a Town Hall. The building stood out in its Indo-Gothic character, with lush gardens surrounding it. Sculptures commemorating Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, as well as other sculptures and a fountain added to the beauty of this imposing building.
In her well-researched book ‘The Dual City Karachi during the Raj’ architect Yasmeen Lari writes that “In spite of Frere’s popularity and his being Governor of Bombay (1862), it took some time for funds to be raised for the building. Alexander Baillie lamented that only Rs22,500 could be collected through public subscription; the Government contributed Rs10,000, while Rs147,500 was allocated by the Karachi Municipality, an organisation which owed its formation at the time to Frere. The total construction cost was Rs180,000 -- the highest amount spent on a building built in Karachi.”
During my own childhood, I remember frequenting the Frere Hall as it housed the National Museum then. The tall spire of the building with the weathercock perched on top was a familiar sight, which could be seen from afar. Almost every Saturday I went there with my father to enjoy the band playing at the bandstand there, and to watch children skate on a skating rink.
The entire place used to be brimming with children and their parents, as well as with hawkers selling ice-cream, popcorn and balloons. On weekdays one could see men resting under the shade of the large trees there. Many of those trees have been cut down, while political changes and a changing national outlook banished the sculptures and ousted the bandstand too. The fine wooden flooring on the upper floor of the building, which was meant for waltzing in the days of the Raj, has been replaced, and a thermo-pore ceiling has been installed in the hall adjacent to the Sadequain Gallery hall. The park around the building, re-named Bagh-e-Jinnah, continues to be just Frere Hall for many people who remember the days gone by.
Clothed in her futuristic sponsor-clad racing overalls, Burcu Cetinkaya is Turkey’s premiere female rally driver and has earned fame throughout the rally world for being the first woman to earn points in the Intercontinental Rally Championship, finishing seventh in a group belonging to men.
Burcu’s rise has not been abrupt; but the 28-year-old has been consistent enough to garner notable media attention and to drive for a major multinational, the organiser behind her current Pakistan spree.
Burcu is presently on a promotional visit to universities and other public outlets; the rally pilot of a Peugeot 207 S2000 gives an impression of immense passion for the sport and life in general. “My parents did not want me to come here, due to their fear of security issues originating from problems in Egypt and Libya. But I know that real life is not like it is on television.”
Her lectures usually focus on the importance of women interdependence, driving safety and other lessons one can derive from her extraordinary life. She has enjoyed the country thoroughly and believes the people are quite friendly here, “People are very friendly generally, they always have a smile on their face. That is different from most of Europe, where people are busy in their own lives.”
TNS had the chance to catch up to the world’s premiere female rally racer Burcu who’s favourite car is Peugeot and from the cars in general, her favourite is Nissan Skyliner.
By Ali Umair Chaudhry
The News on Sunday: What was the initial inspiration which lurked you into your passion for becoming a rally driver?
Burcu Cetinkaya: I was 12 when I first went to a rally with my father. However, I had to wait till I was 24 before I could start racing. The motivational factor for me has always been teamwork. While other girls my age used to play with their dolls and dollhouses, I was busy always busy in team sports and cars.
TNS: You’ve been a professional snowboarding champion in Turkey, a television host and also taken part in shooting, basketball and other sports.
BC: Although my fundamental passion has always been rally racing, I have had to do other things such as television hosting, as it was my primary form of income. As rally racing for women is not a financially secure sport and sports in Turkey and generally dominated by football, I have had to do other things simultaneously for my livelihood. It is only recently that after my success I have earned money from racing.
TNS: How tough is it for a Turkish woman to get into a sport such as this?
BC: It is very difficult. Since my parents were not supportive either psychologically or monetarily, I had to get a loan in 2005 to start racing. Rally racing is expensive. Thankfully, I was successful in my early races and whatever money I earned I used to pay my loan off.
So if you aspire to become a professional racer -- find an earning first to support yourself. Then you can pursue you goals practically. You must start winning in the local competitions and if you are good, you will eventually get noticed at the grander stage.
TNS: How do men react when they find out you’re a professional rally racer?
BC: [laughs] Well they give surprising looks at first. But once they talk to me, they are very supportive; and they root for me. In Pakistan, I do get a lot of stares but that is fine with me, as I guess someone like me is quite new for a layman.
TNS: Any places you are looking forward to see in Pakistan?
BC: I would love to go to Peshawar [laughs]. And a trip to the Faisal Mosque would be great, its architect happened to be a Turk. I would want to see most of the traditional stuff, which is part of the history and culture of the country. Hopefully, next year when I compete at the Jhal Maksi Rally in Balochistan, I’ll get to see some interesting places there too.
TNS: The best delicacy you’ve tasted in Pakistan.
BC: Well, we went crabbing out in Karachi, and we caught a few. Later one of the chefs cooked them with the local spicy masala. Although the cuisine here is generally more spicy, it is quite good.
TNS: Your goal in the near future?
BC: To win a round in the IRC or the WRC against male opponents, something to the nature of what Michelle Mutton achieved. I also would like to compete in the Dakkar Rally by 2015. I had decided to take part in the Cholistan Rally, but ended up being too late as its dates had changed.
TNS: Your message to the young girls from the conservative holds of our society?
BC: I think you can be conservative and keep your values. I can understand why parents are sceptical of girls joining new-age professions, as things which are associated with fame and money usually result in a departure from one’s values. But I think it is achievable to keep them and to achieve your goal. So you must live your dreams.